Pittsburgh radio station WYEP turns 40

It is the late 1970s and Jeff Smith is standing on his head waiting for the phone to ring. He literally is on his head, feet aloft, face beginning to turn red. Five minutes pass and the phone does not ring.

He is on the air at WYEP-FM, a fledgling, community-supported radio station in a basement studio in South Oakland that had aired its first broadcast just a few years before. He's trying to raise money during one of the early pledge drives. Ten minutes before, as a sort of ultimatum, he told listeners he would stand on his head until someone called with a pledge. Ten agonizingly slow minutes pass. No calls, no pledges.

Fifteen minutes pass … 18 minutes. In a twilight zone, drifting off, he hears the phone ring. Did he imagine it? It rings again. He answers: "Hi. WYEP. This is Jeff.” The call is from a doctor who has been listening to the entire ordeal and can’t take it any longer. He advises Mr. Smith to get off of his head before he suffers some sort of brain damage. But Mr. Smith has him by the stethoscope, and before the call ends, the doctor has pledged a few bucks. Mission accomplished. Now that‘s using your head.

Mr. Smith, who came to Pittsburgh with John Schwartz in the early 1970s to start the city's first community-supported radio station, recounted that story of the early years at WYEP. This year, the station at 91.3 will mark 40 years. Pittsburgh has declared Wednesday as WYEP Day.

In 1920, when KDKA-AM, the first commercially licensed radio station, aired its initial broadcast — announcing Warren Harding's defeat of James Cox in that year's presidential election — that station didn't need to conduct pledge drives because it could count on money from advertising.

Nearly 30 years after KDKA's first broadcast, Lewis Hill founded Pacifica Foundation Radio and put the first community-supported radio station on the air, KPFA in Berkeley, Calif., in 1949. He was realizing his vision of an independent station with the freedom to air programming unconstrained by advertising dollars.

Following in Hill’s footsteps, Lorenzo Milam, who would become known as "The Johnny Appleseed of Community Radio,” and a few colleagues, launched about 20 independent stations around the country, including WYEP in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Milam, who had worked at KPFA, recalled his motivation in a recent email:

“Since I and everyone else in their right minds in the 1950s knew (not believed but KNEW) that between Stalin and [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles and Khrushchev and J. Edgar Hoover, the world was going to be blown up, I figured I had a short time to do what I could to put off the inevitable. I left everything in the spring of 1959 — graduate school, wife, English lit, the free air of Berkeley — flew to Washington, D.C. on one of the first cross-country jets and asked the taxi driver to take me to the [Federal Communications Commission].

“I modeled my would-be station on KPFA, let it be known that that was going to be our goal to bring Pacifica-type radio to Washington. I filed the application and it took me over a year of sad waiting to find out that Pacifica was considered to be a front for the Communist party. I never forgot that lesson on what we would now call pre-censorship. It broke my heart, but it gave me a hell of a lot of guidance for the future.”

It was under Mr. Milam’s direction that Mr. Smith and Mr. Schwartz came to Pittsburgh to start WYEP. At the time, Pittsburgh was the largest city in the United States without such a station. The city had WDUQ, a public radio station supported by Duquesne University, but did not have an outlet strictly funded by listeners.

For two years, a small, persistent group laid the groundwork, getting approvals from the Federal Communications Commission, finding cheap studio space, getting a transmitter up and running, and recruiting volunteers to fill the endless hours of air time. “In 1972, Ken Duffy at WDUQ gave me air time to preview the kinds of music we would be programming. I told people we were going to be on the air,” Mr. Smith said.

"I remember when we took the transmitter up to the top of the Cathedral of Learning," recalled Mr. Schwartz, who was 21 when he came to Pittsburgh. "We could barely squeeze the rack inside the elevator. At one point, we had stripped all the equipment out of it and there I was, standing inside the equipment rack inside the elevator. I had to push the button with my nose. My roommate, who was a rock climber, belayed to the top of the building and put up the antenna.”

On April 30, 1974, WYEP went on the air.

The station had its share of surreal moments. “Around that time in Oakland, they released a lot of mental patients from the hospitals,” Mr. Schwartz recalled. “Two of them took up residence in the station. As station manager, it was my job to get them out. But [the station] was wide open then. You could walk in the door, sit on the couch and get on the air.”

Early programming was all over the place — women’s issues, civil rights issues, the Polish program, the Jamaican program. Early pledge donations were $15 and $25 per year. In the first year, about 1,000 listeners subscribed.

After 10 years, a small, loyal following of listeners had been built, but programming was sketchy and the basement studio was cramped. Money was tight, and no one was really in charge. It was time to pull the plug. On Halloween in 1985, the station fell silent, with a plan to reinvent itself.

It was a contentious time. Everyone had a different vision of what the station should be. The FCC had to be convinced that the station could come back, and the foundations that were being asked for funding had to be reassured that a new plan would work. A new board with a more community perspective took the helm with Peter Rosenfeld as president and turned its focus to marketing, grant writing and finance.

In September 1987, broadcasting from a studio at Chatham College in Squirrel Hill, WYEP came back with a new format and a more powerful signal. The programming appealed to a wider audience and created a broader donation base. Today, WYEP follows a radio format called adult album alternative, which plays a wide variety of music, mostly outside the mainstream.

Public radio stations with a format similar to WYEP are on the rise, according to Mike Henry, CEO of Paragon Media Strategies in Denver, Colo., the number of public radio stations offering either AAA or AAA and news increased from 96 to 226 between 2009 and 2012.

“Independent radio stations like WYEP provide music discovery for their audience," Mr. Henry said. "They have deeper music libraries, play more songs with less repetition and take more risks. At a commercial station, you can get a visit from corporate to say, ‘Next week you’re changing to country.’ With an independent station, it is a completely different ballgame. ... They provide the connection to the local music scene and the local art scene. Because they do live, in-studio performances, artists want to go there. WYEP is a bellwether station.They were doing this before it was cool.”

Abby Goldstein, WYEP’s station manager, knows from experience the difference between commercial and independent radio.

“The first thing I was told when I began my career in commercial radio is that music is the filler between commercials," she said. "That’s their gospel, the bottom line. But today, kids listen to their own playlists. They have 5,000 songs on their phone. They don’t need radio or want someone to dictate their playlist. People look to us for new music. We are among the few stations that will break a new artist and put them on the air.

“We appeal to the passion of our audience. We give them that driveway moment, where they can’t get out of the car because they are stuck in a song.”

WYEP has 85,000 to 100,000 listeners in the Pittsburgh area plus hundreds more in cities that stream the station over the Internet, said Kyle Smith, WYEP’s director of content and programming. About 6,000 are subscribers. Nearly half of WYEP’s annual budget comes from those subscriptions, with about 35 percent coming from local businesses that underwrite specific programming. The remainder comes from grants, private foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“About 6 to 7 percent of our listeners subscribe. They are loyal listeners who tune in a lot looking for good, consistent programming," he said.

In 2006, after a successful capital campaign, the station built a new facility on Bedford Square on the South Side. In 2011, it bought the license held by Duquesne Uiversity for WDUQ. the license for 90.5 FM, which the l had been WDUQ since 1949. Now broadcasting from WYEP facilities as WESA, the station provides an National Public Radio news/talk format at 90.5 FM.

Jeff Smith left the station in 1978, but he is proud of the legacy he left behind.

“Stations like WYEP are important because they provide access to the air waves. … If you are broadcasting, people might find you by accident, just surfing the radio dial. That doesn’t happen on the Internet."

Tim Means, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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