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Left of the dial

By James Tobin

40 years of alternative programming at WCBN-FM

No monkey business was tolerated in the prehistoric era of student radio at U-M.

The old Campus Broadcasting Network of the 1950s and ’60s was a placid, public-service-y operation that broadcast Glee Club concerts and football games. The signal went only by wire to dorm rooms, and the rules might have been written by a sorority house mother.

The early-’60s staff manual warned the on-air talent to “refrain from ‘editorializing’ about the practices, procedures, or services of the University, unless the comment is in a positive vein … especially in dealing with the University food service,” and “any statement over the air that [was], in any way, profane, obscene, indecent, or suggestive” was “grounds for immediate dismissal.” It was even considered “in bad taste to play records at the wrong speed for the sake of novelty.”

Cover of vintage wcbn comic

This homespun WCBN comic book captures the essence of college radio in the ’70s. (Comic book courtesy of Tavi Fulkerson.)

Any remnant of that regime was gone for good on Jan. 23, 1972, when WCBN-FM went on the air—a real, over-the-airwaves radio station broadcasting at 10 ambitious watts around the clock all week long. A campus raised on the rock revolution now had its own student deejays competing for the student ear. They eagerly took on not only the staid format of classical music and news at WUOM, the official “voice of the University of Michigan,” but every pop-schlock station from Detroit to Toledo to Kalamazoo.

They made the most of it. Studios in the basement of the Student Activities Building were renovated and re-equipped in 1973, and the station began to broadcast in stereo. Inside its little listening area, a serious alternative to Top 40 radio was on the rise. (An AM counterpart, WRCN, kept broadcasting to the dorms with a format of strictly “’60s Gold.”)

From the start, WCBN took itself seriously as the music aficionado’s alternative to commercial rock radio. “What radio stations have to do more than almost anything else is to teach,” said Mark Lloyd, a program director of the early ’70s. “If you get to the point where you’re just throwing junk out there for people to listen to over and over and over again, you’re not teaching anybody anything.” A writer for the underground Ann Arbor Sun praised WCBN’s “abiding appreciation for the intelligence and adventurousness of Ann Arbor listeners.”

WCBN lobby in the 70s.

The WCBN lobby then. (Image courtesy of Tavi Fulkerson.)

WCBN lobby now.

And in a bit of deja vu: The WCBN lobby now. (Image courtesy of Tavi Fulkerson.)

A listener who kept the radio tuned to CBN around the clock heard a little of practically everything. (The station, originally broadcast left of the dial at 89.5-FM, now lives even further left at 88.3-FM.)

“The place was a bit of a pit, but I’m not sure I’d want to change it.”—Tavi Fulkerson

In 1974, for instance, the morning music block bowed to mass taste with light rock and country—the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers. After lunch the sound shifted to progressive rock—Pink Floyd or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. In the evening the big block was rhythm and blues. After midnight came modern jazz. In “free-form” blocks, the mix was jarringly eclectic, shifting from an Elvis oldie to “Hello, Dolly!” to Beethoven’s “Ninth.” Between the music, one heard not the robotic talk machines of commercial radio but real students—irreverent, quirky, occasionally sophomoric, and seldom observant of the earlier standards of good taste. Yet high culture also found a home on CBN.

“You are not in any way restricted to music on vinyl,” read a mid-’70s training manual. “Spoken word and other non-musical material provides some of the most pleasant radio experiences possible. Think of your own experiences as a listener. The miracles of magnetic tape, live performances, poetry, and text-sound combinations—the entire sound-world is at your disposal.”

The station gave plenty of air time to fervent talk about public affairs. “I remember playing antiwar songs as a music bed while Greg Bowman and Lee Van Ameyde read the draft lottery numbers off the UPI ticker,” wrote Ron Humenny in a recent collection assembled by WCBN alums to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the station’s shift to commercial air. Today Humenny is owner of the Starfire Companies, a tax planning and investment management firm.

Tavi at the mic

Student deejay Tavi Fulkerson recalls hanging out with John Sinclair shortly after he was released from prison. “He liked jazz like I did,” she says. Today, Fulkerson runs her own marketing firm, the Fulkerson Group. (Image courtesy of Tavi Fulkerson.)

Early programming included a show called “Black Edition,” which dealt with African-American issues. “The Women’s Tour” ventured into feminism. In an era when “gay liberation” was still a radical notion, WCBN talked about it. Students across the campus voiced their opinions during “Talkback,” a phone-in show.

To the regular listener, CBN’s special charm was the frequent interruption of the utterly unpredictable. Josh Pachter, a mid-’70s deejay, related one such moment in the 40th anniversary “scrapbook.”

“I remember announcing one night that I was going to light what was either a bomb or a smoke pot at midnight in order to find out what it was,” said Pachter, who now teaches at Northern Virginia Community College and the University of Maryland. “Come midnight, I flicked a lighter next to the mic, put on a sound-effect record of a nuclear explosion, shut down the transmitter and left.”

Humenny also reflected on the staff’s youthful—and basically harmless—form of anti-establishment rebellion. “We would sign on the station in the middle of the night before there was an overnight show—just because we felt like it.”

Not every memory of student radio in that era was pleasant. But even a bad memory can be put to good use.

In 1972 senior Anne Doyle parlayed her experience at WCBN into an internship across the street at WUOM. On her first day, a veteran male broadcaster stopped her at the newsroom door, pointed to a line on the floor, and said: “Do you see this line? Don’t you cross it. Don’t come in here to answer the phone, to read the news wires, or to put something on my desk. There is no place in a newsroom for a woman.”

WCBN poster by Gary Grimshaw.

Renowned Detroit artist Gary Grimshaw created this early poster to promote WCBN. (Image courtesy of Tavi Fulkerson.)

Chagrined but unbowed, Doyle stuck it out at WUOM, and her experience there and at WCBN led to broadcasting jobs in Grand Rapids, Los Angeles, and Detroit. At WJBK-TV she covered the major Detroit teams and became the first woman in broadcasting to conduct an interview in a pro football locker room. For what she did to change the perception of women covering sports, she was named to the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2007.

Doyle was too classy to note that the man who wanted no women in newsrooms is not counted among her fellow inductees.

“The only thing I could do in 1972 was prove him wrong,” she wrote recently, “which I and thousands of other female journalists did.”

The station has remained iconoclastic in the years since it first beamed beyond campus. (When Ronald Reagan was elected president, for instance, WCBN broadcast Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” for 18 hours straight.) But for the founders of CBN’s FM age, the early years on the air were an unrepeatable era.

“I can’t think of what I’d change,” New York-based entrepreneur Gary Kreissman reflected in the 40th anniversary booklet. “CBN was really at the heart of what I liked about U of M.”

A collection of WCBN/WRCN records is held by U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University. For the story "Hair down to there," he delivered this alternate profile picture to showcase his own long locks, circa 1974,