More than 50 years ago, WRPI made history when it joined a small but growing group of radio stations presenting regular FM broadcasting. An enterprising group of students convinced WROW, an Albany-based radio station, to donate an unused FM transmitter to Rensselaer, allowing WRPI to operate at 1,000 watts with an FM broadcasting radius of 30 miles. At that time, WRPI was located in the 15th Street Lounge, now the RPI Playhouse, and had been airing programs via AM “carrier current” broadcasting since the early 1950s.
“The station built a lot of its own equipment everything was custom built and very high quality,” says Chuck Phelan ’67, managing partner of National TeleConsultants, who served as an announcer, engineer, program director, and president of the station. “Most of the students who came to the station were
electrical engineers, and the station was very technically oriented.”
While that transmitter put WRPI on the FM map, it was in 1968-1969 that the current 700-foot transmitter tower in North Greenbush, N.Y., was acquired from WTEN- TV Channel 10, which had switched frequencies. Getting the transmitter tower allowed the station to jump from 1,000- to 20,000-watt stereo, quite an accomplishment for a college, non-commercial radio station. The station’s next big change came in 1975 when it moved its studio to the basement of the Darrin Communications Center, where it still is today. Listeners can tune into 91.5 on the FM dial.
Since then, the station has broadcast over 430,000 hours of unique and progressive music, news, inspiration, and public service programming.
Today, WRPI continues to set new milestones as the station gears up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the FM broadcast and the contributions of students, alumni, and community volunteers. From Nov. 1-4, the station will host a series of programs that include campus tours, an open house, round-table discussions, and an awards ceremony, among others.
More than 50 alumni, including Phelan ’67 and Charles Jablonski ’77, former vice president of NBC, will attend the event, along with students and members of the community. To kick off the celebration, the station plans an on-air retrospective spanning the first 50 years of WRPI.
“WPRI has significant impact on the lives and careers of students and alumni,” says Trent Gillaspie ’08, current president of WRPI. “The experience of working and managing a radio station while in college is an introduction not only to the world of broadcasting and information technology, but also serves as a hands-on training ground for students to hone their skills in leadership and communication in a real-world context.”
Many acknowledge that the station’s mission has focused on providing the home and training for students and the community to work together to produce and broadcast non-commercial musical, sports, entertainment, cultural and public affairs, and educational programming. Over the years, more than 1,000 students and community volunteers have served as members.
The WRPI experience led many alumni to pursue careers in the broadcast industry serving as network executives, producers, television system design specialists, and post-production creators, among others.
“It made sense to join WRPI based on my interest in audio,” said Kevin Hamburger ’75, senior vice president of production at Fox Television Studios in Calif., who majored in electrical engineering. “Working at WRPI served as a stepping stone for many students who were interested in the field of radio and communications.”
Recently, the station’s efforts were recognized by the College Music Journal, a publication that focuses on new music across genres. WRPI and its members have been nominated as the best in the nation in several categories including: Best Head Music Director, Best Specialty Music Director, Best Community Resource, Best Specialty Programming, and Best Web site.
“Nearly 85 percent of Rensselaer’s undergraduate students participate in at least one club on campus,” says Rick Hartt ’70, director of the Rensselaer Union. “They join to explore interests, make friends, and have fun. Beyond the social connection, they leave equipped with an education that extends past textbooks, midterms, and papers, to include practical experience and interpersonal skills that help position them for success in the professional world.”
“I have learned how to effectively operate and communicate within an organization,” says Gino D’Addario ’08, WRPI station manger. “That’s a valuable experience that has helped me as I begin planning my career following graduation.”
There are challenges that WRPI may struggle with as today’s commercial and non-commercial radio markets are straying toward the Internet and digital systems as opposed to analog systems, according to Gillaspie. There may be decreases in listenership to traditional radio and movement to Internet and satellite radio.
Today, the 20,000-watt station is currently undergoing a major student-initiated revitalization project to update its broadcast studio facilities. For now, WRPI continues in the long and valued tradition of transmitting music, conversations, and more to the loyal audiences who tune in.
To learn more about WRPI and the anniversary celebration, go to http://wrpi.rpi.edu/.
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