It might be hard to imagine, but the broadcasting “gentlemen” of Princeton University’s WPRB 103.3 FM once wore suits and ties to be on the air.
Archival pictures in a new exhibit on the university campus can prove this: for example, there is the radio station’s founder, Henry Grant Theis (Class of 1942) on the cover of Princeton Alumni Weekly from February, 1941, in a suit and tie, standing splendidly in front of a vintage microphone.
The magazine was reporting on how Theis engineered the successful launch of WPRU, as it was called then, just a couple of months earlier, on December 15, 1940. The headline in the Daily Princetonian that day read, “WPRU Hits Ether on Schedule, Broadcasting Recorded Music.”
This is one of the joyful discoveries WPRB aficionados can encounter in the free exhibit, “WPRB: A Haven for the Creative Impulse,” on view through May, 2016, at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, on the campus of Princeton University. A physical exhibit of station history, “A Haven for the Creative Impulse,” is just one part of how WPRB is marking its 75th anniversary, which will officially occur on December 15.
The first phase of the anniversary celebration was the launch earlier this year of the comprehensive and engaging website: www.wprbhistory.org.
Co-curated by Mike Lupica, WPRB’s educational advisor, and Princeton University archivist Dan Linke, the exhibit at the Mudd Library is a brick-and-mortar version of the kind of materials highlighted on the website. On display are vintage photographs, articles, playlists, documents, and various and sundry examples of WPRB esoterica.
“The student-run radio station we now know as WPRB crackled to life on December 15 of 1940,” writes Lupica in the exhibit catalog. “Its signal emanated from a makeshift studio in Pyne Hall, and was powered by an assortment of self-built broadcast components scattered covertly throughout the campus. At the helm of this bold undertaking was H. Grant Theis ’42, a creative tinkerer who was fascinated with emerging broadcast technologies.”
He explains the exhibit is not a chronological or linear history of the station, but rather a celebration of all the best moments and creative highlights from 75 years of broadcasting.
Viewers can see selections from WPRB’s vast vinyl record library (all of which have the slogan “Removal equals Theft” on them), posters, bumper stickers and other graphics, certificates and awards, including a large plaque from Spin magazine, which named WPRB the nation’s Best Commercial Radio Station in 1986. (The plaque resembles a giant 45 rpm adapter.) Also on view is vintage broadcasting equipment — of note is the original Gates on-air console, unearthed just this summer.
It has taken quite some time to unravel the history of WPRB, and there are as many stories to tell as there are DJs and their inventive programs on the air. However, Lupica reflects that the common denominator throughout WPRB’s history has been its place as a sanctuary for the imagination.
He understands that more artistically inclined types at Princeton bump up against the academic rigors of the university. In contrast, at WPRB, zany ideas, spontaneity, and great art are all encouraged, and that is where inspired radio comes from.
“We focused on accenting the station’s long history as a haven for the creative impulse,” he says. “We hung the whole exhibit on this idea, and it resonates with everyone, from current DJs to alums.”
The exhibit also features essays and reflections from former students and community volunteers, many capturing the old WPRB studio essence — musty and smelling like a combination of electronics, old records, and tapes, apparently. There is a celebration of the anarchic playlists and mood in general, as well as examples of the descriptive and colorful graffiti former DJs left on record sleeves.
One essay by former WPRB DJ and 1997 Princeton graduate Lily Prillinger perfectly conveys how the revolutionary atmosphere within WPRB won the hearts and continued loyalty of students who didn’t fit into the Ivy League milieu.
“While svelte coeds were friskily tossing lacrosse sticks and sporting diamond stud earrings, I lumbered around campus draped in a long coat and self-loathing,” Prillinger writes. “It was a lonely existence.”
“One day while skulking around campus, I met this cool-blooded, long-haired guy who was wearing an ‘Eraserhead’ T-shirt,” she recounts. “His name was Frank and he was the Clyde to my self-styled Bonnie. I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually follow the proverbial flannel-cloaked Pied Piper down into the subterranean universe of WPRB.”
At the exhibit there is also an interactive content station that allows visitors to browse audio selections and WPRB-related news clippings from the last 75 years.
These include station promos for concerts by proto-punk band the Velvet Underground, soul songwriter Curtis Mayfield, interviews with the likes of legendary blues and folk musician Elizabeth Cotton, and coverage of national elections, such as 1972’s impassioned presidential run between Richard Nixon and George McGovern.
There is also an archival recording from May, 1970: just after the killings at Kent State University, and, as Nixon bombed Cambodia, Princeton students went on strike and shut down the university. One can listen to WPRB’s historic reportage of the campus protest and moratorium.
As far as the website is concerned, there is a little something for everyone.
“What we realized was that there are two different types of exhibit — some things will be best presented at the (physical) exhibit, and others would be better for online, such as great stories and recordings,” Lupica says. “Through a website we can really put our history out there for everyone.”
Lupica has more than 20 years of involvement in the independent radio world. He first went on the air as a volunteer DJ at WPRB in 1992, but he had been listening since the 1980s.
He describes growing up in and around Princeton, champing at the bit of suburban life, with a stay-at-home mom and a father who was in sales with Dun & Bradstreet. Lupica was especially disenchanted with the music that was being offered on commercial radio — 1980s “hair bands,” MTV one-hit-wonders, and somnambulistic pop songsters.
Lupica says he found solace late at night, listening to a couple of New York radio stations that were airing the earliest hip-hop artists.
“This music was brand new and was only played on specialty shows,” he says. “This was long before the Internet, so these radio shows were my only access to culture that seemed a little dangerous. It was like being part of a secret society. So that was how I came to radio, through the music door.”
“Then I discovered WPRB, which, like other college radio stations, was documenting what were later called indie bands,” he continues. “WPRB gave voice to that music, which, at the time, was recorded in basements and distributed personally. WPRB was the only local resource for that, so I was fortunate to have it in my back yard.”
Lupica says he was in and out of college, and finally got his degree in media studies from Rutgers University in 2008. His real passion was for music and sharing it with like-minded souls through his free-form radio shows.
“That’s the primary driver of my inspiration,” he says. “I love the idea of it, treating broadcasting as spontaneous, and I take nourishment thinking of radio that way. I pour myself into it.”
“I was about 20 when I first volunteered at the station,” Lupica adds. “At that point in my life, it was the culmination of everything I wanted to do, and it lit the way for my professional career.”
Lupica went on to serve as special events director at WFMU in Jersey City, and then performed broadcast engineering functions for WNYC before returning to WPRB in 2011 to become the station’s first educational advisor.
Last year, in anticipation of the 75th anniversary, he mounted the ambitious digital archiving project based on the station’s vast collection of reel-to-reel tapes, along with first-person accounts from station alumni.
“The fruits of these efforts serve as ongoing source material for the archival website wprbhistory.org, and formed the basis for the collaboration with Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Library,” Lupica states in his bio.
Although he has been focused on looking back at WPRB’s history, Lupica is at the same time looking forward, and sees continued growth for WPRB as “a 21st century independent radio station.”
“We’re really going to build our online presence, creating more opportunities to better engage with the station’s dedicated listening community,” he says.
Lupica reflects that, when the Internet came of age, most people running radio stations panicked and fought against making the online transition.
“But the smartest people in broadcasting knew that the Internet wasn’t going away,” he says. “So we had to figure out a way to make this work. A lot of people have abandoned (broadcast) radio for the Internet, etc. What we’re doing (to win them back) is catering to people who want to hear different things mixed together, but also curated and run by a creative human being.”
Incidentally, the 2015 fall fundraising goal was an ambitious $75,000, to go along with the 75th anniversary. Lupica says WPRB did not achieve that lofty goal, but they were very pleased to raise $63,000.
“The state of the station is healthy, in fact, our most recent fund drive was our best total ever, and I think that’s a sign post of success,” Lupica says. “We got so many donations from new people, as well as our loyal listeners.
And who exactly are WPRB’s listeners? Since the station doesn’t use a ratings service such as Arbitron, Lupica says he and the others who run WPRB look to the actual names and professions of their donors to learn more about the audience. They also just simply talk to the listeners as they call in.
“We are much more organic,” Lupica says. “Our listenership is not a massive glob of faceless humans. We know them by name, and even though we have thousands of list donors, we maintain a ‘mom and pop’ feel to our audience.”
“We seem to have a lot of writers, creative people, and ‘weirdos’ — and they don’t mind being called that — and we love them,” he continues. “We hear from them during our membership drives, and it’s encouraging to hear that they embrace the spontaneity and sometimes the chaos of WPRB. People give us money to continue doing what we’re doing.”
At a time when programming within mainstream broadcast and Internet radio is driven by computer-selected playlists, maintaining a high level of spontaneity is still one of WPRB’s biggest objectives and, sometimes, challenges.
The fact that WPRB is owned and governed by a group of alumni trustees, as opposed to being a department of the university, helps give the station some creative flexibility, Lupica says.
“Most college radio stations are training departments for undergrads, and they have things like block programming, etc.,” Lupica says. “We don’t have any of that here; we encourage our DJs to mine the depths of obscurity, play things that listeners haven’t heard before or maybe they’ve forgotten about. We don’t placate our listeners with the stuff they already know. We want to get them to fall in love with new stuff.”
With a split of approximately 30 percent community members and 70 percent students, Lupica says there are presently about 80 active volunteers at WPRB — and they have big celebratory plans for 2016. The exhibit at the Mudd Library and the website are just the beginning of WPRB’s jubilee.
“(We’re) hard at work plotting a major live music event for the spring of 2016, the details of which will be forthcoming,” Lupica says. “It’s our 75th anniversary year, and we’ll be getting out in the community as much as possible, taking the wall down between the station and our listeners.”
“We have a motivated staff, motivated trustees who were happy to make this happen, and our students are outstanding,” he continues. “We figure, why just celebrate on the eve of the anniversary? Let’s turn it into a yearlong festival of WPRB love.”
WPRB: A Haven for the Creative Impulse, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, 65 Olden Street, Princeton. Through May, 2016, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Free. 609-258-6345, www.princeton.edu/mudd, www.wprbhistory.org.
#WPRB: A History#/b#
From the exhibit catalog for the exhibit: “WPRB: A Haven for the Creative Impulse”
December 15, 1940: Henry Grant Theis organizes Princeton’s first campus radio station, WPRU.
February 8, 1941: WPRU airs its first sports broadcast, a Harvard-Princeton basketball game.
1943-1945: WPRU shuts down until the end of World War II due to lack of manpower.
November 11, 1955: WPRU becomes the country’s first commercial FM undergraduate radio station with the new call letters WPRB.
February 15, 1960: the FCC approves a 17,000 watt power boost for WPRB, making it the most powerful student-operated station in the world.
October 25, 1963: WPRB moves to stereo.
1964: WPRB takes part in the first national student coverage of the Johnson-Goldwater election, produced by the Ivy Network.
November 16, 1966: WPRB hosts its first comedy night with Jean Shepherd.
1970: Three student reporters are arrested in Washington, D.C., for being present at the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice May Day demonstrations.
1972: WPRB signs with the ABC American FM Radio Network.
1974: John Weingart’s “Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio” debuts.
July, 1977: WPRB staffer John Shyer reports on the New York City blackout from the top of Holder Tower.
1986: WPRB is named Best Commercial College Radio Station by “Spin” magazine.
December 25, 1988: Jon Solomon presents his first 24-hour holiday music special.
August, 1991: WPRB gets clearance from the FCC to boost its signal substantially, expanding its broadcast reach to include Philadelphia.
May 26, 1995: WPRB hosts its 30th annual evening with Jean Shepherd.
1999: WPRB begins online streaming.
June 9, 2004: The station moves from Holder Hall to its current location in Bloomberg Hall.
October 7-14, 2007: WPRB hosts its first on-air membership drive.
2015: Educational Advisor Mike Lupica launches www.WPRBhistory.org in honor of WPRB’s 75th anniversary.