WTUL New Orleans

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WTUL Staff 1976
Staff photo from 1976

As I may have mentioned before, I got the unheralded thrill of being the first voice to transmit on FM. As a wee freshman and member of the technical staff (I really wanted to be on the air, though) I sat in the elevator room on top of Monroe Hall, repeating into a language-lab style headset plugged into the transmitter, "This is a test transmission of a radio station of the Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund, operating under construction permit BPED-1285...." Hard to believe that I can still remember the permit number 25 years later, but then again, I said it over and over and over.

The call letters WTUL had not been officially assigned as yet. A list of callsigns were submitted to the FCC for approval with WTUL at the top, but some other ones were also under consideration including WTUR, WLSR (to fit in with the slogan of the day, " Living Sound Radio." Ptooey! Good thing that one didn't get approved instead. It bites). and believe it or not, WYAT (where ya'at), which was later actually used by an AM oldies station. Anyway, the other stations in the area had the right to oppose the callsign if they believed there would be confusion with their station. For example, WRNO might've gotten pissed if WR-M-O had been submitted. Needless to say, WTUL was issued.

The station operated with a huge 10 watts but was nonetheless heard pretty well throughout the metro area, which was great for people living off-campus who, up until then missed out on WTUL. Through some freak conditions the station even got a report from, I believe, upstate New York. The radio band wasn't quite as full as it is today and with the right combination of natural phenomena such was quite possible. The massive transmitter responsible for pumping out the radio waves looked a little like a dorm refrigerator with a row of meters across the top.

Now the antenna was a homemade job, created by the tech staff based, as I recall, on a design from a ham radio handbook. It consisted of several rings of metal tubing about 2 feet in diameter that were to be mounted on a 40 foot telescoping mast--the kind people hook TV antennas to--which would be bolted to the elevator house 13 stories up on top of Monroe Hall. The whole mess was supposed to be held in place by an elaborate system of guy wires. I say elaborate because so me bright soul (an engineering student, no doubt) had determined that we had to use heavy duty aircraft cable--the kind of stuff you see extra-tough bicycle locks made of--and that cable had to be interrupted every few feet with a big ceramic insulator. The idea was that the guy wires could somehow re-radiate WTUL's powerhouse signal and cause interference to other stations or taxicabs or something. By breaking up the wires with insulators, the signal would remain pure. The trouble is, the whole monstrosity with the cables and insulators weighed like 40 quatrillion tons. An Iwo Jima pole raising ended in disaster with a twisted mass of cable, mast and antenna parts. A re-designed antenna system finally got the station on the air.

When WTUL was on carrier current, 550 AM, it sounded like your basic Top-40 station, complete with commercials--I seem to recall a lot of beer ads. After the FM went on the air, the AM side continued--after all there were still commercials to run. Needless to say, you couldn't run spots on a non-commercial educational station, so when it came time for a break, the jock would load up two tape-cart machines: one with the commercial and one with a public service announcement or promo; one fed the carr ier current transmitters in the dorms and another the FM transmitter.

Programming during the day, again sounded pretty much like big time Top-40...maybe a little hipper, but not a whole helluva lot. In the late afternoons around 5 p.m., there'd be a shift to jazz or classical and then the nighttime programming would get a little more eclectic--not as unstructured as it would later become, but definitely heading that way. One thing you wouldn't hear in 1971: the hour long, uninterrupted music set, "back-announced" by a stoned-sounding DJ: "...and bef ore that you heard Jimi Hendrix and before that the Doors and before that Deep Purple and before that It's A Beautiful Day and before that Iron Butterfly...and we started it off about a week and a half ago with the Moody Blues..." That style of announcing, which became a hallmark of WTUL, came just a couple of years later.

In 1971, prospective air staff members had to audition: they wanted people on the air who sounded like radio announcers. Thick New Joisey accents, southern twangs and the like were out. I guess you were supposed to sound like the guys on WLS, Chicago or WABC, New York--or a facsimile thereof. Anyway, I didn't make the first series of auditions, but still got to be the first voice on FM, as outlined above.

It was in the Spring of '72 that the first "Rock On Survival Marathon" took to the airwaves. Contrary to what people claim--this was the first station fund-raiser of its kind. Years earlier in the carrier-current AM days, a jock had done a 24-hour broadcast from a dorm shower with a condom-covered microphone and for some reason, THIS was used as the starting point for numbering the annual marathon event, but this was a separate broadcast altogether. If WTUL still does a marathon fund-raiser, which "annual" is it? It's been misnumbered for years. Y'see, if, before FM, the station survived on advertising, why would there have been a need for a fund-raiser? No big deal, but for years it would bug me: there'd be a big promotion for the "15th annual" ev ent for something that started only 10 years earlier or thereabouts. Again, no big deal...just historically inaccurate.

In around '73 I used to do a show late on Saturday nights first called "The Bob Dunn Show" (how bloody original!) and then later, "The Masta Don Bone Talent and Variety Show." There was no Masta Don Bone--just a semi-petrified rib-bone, reportedly that of a mastadon which my older sister had, ahem, liberated from the Art Dept. at Newcomb some years previously. The name just seemed appropriate. Anyway, the show--long before Dr. Demento or anyone else of his kind--was a weird mix of novelty records, live comedy skits, parody commercials, language instruction records, children's records (including some old 78 rpm disks), fake news reports, Firesign Theater, electronic music and whatever the hell else we thought might amuse us (to hell with the listene rs who, late on a Saturday night just wanted to hear Pink Floyd and King Crimson; oh we played such groups, we just mixed in nature recordings of wolves howling or sound effects records to augment them).

After the Masta Done Bone show, Jay Hollingsworth (former 'TUL Music Director, MAJOR record collector and seminal figure in bringing New Wave and punk music to the New Orleans airwaves, and I co-hosted a show called "Impedance" which was a showcase of electronic music, some of which sounded like today's "Hearts of Space," some of which sounded like trains derailing--basically gawdawful stuff, but we liked it.

About that same era, there was some criticism that WTUL, while licensed as an educational station, really offered no educational programming. Some of the faculty wanted 'TUL to be more like WWNO--more classical, highbrow stuff, less Grateful Dead. Either John Clemens (former News DirectorÜa remarkable writer, humorist, sharp-wit and great guy--a lifelong friend-- or I read somewhere that Radio Moscow was offering program tapes, free of charge, to any station that would air them. We signed up for some absolutely dreary classical music shows ("Music and Musicians") and began airing them nightly at around 7.

The trouble was, the tapes started to pile up and Radio Moscow expected us to return the programs after airing. The postage bills were getting ridiculous, the listeners were apathetic about the shows, and the air staff hated running them, so we decided to pull the plug on Radio Moscow. John got the bright idea that we would telephone Radio Moscow and speak with the person in charge of English programming to tell him we no longer needed the programs. We waited until it was late enough at night (our time) to reach Radio Moscow during their business hours and placed the call from the production studio where we could patch the phone into the console and record the call.

Remember now, this is pre-Glasnost, pre-Perestroika--still in the middle of the Cold War. Reagan hadn't yet come to power to declare the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire," but the Russkies were still considered to be the bad guys. We tried to get through to the right person at Radio Moscow, but there were language problems and phone line problems and we never got through. We all laughed at the lark of trying to telephone commies in the middle of the night until...we played back the tape of the call. After the call was hung up, the phone patch remained connected and captured two clear American male voices on the line:

Voice 1: "Did you get it?"

Voice 2: "Got it!"

We waited for guys with trench coats and dark glasses, strapping square-jawed Feds with tiny earphones to begin stalking the halls of the University Center, but it never happened. Still, I bet there's a file somewhere...


Bob Dunn

Production Manager, 1973

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