Jack Dentler '48 inspected the shiny new broadcast booth for campus radio station WJMD in the Arcus Atrium of the renovated Hicks Student Center and gave it his stamp of approval.
"This is a far cry from my room in Hoben where I used to broadcast."
It's also a far cry from the basements of Harmon and Hicks where the station lived for several decades, and a back room of the Upjohn Library Commons where it spent the past three years.
After 63 years in the shadows, WJMD radio has moved to the center of the campus universe.
It's also moved from the radio dial to the World Wide Web. Instead of broadcasting only to radios on the 60-acre Kalamazoo campus, WJMD now sends its signal worldwide via the Internet.
"We're totally digital now," said Will Skora '09, current station manager. "But we're still the same 'make-it-up-as-you-go' operation that Jack Dentler and other alumni DJs say they were.
"That's half the fun."
Kalamazoo College laid claim to the state's first college radio station in January 1922, when physics professor Leonard Ashby and his fledgling Radio Club launched WOAP. "K" students delivered livestock, crop, and weather reports. Soloists, orchestras, and the Glee Club performed live music. Faculty members lectured. And community members spoke on a range of issues. Phineas Wheat, a Kalamazoo alumnus, was noted for his Scottish readings.
Programming was limited to a couple hours in the evening so as not to blow Detroit and Chicago stations off the air: the WOAP signal reached a staggering 100-mile radius from Kalamazoo, making it one of the most powerful stations in the state.
When professor Ashby took a job at another college a few years later, the station literally travelled with him.
In 1945, Jack Dentler was a sophomore living in the south wing of Hoben Hall when he inadvertently began what became WJMD. Jack enjoyed playing Tommy Dorsey and other big band albums on his record player. Other students enjoyed it, too, and began slipping song requests under his door.
But some of the requests came from female students living in the north wing of the building.
"Turned out that my little turn table was actually broadcasting a signal to radios throughout the dorm."
With a little ingenuity and some cobbled together gear, Jack launched WJMD at 630 on the AM dial. Soon, he and some friends were borrowing records and taking turns at the microphone. Within a year, they had strung a wire to Trowbridge Hall and published a weekly program schedule.
The "Yawn Patrol" started the day at 6:45 AM. News, sports, and variety programs occupied evening spots that were not devoted to music. "Moonlight Serenade" from 10:30 to midnight, Monday through Friday nights was considered must-listening. Jack and friends also served as the DJs for many campus dances.
Play-by-play of Hornet basketball games was recorded on heavy wire spools, and then hauled back to Jack's "studio" for broadcast the following night.
The broadcasters moved their studio to the attic of Hoben for much of the second year of operation. The signal was stronger there, but the extremes of hot and cold made for unpleasant surroundings.
When Jack moved to "new" Harmon Hall in 1947, the station followed. By then, the staff had increased to 15, including announcers, technicians, news writers, and engineers.
"We knew our signal was strong around the campus," said Jack. "One day Clayton Always and I wanted to find out just how strong. I played music while he drove his car until the signal faded. He called from Paw Paw - 20 miles away - to report that we were coming through loud and clear."
How did WJMD get its call letters? "Pure ego," said Jack M. Dentler. "Plus, WKZO was already taken."
Analog to Digital
By the 1960s, WJMD had become a recognized student organization with a budget and a studio in the basement of Hicks. But as the infrastructure grew, so did licensing restrictions. Eventually, the signal was limited to the immediate campus.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that students once hooked up the station's amplifier to nearby railroad tracks, essentially turning the nation's rail system into a giant antenna carrying the WJMD signal throughout the lower 48 states and parts of Canada. BeLight would enjoy hearing from alumni - anonymously, if needed - about the veracity of that story.
By the 1990s, interest in WJMD had waned. The general demise of AM radio contributed. So did the rise of the Internet. Like the rest of the population, students turned to video and digital domains for personal expression and entertainment.
The quirkiness of the Kalamazoo calendar also took a toll. With so many students coming and going on study abroad, career internships, and SIPS, maintaining organizational continuity from quarter to quarter was tough.
Still, hardcore radio fans remained.
"I got into radio in high school because my old '84 Buick didn't have a cassette or CD player," said Will Skora '09. "When I showed up at 'K,' so few students were involved in WJMD, I got my own show in no time."
Will witnessed the low point of WJMD interest during the 2006-07 academic year, his sophomore year. When the Hicks renovation began, the station moved to a small room in the library. With seniors having graduated, most juniors on study abroad, and few freshmen showing interest, it fell to Will and a couple other sophomores to keep the momentum going.
Then their hard drive crashed.
The station had made the switch from broadcasting via radio to the Internet a few years earlier. When the hard drive died, so did the fledgling effort.
"We really didn't have the manpower or financial support to keep things going," he said.
But with a new hard drive last spring and a new home in Hicks this past fall, WJMD came back strong in 2008. "Being so visible now in Hicks has helped us attract more students," said
After 63 years in the shadows, WJMD radio has moved to the center of the campus universe.Will. "It demonstrates that WJMD is still important to the campus community."
College administrators provide enough budget to cover WJMD licensing fees and incidentals. Beyond that, DJs are largely on their own. They receive no pay and no money to purchase CDs or downloads.
A "garage sale" of old vinyl albums held during Homecoming '08 netted the station about $1,000, and reduced the collection of vinyl LPs to an estimated 5,000. No one can estimate the huge number of 45s.
A microphone for guests tops the wish list for new items, along with portable gear to broadcast live from campus and community events. [Editor's Note: Hornet football and men's and women's basketball games are streamed live on the Web by a for-profit company. Visit http://www.kzoo.edu/sports to tune in.]
The cool new booth with a big window overlooking the Arcus Atrium, stands in sharp contrast to the cramped corner of Jack Dentler's dorm room studio and the dingy dated basement studio in Hicks.
Yet, some images remain constant: two turntables flanked by a mixing board, amplifier, microphone, and stacks of records. Fresh paint, clean carpet, shelves of CDs, and a small Dell computer are among the signs that times have changed.
Will and about 25 DJs play an eclectic mix of music, including bluegrass, classical, heavy metal, hip hop (his favorite), blues, jazz, and more, plus a few hours of talk radio. Together they create 30 to 40 hours of live programming each week, mostly in the evenings. But a playlist is piped out 24/7, as long as students are on campus. Spring, summer and winter breaks are the only downtimes.
WJMD staff also hopes to partner with local musicians and other campus organizations in order to expand programming opportunities.
"We want people to know that WJMD still exists. We remain relevant and are an integral part of the campus. I loved meeting Jack Dentler and hearing how the station operated during his time. We're still a barebones operation and having fun like he was all those years ago. And we're still part of the 'K' tradition."
Listening to WJMD (http://www.kzoo.edu/wjmd) requires that you have either iTunes or Winamp installed on your computer. Contact the WJMD request line at email@example.com.
Jack and Jean '48 (Klein) Dentler would enjoy hearing from classmates at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Molly Ball (email@example.com) to share your WJMD story and photos, or to make a financial contribution to the station's future.
Photo: WJMD radio DJs Joseph Schafer '10 (left) and Will Skora '09 flank station founder Jack M. Dentler '48 in the WJMD booth in the Weimer K. Hicks Student Center. Jack donated his WJMD personalized Michigan car license plate to the station.
by Jeff Palmer