Radio Days: a century on the air

Publication Date
Sata Diakite '21, WRUC's general manager, seeks to promote area artists through the station.

Sata Diakite '21, WRUC's general manager, seeks to promote area artists through the station.

This month, we celebrate a century of Union College radio. Here, we remember the first broadcast on Oct. 14, 1920. More coverage of the anniversary will follow in the upcoming issue of Union College magazine and online. Also, as part of virtual Homecoming Weekend, on Thursday, Oct. 22, from 7 to 8 p.m. (EDT), a panel of alumni will recall their Union radio days and the careers that followed. To register and receive the Zoom link, visit here.

On the evening of Oct. 14, 1920, amateur radio operators as far away as Hartford, Conn., could hear a scratchy phonograph recording of Irving Berlin’s “Tell Me, Little Gypsy” sung by tenor John Steel. Then came seven more pieces from records borrowed from the H.S. Barney department store in exchange for on-air mention.

The signal came from the Union campus, where a 150-watt transmitter and an antenna strung between two trees “sent the music hurtling through the ether,” according to Concordiensis.

Radio wizard Wendell King, Class of 1924, was chief engineer for Union's first broadcast.

Radio wizard Wendell King, Class of 1924, was chief engineer for Union's first broadcast.

The first broadcast, with William G. McCaig ’23 as announcer, went from 8 to 8:30 with a three-minute break midway to cool down the transmitter. It was the first of 30 weekly Thursday night concerts from the station then known as 2ADD.

In the competitive era of early radio, an Oct. 16, 1920 Concordiensis headline left little doubt about pride: “UNION AGAIN PIONEER OF AMERICAN COLLEGE WORLD; MUSIC BY WIRELESS TELEPHONE LATEST RADIO FEAT”

The broadcast of Oct. 14, 1920 made Union the first college radio station, and the first licensed station of any kind, to air regularly scheduled programs.

 Julie Greifer Swidler '79, executive VP at Sony Music

LEFT: Julie Greifer Swidler '79, executive VP at Sony Music, got her start at WRUC. Here she is with Alicia Keys, left, and talent agent Samantha Kirby Yoh. RIGHT: Director and screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson '71 got his start as a WRUC announcer.

Union's broadcast preceded by 19 days Pittsburgh’s KDKA, which aired the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election on Nov. 2, 1920. Another station, 8MK of the Detroit News, began broadcasts on Aug. 20, 1920, but did not have a broadcast license.

The 1920-21 year had a number of other firsts, many attributed to Leo Freedman ’21, the promotion-savvy secretary/treasurer: play-by-play game broadcasts, music for off-campus dances and advertisements for Union’s engineering program.

Among the exploits that year was a claim to the first portable broadcast receiver, the “wireless baby carriage.” During spring prom weekend, students outfitted a wicker baby carriage with a receiver, antenna and batteries and had a student’s date push the contraption around the streets of Schenectady as it played music broadcast from campus. The stunt was re-staged three weeks later for a newsreel that ran throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Celebrating 100 years of college radio on campus, take a look back at the musical acts who have played at Union College since 1960. Listen to Union's Spotify playlist featuring artists who have played on campus (note: some songs may contain explicit lyrics).