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It's Better Than Static

Station Manager Mindy Cohen ’04 (left) and Program Director Roz Vanderpool ’07 are on the air.

“Good Afternoon. This is WXAC, the voice of Albright College, 91.3 on your FM dial. WXAC is owned and operated by the students of Albright College as a service to the greater Reading community. We now begin our broadcast day.”

That’s how Philip Mossburg ’66 signed on to WXAC each day at 4 p.m. Immediately after the sign-on, the National Anthem played.

It was 1965, the year WXAC, originally called WALC*, was established.

“It actually started out of pure jealousy,” says Mossburg, the station’s first program director. “We had high school friends working at radio stations at larger schools, so one day we were sitting around at lunch and someone said, ‘let’s start a radio station.’ I think I remember throwing a roll at somebody,” he says laughing. “None of us knew how to even turn on a microphone. We had no experience at all.”

But with the help of Thurman Kremser, professor of physics, WXAC became a reality. “He went to the FCC, the Board of Trustees, then came back to us and the answer was yes! We didn’t believe it,” says Jack Ertell ’66, WXAC’s first news director.

With a 19 watt transmitter and a small studio located in the back of White Chapel, WXAC 640 AM, which was closed circuit and transmitted over the campus electric lines, had its first broadcast on September 8, 1965. The following year, 91.3 FM was added for the benefit of the greater Reading community playing music from rock ‘n’ roll to jazz, folk to classical. Radio plays performed by the Domino Players, interviews with the president and live coverage of sporting events also filled the airwaves. “We took the College into the life of the community,” says Mossburg. Although he notes, with only 19 watts, “People in Mt. Penn had trouble picking us up sometimes.”

Today, they don’t have any trouble at all. Now housed in the basement of the Administration Building, WXAC is 219 watts and can be heard as far away as Lebanon and Adamstown, Pa., every day from 9 a.m. to midnight, says Station Manager Mindy Cohen ’04.

Playing a wide range of music from metal to reggae, hip hop to alternative rock, WXAC receives approximately 50 to 60 fan letters a week, many from Berks County Prison. “We serve as a link between the inmates and their families,” says Cohen. “We do shout-outs for them and they really appreciate that.” Tuesday’s hardcore metal shows are the most popular, she notes.

WXAC also broadcasts in Spanish every day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Although Reading is nearly 40 percent Hispanic, WXAC is the only radio station in the Reading area to broadcast in Spanish. And most recently, in response to a request from the Berks County Association for the Blind, plans for a morning broadcast (8-9 a.m.) of local news for the visually impaired are also in the works.

The station has gone through a period of rejuvenation the last few years. WXAC recently acquired new equipment including CD players, a soundboard and microphones; is revamping the production room to allow for the ability to pre-produce shows and edit interviews; and is upgrading the office to give it a more professional look. Cohen, who says she’s grateful to the station’s underwriters for making these improvements possible, adds that they are also hoping to install an automation system so they can be on 24 hours a day and stream from the web so alumni can tune in at any time.

The technology has certainly changed since Mossburg and Ertell spun records and gathered news stories from a teletype machine 40 years ago. The teletype machine, says Ertell, “was this big typewriter with a big reel on it…we’re talking really old technology here,” he groans. “It had a bell in it and whenever it would go ding, ding, ding that meant something special was coming in…the really hot stories...” It was called the “rip and read,” says Mossburg. “Someone would literally rip it off, put it in front of you and you’d read it on the air,” a practice that Ertell notes was pretty risky. “You’d have to try to pronounce the names of foreign leaders. It led to a lot of dead air,” he says.

While today’s technology is more advanced and the types of music played throughout the years have changed, Cohen believes one thing has stayed the same. “College radio has always been on the cutting edge.” Mossburg and Ertell agree, recalling Ed Herr’s ’66 show titled “The Flipside of Midnight.” It was in the days of the 45, says Mossburg. There are only two songs on 45s, one on each side. One was the popular song that was played on mainstream radio. “Ed played all the songs on the back side, or the ‘flipside’ of the 45 that never got played. It was pretty inventive at the time,” says Mossburg.

Some shows, however, weren’t always popular with the Albright administration, says Ken Sturzenacker ’66, the station’s first business manager. Providing commentary and criticism on a variety of topics, including campus issues, he says, “The College president (Harry Masters) remarked at one point, ‘Those boys have an editorial bent that needs to be curbed.’” However, Sturzenacker notes, “I have no recollection of what we said that irritated him. I suspect it may have been a series of comments...”

Charles Kunz ’90, a self-proclaimed “radio geek,” says he loved “trying to do things that were interesting, different or unexpected.” In the late 80s, Kunz headlined “Dr. Chuck’s Bag of Comedy,” featuring comedic music and records such as Weird Al Yankovic and Bill Cosby. Impersonated mock interviews with celebrities and sing-a-longs to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” were highlights of the show, he says. “WXAC was this great ‘sandbox,’ free-form radio with many possibilities. It allowed me to do a show the way I wanted to, and I was happy to do it.”

Roz Vanderpool ’07, WXAC’s current program manager, says what she likes most about college radio is that “you can play all kinds of music. WMMR is just rock. Then you have your top 40 and soul stations. We have the benefit of playing it all,” she says. Vanderpool’s show features everything from 80s synth-pop to metal. “I try to stay away from whatever is really mainstream at the time because if a listener can turn to another station and hear the same thing they will,” she says.

As program manager, making sure the station remains FCC compliant is one of her most challenging tasks, one that the founding members in 1965 say they didn’t have to worry about. “We can play whatever we want, but we have to be so careful,” Vanderpool says. Expletives and questionable lyrical content are everywhere in today’s music. Before a new CD is used, it must be reviewed and any inappropriate tracks clearly marked on the CD. “We definitely don’t want to send out the wrong message, especially at 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon when the kid down the street is listening.”

For many former (and current) WXAC staff members, the experience not only provided an outlet for their creativity and passion for music, but served as an important learning tool as well.

Andrew Harris ’04, who recently completed his first year at Harvard Divinity School, says his experience as a WXAC DJ, program director and executive board member gave him the opportunity to learn lessons about effective leadership. “The station is responsible to the students of Albright who help fund it, the trustees who hold the license, the College who helps fund it, the FCC who can revoke the license, and ultimately to the listeners. With so many different constituencies that must be kept happy, WXAC creates an ideal situation to grow as a leader as one helps the station fulfill obligations to each party.”

Mossburg agrees. “This was really the first time we had a real set of responsibilities. For someone who’s 20, 21 who’s never really done that before…it was really something.”

For Philip Mossburg, Jack Ertell, Ken Sturzenacker and the entire WXAC staff, thank you for listening to WXAC, the voice of Albright College. This concludes our broadcast day. Good night.

* The original letters were changed in September 1965 after it was discovered that they were the same as the Alcoa Steamship Lines.

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reporter contents :: albright college