UAlbany radio station turns 50
Early broadcasts came from a janitor’s closet
ALBANY The sound of men’s voices, playfully lifted in song, drifted from a little lounge in UAlbany’s Brubacher Hall.
“I love you, I love you, I love you and where you go I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow,” they crooned, recalling 1963, when “I Will Follow You” by Ricky Nelson hit the pop charts — the same year WSUA began broadcasting at UAlbany.
Station alumni gathered Sunday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of WSUA’s inception, and the 35th anniversary of its FM incarnation, WCDB (the station is available at 90.9 FM on the dial).
From 9 a.m. to noon, WCDB held a remote broadcast from Brubacher Hall, the place where the long-running college radio station has its roots.
Alumni filtered in to eat Dunkin’ Donuts, sing a few lines from the hits of years past, and to chat on-air about their memories of working at the station.
WSUA was in the works for about 15 years before it was ever granted permission to hit the airwaves.
After much cajoling, the college’s administration finally agreed to allot the Radio Station Club a janitor’s closet to serve as its studio.
“We basically had a couple of turntables in there,” recounted Ian Leet of Albany, one of the station’s founding members. “We eventually got a UPI Machine.”
He recalled the news stories that were transmitted by way of the teletype machine, the more important ones announced by the sound of a bell.
“There were two-bell stories and three-bell stories, depending on the importance of them, and those were the things that you wanted to rip right off the machine and read right way — ‘We interrupt this program’ kind of things,” he explained.
WSUA debuted in February of 1963 as a “carrier current” AM radio station. Broadcast transmissions were confined to the electrical wiring of the college campus.
In its early days, the station offered news and sports and played jazz and classical music. Top 40 hits were soon added to the mix, but were eventually phased out in favor of a more progressive type of rock music format.
During the mid-1960s, the studio got upgraded to the basement of Brubacher Hall and in 1971 it moved to its current home in the Campus Center on the college’s uptown campus.
The radio station moved to the FM dial with the new call letters WCDB in March 1978, operating with 10 watts of power in FM stereo. Until 1980, WSUA continued to operate on the AM dial as a training studio for new staff members.
Phil Lewis of Rotterdam worked as the station’s sports director in the 1980s.
“I actually had to wait an entire year before I could get on the air. I had to do the scut work, sort of pay my dues,” he remembered.
Lewis recalled how fans relied on WCDB for sports coverage back when no commercial station had laid claim to the games it broadcast.
“All of the families would listen communally. I heard stories about people paying bartenders to put on the radio in bars so that people could listen together if their car radios broke down,” he said.
Bill McCann of Niskayuna has been involved with the station for 28 years and hosts a four-hour jazz show every Saturday morning. A graduate of UAlbany’s class of 1986, it took him a while to actually work up the nerve to become an on-air personality.
“I started training in probably 1983 or so,” he recalled. “Back then, it was very serious — serious as a heart attack. If the record library was left open, you got suspended.”
McCann practiced his DJ skills in a little booth the club had set up with old equipment.
“You would go in there with a stack of records and old, outdated PSAs, and you would practice the show and practice segues and raps, read the calendar,” he explained.
His jazz show debuted in April 1985 and has been on the air ever since.
From its humble beginnings in a janitor’s closet, the station has grown to include two studios, a live performance room, an engineering room and two offices.
“It’s all used all the time. It’s very busy. It’s kind of aggravating that there’s never any free space,” related Ryan Peter, a Class of 2011 graduate who served as the station’s chief engineer and general manager during his time at UAlbany.
Although he lives in Westchester, Peter still comes to help out at the station every now and again. He also manages its website.
Since early December, he’s tracked the station’s online listeners and has tallied around 6,000 from all over the world.