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Big Booming Sound: WRUC in the Sixties
For several years in the 1960s, Union's radio station, WRUC, was run as a commercial venture, complete with advertising, jingles, contests, and give-aways.
Led by Richard Ferguson '67 and Jeffrey Hedquist '67, the station was on the air seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, and for a brief time was broadcast to Skidmore's campus twenty-five miles away. It boasted a Top 40 sound and was wildly popular on both campuses.
It's 10 p.m. on a cool evening in 1967, and Union men are tuned to 640 AM, listening to the "Solid Gold Hour" with Mark "The Big Z" Zauderer '67.
Anxious to win a sandwich from Mike's Submarines or some other prize -- movie tickets, a case of beer, a trip -- they keep their radios tuned to WRUC, much to the pleasure of Richard Ferguson '67 and Jeffrey Hedquist '67, the masterminds behind WRUC's commercial nature in the 1960s.
"When Dick Ferguson and I arrived at Union in 1963, the station was off the air," Hedquist explains. "There was just some dusty equipment in the corner of the station."
"It was pretty dilapidated," adds Ferguson. "The transmitter was in bad shape, and the wires that ran underground in the steam pipes had disintegrated over time."
Two years later, however, the station not only had new wires and a new transmitter; it had become a national leader in college radio. A member of the ABC radio network, WRUC was alive with Top 40 sounds; five newscasts a day that included local, national, and campus news; an hourly weather report; frequent coverage of concerts and lectures; and a major daily sports program.
Jim Stillman '69 says, "Ferguson and Hedquist had the idea to make it like a real rock and roll station -- to be like the big boys." Since that cost money -- more than was offered through student activities fees --
the two entrepreneurs decided to sell advertising so they could upgrade equipment, build new studios, and support the programming and news that they wanted to produce. During 1965 and 1966, for example, WRUC had a budget of $8,000 and billed $6,000 in advertising.
To Hedquist, one of the most entertaining aspects of the station was trying to make it economically feasible. "That's what we wanted to do in the real world," he says. "It was an electronic petri dish."
Before the revival, WRUC's format was easy listening, including some classical, some jazz, and a little rock, according to Tom Seem '68, who hosted "The Squirrel Show" in 1966-67.
Richard Roth '70 says that "hall-walkers" -- WRUC folks who walked through dorms listening to radios -- found out that the majority of Union students were not too interested in endless chatter-shows or jazz, or classical, or much of anything except the Top 40 sounds they heard on WABC, WPTR (Albany-Troy-Schenectady), or WRTY (Rensselaer) -- the two local rockers.
The station was run much like a professional station and had national advertising, a tight schedule, and established format. "There were very good people backing it technically," explains Zauderer.
Roth, who transferred to Union after two years at Syracuse University, says that he was immediately impressed with WRUC. "The Syracuse station seemed to me much more in the mold of a serious college station: serous-minded, well-run as an educational enterprise, carefully overseen by diligent faculty -- fun, but a bit stuffy," he says. "WRUC seemed in every way the opposite: raucous, rocking, upbeat, occasionally funny, often irreverent, clever.
"The commerce of the place imposed the discipline: it was commercial, and that seemed to make it professional," he continues. "It also helped to make it sound, to me, at least at the time, great -- tightly-formatted with sophisticated production."
During that era, WRUC operated as a current-carrier station, with cables running through steam ducts to all of the dormitories and fraternities on campus. With the help of engineering students Dick Sweed '67 and Norman "Toby" Olsen '67, among others, WRUC rewired the campus and installed a new transmitter in the basement of the new Schaffer Library.
Located in Old Gym Hall (now Stanley R. Becker Hall, home of the Admissions Office), the station was just down the hall from the office of Dean of Students O. Edward Pollock. "The secretaries in the dean's office were almost part of the radio station," says Hedquist. "We were always in their office, negotiating with the dean for more funding, more space, or because of something he had heard on the air."
What made WRUC so distinct from other college radio stations was the level of professionalism Ä its big radio station sound.
The station had professionally-produced jingles, which Ferguson and Hedquist had schemed to get at a reduced rate from an excellent production company. WRUC also featured professional-sounding ads with background music, character voices, and more. For Mike's Submarines, they created the adventures of Stud Manley -- a parody of James Bond, complete with a sidekick, Fred, a sultry female played by someone's date who did recordings on weekends. The station led the college campaign for Utica Club beer with a highly-successful button promotion that had large numbers of students constantly checking their buttons for the winning numbers that were called out over the air.
The advertising component was aggressive and extremely successful, and national ads were not out of reach. Ferguson remembers going to class dressed in a suit and tie. After class, he would jump into his Nash Rambler, drive to the Albany Airport, and fly to New York to make a presentation to an advertising executive about WRUC and college radio. Then he would fly back to Schenectady.
Pitches to potential local advertisers were equally as impressive. Long, thorough pitches were supported by statistics that attracted and kept many advertisers and their advertising dollars.
Although Hedquist and Ferguson had radio experience before arriving on campus, most of those involved in the station made things up as they went along, says Phil Robinson '71. "This was the creativity that our parents thought we were putting into our schoolwork," he says.
WRUC staffers wrote all the ads, each adding his own special touch. In the fall of 1969, Robinson wrote:
"Schenectady sure is an interesting town, but it's hard to find a good restaurant here that won't charge you $18 for a glass of water -- or an inexpensive restaurant that won't give you ptomaine poisoning. Well, search no more, student, the happy medium has been found. Cornell's Restaurant at 1733 Van Vranken Avenue combines the most elegant cuisine with the most reasonable prices in all of Schenectady. And, girls, the next time your date asks you where you want to eat, tell him to take you to Cornell's, 1733 Van Vranken Avenue -- you'll love it!"
According to Robinson, one of the keys was that after you sold an ad you asked all your friends to patronize the advertiser so that they were convinced that the ads were working.
Even more impressive than the ads were the shows, for they were what kept all those Union men tuned to 640 AM. "All the jockeys we knew on Top 40 radio were known as good guys, but we had to be different, so we were the WRUC bad guys," explains Paul Jacobson '70.
Popular shows included Zauderer's "Solid Gold Hour," an oldies show with songs such as Zauderer's theme "The Boy from New York City." Another hit was the "Sour Hour," an afternoon Motown pre-happy hour show that was hosted from D'Andrea's, a bar in Saratoga Springs that offered whiskey sours for 50 cents each.
"On weeknights, we would broadcast live from D'Andrea's and fill the place," recalls Charlie Cusimano '70. "It would be a great party, and it sounded like a great party on the air. You'd hear that show blasting from the dorms on Friday afternoons."
Tom Seem's "The Squirrel Show" included "humor," or "alternative" music that Seem collected.
"This stuff included novelty songs by Mrs. Miller (a perfectly terrible old-lady voice singing hits of the day) and stuff that would have been trashed or laughed out of most other stations," Seem says. "At the time, we received a terrific amount of promotional music and I would sort through it as it came in, looking for the weirdest and funniest stuff, which I would immediately play."
The show, hitting after the Rathskeller and library closed and people were in their rooms, became very popular.
"We devised some gimmicks that were both juvenile and fun, and for about two-and-a-half years, it was one of the highest-rated shows on the station," Seem says. The Squirrel name came from the scheme in which
a young woman came to the studio once or twice a week and read, in a sexy voice, snippets of gossip. "This was one of the gimmicks that helped boost ratings, and it was immensely popular," Seem says.
The Skidmore Connection
One of WRUC's most successful ventures in the 1960s was transmitting the station to Skidmore's campus. "It was motivated partly by economics, partly by the idea of doing it, and partly by testosterone," Hedquist says.
By 1966, WRUC staff members were increasingly frustrated by the fact that the station could be heard only on campus. Since Skidmore had no radio station, and since Union men so frequently dated Skidmore women, taking WRUC to Saratoga seemed like a good idea.
After more than a year of planning, WRUC staff members rolled wire throughout Saratoga during the summer of 1966, connecting the buildings of both the old and new campuses to a transmitter in Skidmore Hall in downtown Saratoga Springs. The station rented a telephone line from New York Telephone to carry the programming to Saratoga and also provided a toll-free line for Skidmore women to make requests, respond to contests, and offer feedback. Suddenly, the request lines began to light up as the opportunity to dedicate songs to the opposite sex became an option.
With this move, WRUC nearly doubled its audience and now had an entirely new market for advertising. Staffers soon came up with the idea of broadcasting two different commercials simultaneously on each campus Ä such as a commercial for a laundromat in Schenectady at the same time as one for a laundromat in Saratoga. Working with one of the first stereo machines, they made it work and doubled their advertising dollars for the same amount of air time. "We thought it was brilliant, or at least clever," Hedquist says.
WRUC's outstanding news coverage was far more complete than most college radio stations at the time.
"One of our concerns was that even though we were a Top 40 rock station, we needed a news presence," says Bob Killian '69. As a result, staff members developed news coverage that included WRUC Instant News Specials, which provided between ten and twenty minutes of campus, local, and national news. WRUC received the right to rebroadcast ABC Radio news and also funneled some of their own local and campus reporting to ABC in New York.
WRUC also covered several national elections, sending newsmen to the 1968 presidential primary in Indiana and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. To cover their airfare and lodging expenses, the station sold its coverage to radio stations up and down the East Coast. Staff members phoned in news reports,which the production engineering staff taped, edited, and relayed to the various stations in the "network."
The Democratic National Convention in Chicago provided prime exposure for the young Union journalists. Gassed by police alongside the other reporters, Robinson and Killian were turned on to becoming newsmen. "It made me think, 'This is the life,'" Robinson says. "As reporters, we got to be at the front lines of everything. I was enraptured with the whole experience."
Given the upheaval in the 1960s, there was plenty of news to report.
"I remember broadcasting the bulletin when Robert Kennedy was shot and when Martin Luther King was killed," says Roth, now an NBC News correspondent in London. "I recall that was the first time I felt the unsettling nervousness of reporting, live, an event of moment, and feeling a personal, emotional response at odds with what was supposed to be a professional pose of detachment. And curiously, over the past thirty years, on countless other broadcasts, I've felt the same nervousness and the same conflict."
Robinson, who began his career as a reporter and now is a writer and director for Universal Studios, says that one of his most potent memories was the two days before the Kent State killings.
"Nixon had invaded Cambodia, and there was protest the following evening on campus," he says. "We strung up Nixon in effigy on the flagpole and the Schenectady Gazette took a picture of it, which then was picked up by UPI or AP and sent across the nation. We were so proud of ourselves.
"Soon after, Nixon made a speech condemning 'campus bums,' and the protest against that speech at Kent State resulted in the killings," Robinson says. "I remember being in Old Gym as the wire copy was coming in about Kent State. It was a horrible moment when we realized that it wasn't all fun and games."
Making an Impression
WRUC was remarkable in so many ways Ä in its big radio sound, its aggressive campaign for advertisers, its excellent news coverage.
"Somewhere along the line, the word got out that the things we were doing at WRUC were outside the norm of what college stations were typically doing," says Hedquist.
The station quickly attracted attention from advertising representatives and record producers who were beginning to recognize the promise of college radio and who saw WRUC as a leader. "There were very few college stations that made money and developed radio skills like we did at WRUC," Gary Abramson '69 says.
Killian says, "Union is a unique place, and the combination of engineering and liberal arts students make it unlike a lot of small northeast schools. The radio station was a place for all of those talents to come to the fore. The station broke down barriers as students from different disciplines and with different interests all worked together."
To Zauderer, what was particularly unusual about WRUC was "the common thread of achievement and professionalism that all the participants sought to attain, both on the business and the entertainment side.
"This was a time, with the record formats as they were, when it was a real challenge to stay fresh and interesting," he says. "On other college radio stations at that time, there was a much slower monologue format. The way for professional stations, and for WRUC, was to challenge people to be interesting on air and to say a lot in a short period of time.
"It was a terrific learning experience," he adds. "In addition to the fun of developing broadcast skills Ä including voice, timing, producing commercials, exposure to news Ä we realized that there was fun in doing this, feeling responsible for something tangible and being recognized for it."
Dick Reingold '69 says, "I think that the best part of WRUC was that we were college students running a professional business. We were connecting with our audience."
And to Roth, WRUC was a wonderful training ground for commercial, non-college radio. "It was little different from a professional station off-campus, except for the economics," he says. "The equipment and production were state-of-the-art, the management was often arbitrary and dictatorial, and the audience ranged from appreciative to contemptuous. We just didn't get paid. And it was hard to get fired. But we all made audition tapes, and for the most part they are what got us our first off-campus radio jobs."
According to Robinson, the ultimate dream at the station was to fantasize about working at a radio station full-time, which a remarkable number of WRUC grads went on to do. Nearly all attribute their early interest and success in broadcasting to WRUC.
"I think I learned more in my four years at Union than in my first ten years in professional radio," says Cusimano, now sales manager of a television station in Watertown, N.Y. "There is no doubt that I never would have gone down this path if I hadn't stumbled onto the radio station my first day at Union."
An updated list of other WRUC staffers notes that:
-- Ferguson is president of NewCity Communications, which was recently purchased by Cox Radio, Inc., and runs dozens of radio stations across the country;
-- Hedquist runs Hedquist Productions, Inc., a production house in Fairfield, Iowa, that has produced national commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Oldsmobile, Chiquita, and others;
-- Jacobson, former owner of a commercial sound recording studio, still produces radio commercials, ski reports, and audiovisuals, and now is a photographer;
-- Reingold is general manager and president of W*USA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.;
-- Robinson has directed such films as Field of Dreams and Sneakers;
-- Roth, London correspondent for CBS News, has gained acclaim for his reporting worldwide, including his coverage and capture during the Tiananmen Square massacre;
-- Seem, the White House/Special Events producer for CBS News, oversees the logistics of CBS coverage of the White House and presidential travel as well as other special events.
Many WRUC graduates of that time had stints on the radio before moving into other careers:
-- Abramson, also a lawyer, worked at the same station while at Union before going to law school and eventually joining the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, N.Y.;
-- Killian, former news correspondent for radio and television, is now a judge in Hartford, Conn.;
-- Stillman, chief financial officer at S.T. Griswold Company, Inc., in Williston, Vt., spent several years as a newsman and even hosted a morning show with Cusimano before returning to school to become a C.P.A.;
-- Zauderer, a partner in a New York City law firm, worked at WPTR in Troy before attending law school.
"It's a tribute to WRUC that so many of its alumni have gone on to careers in broadcasting, without Union ever offering a journalism course," Killian concludes.
Adds Stillman, "I think many of us majored in WRUC at Union. It was a great experience."
Thanks to Jim Stillman, who suggested this story. We were able to include only a handful of the dozens of alumni who were involved in WRUC in the 1960s, but we would love to hear from others.
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