WBRU, Brown University
After graduating from Brown in the 1950's, the late Sherm Strickhauser became a disk jockey on Providence radio in the days when all disk jockeys were expected to be personalities. He was a good one, and spent many years at WJAR playing what was then called "middle of the road" (MOR) music (mostly big band). His huge frame (he once got stuck in the old arm chair we used behind the board at WBRU-AM) became very well known in Rhode Island.
Sherm always had time for those of us at WBRU who sought him out. He helped us get the NBC network feed for free. (We turned the station over to the network for a time on weekends and full time in the days after the Kennedy assassination until we went home for Thanksgiving.)
Sherm helped us learn about the world, too. He was the first person to make us understand the power of money to screw things up. When we asked him why he never "moved up" to WJAR-TV, he told us that as Program Director of the radio station, he had much more freedom than he would have had in television.
"They leave me alone pretty much," he said, "because if I make a bad decision here it might cost them $5,000. If someone in TV makes a bad decision it could cost them $50,000 -- or even $500,000. So they have meetings all the time, and everyone is always trying to cover their ass."
Sherm was a staunch supporter of our quest for an FM license. You have to remember that FM was not a big deal back then. WJAR had, in fact, returned its FM license to the FCC in the early 50's. They made all their radio money on AM. Many years later they paid $4.3 million and threw in the AM to get that license back.
In the early 60's, Sherm helped us try to get the University's attention. We wanted to apply for an open FM license on 93.3 mhz, allocated to Taunton, Mass. Sherm tried to convince the University that it was worth getting the license and that we were mature enough to manage it.
To help, we were conservative about our programming on the AM station by avoiding that new form of music that was taking over commercial radio, Rock and Roll. It was still disreputable to many adults, and we felt that not playing it would show that we were mature. ( We even believed it :-) )
Weekdays we started with a big band wake-up show from 7-9, followed by "Broker Break" from 9-10 (that's from Pembroker, for those of you who don't realize or remember that Pembroke was the school for women at Brown...). We played classical music on the record changer from 10-1 and elevator music from 1-3 PM ("Music in the Air."). We returned to more lively big band music in the afternoons from 3-6 ("Rhythm Section").
After an hour of show tunes on the record changer, we sometimes had an evening news block, then played classical music (have you ever listened to classical music with a hum?) until 11 PM, followed by jazz from 11 to 1 or 2. We were off the air overnight.
We did news on the hour when we could, and all the Brown sports we could afford. We covered pretty much all of the basketball, hockey, and football games, including away games. We did all this on a total budget of less than $10,000 per year.
In the end we never applied for the license for 93.3. We had a pro bono Washington law firm working on it, and they missed a crucial deadline. So we were out of it.
With that opportunity gone, we started playing rock and roll on our morning and afternoon shows, and did much more of it on weekends. Then WPFM (95.5 FM) shut down, and its license became available. It had no equipment worth owning, and no tower, so the license was not too expensive. Best recollection is that we paid $30,000 for it.
To get the University to go along with all of this, Les Blatt, '65, did a massive marketing survey in cooperation with the University staff. Using randomly selected names from the phone book, the study wound up making the idea of a Brown FM station look very good and showed a real chance for profitability.
A budget was then created which claimed that we could get equipment, put a transmitter on top of the Biology department building, and be operating in the black for an investment not to exceed $60,000 above the cost of the frequency. (For comparison, one consumer price index indicates that from 1960 to 2000, inflation drove prices up by a factor of almost 6, so $60,000 would be more like $350,000 in current dollars.)
The University decided to go ahead, but they did not want the license to be in their name: they were afraid of liability. So they set up Brown Broadcasting Inc., a nonprofit with a self-perpetuating board.
The original board included Charlie Sokoloff, '63 (a RI attorney), and Herbert B. ("Skip") Barlow, '36 , a patent attorney/engineer practicing in Providence. In 1968, Pete Tannenwald '64 joined the board. He is the only early member of the board still serving. He has devoted thousands of hours of pro bono work to the station over the years. God bless him :-)
WBRU FM went on the air on February 21, 1966. Within two years it was out of money and went back to the University for another $60,000. The University balked.
Several alumni, including me (Jack Edmonston, '64), Mike Gradison, '64, and Charlie Sokoloff, '63, made a personal call on one of the higher level administration figures, a man named Frank ?. We tried to convince him that the University should loan (or guarantee a loan) for another $60,000 for WBRU to fix its problems. After the meeting I felt we had not persuaded him to support us.
Frank did a report, which I have a copy of someplace. I had not seen it until recently. Whatever it said, the University decided to guarantee a bank loan for WBRU. (I was later told that while they were thinking about WBRU's request, someone offered them $250,000 for the license, which made them think, for the first time, that they had a real asset.)
Eventually the bank was paid off, the University got its first $60,000 back, and its only investment was the $30,000 to buy WPFM's license, equivalent to about $150,000 in 2004 dollars. According to one station broker in New England with whom I have consulted, the WBRU license should bring about $12 to $15 million on today's market!
Even if we spread that out over 40 years, it's a pretty good return. WBRU might be one of the best investments the University ever made.
(Written by Jack Edmonston, 12/04, with edit assistance from Pete Tannenwald and Les Blatt.)
The following supplements Jack's history above. Here are two letters published in the November-December 2000 edition of the Brown Alumni Monthly.
SETTING THE RECORDS STRAIGHT
I am surprised at the misinformation in Carrying the Mail (May/June, July/August) about when WBRU began broadcasting rock and roll music. When I entered Brown in the fall of 1960, we were playing big band, jazz, and classical music. By the time I graduated in 1964, we were playing rock during most of the broadcast day. I was general manager during the 1963-64 academic year, and Jack Edmonston '64 was program director. He and I agree that the primary format change occurred in 1962. I clearly remember the vigorous controversy over the change, argued at long meetings on the third floor, west wing, of Faunce House, in a room that had theater-type chairs bolted to the linoleum floor. I also remember hiring out to do rock-dance hops at fraternity houses and dorms—broadcast on the station—while I was chief engineer: "Live! From Mead House!—It's the Saturday Night Dance Party!" we bellowed. Two crummy portable turntables spun 45s through a beautiful portable control board built by hand by Bruce Rayner '62, and a $10 phone line brought the party back to Faunce House as we tried to avoid flying beer cans. So now we have it pinned down to a two-year time frame, which should be accurate enough for most historians.
While I agree with nearly everything Pete Tannenwald says (see above letter), and am glad he took the time to write, I disagree with the word most when referring to the percent of the broadcast day devoted to rock. As I recall, on weekdays rock was played only from 7 to 9 a.m. and from 3 to 5 p.m. (four hours). The rest of the day was devoted to classical music (about six hours), jazz (two to three hours), what is now called "elevator music" (two hours), show tunes (one hour), and news (spread throughout the broadcast day, with a half-hour summary in the evening). Weekends were mostly rock and sports, but we still played jazz at night and read the news.
We were trying to serve resident students (we could not be heard off campus at that time), many of whom could not study while listening to rock on the radio. We were also trying to prepare our student staff for possible broadcast careers by training them in different radio formats. I am sad to see that WBRU is now so narrowly focused on a commercial rock-and-roll format duplicated by other commercial stations in Providence.
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