EMU radio station celebrates 40 years of broadcasting
YPSILANTI - You've come a long way, baby.
WEMU 89.1 FM, Eastern Michigan University's public radio station, started in 1965 as a 10-watt radio station — originally shoehorned in a television production room in the Quirk Building — that was on the air only two hours a day. It has evolved into a 16,000-watt, 24-hour station that is a favorite stop for jazz music entusiasts in southeastern Michigan.
WEMU, which has become a prime sponsor of many local music festivals over time, celebrates its 40 anniversary this week. To celebrate that auspicious milestone, WEMU employees will host an open house for faculty and staff Thursday, Dec. 8. Station tours will be offered every half hour, beginning at 9 a.m. and running through 4 p.m. in 426 King Hall.
"Even though we're at EMU and our primary market is Ann Arbor, Detroit thinks EMU is their jazz station," said Linda Yohn, an 18-year veteran of WEMU who hosts the "Jazz in the Morning" program and is the station's program manager/music director.
"In my association with other (radio station managers) and what I've heard of other stations around the country, this is a pretty rare jewel in public radio stations," said WEMU Station General Manager/Director Art Timko. "The NPR president has been here a number of times and sees it as special. Listeners do, too."
"It's important for people on campus to know that our influence extends beyond the borders of Ypsilanti and that we're a solid, positive ambassador for Eastern in other areas," said Molly Motherwell, marketing/development director at WEMU.
When WEMU started as part of a broadcasting program in the department of communication and theatre arts, students played classical music and taped programs from 5-7 p.m. weekdays within a small studio that was the control room for the television production. Those hours were available because that was the only time broadcast majors weren't using the audiovisual console equipment, Timko said.
Within a year or two, the fledgling station moved to another wing of the Quirk Building, residing in room 129.
"When I joined in 1967, we were on the air from 3-10:30 p.m. weekdays. We also broadcast EMU football and men's basketball, which I think is one of the primary reasons the University wanted a station," Timko said.
By 1969, WEMU applied for a power increase that would take the station from 10 to 16,000 watts. However, due to FCC rules and airwave conflicts with the University of Michigan and local radio and television stations,
WEMU was not able to amp up until Oct. 16, 1977. The station was able to do so using a directional signal, one that would not conflict with the University of Michigan's station and limited power toward Detroit in an effort to protect signals from Canadian radio stations, Timko said.
During 1977, another major milestone occurred: WEMU became a member of National Public Radio (NPR).
While waiting for that wattage increase, the station increased its broadcast hours to 19 a day after it moved to its permanent King Hall location in fall 1974.
The station's genesis continued, in part, thanks to Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.), an ardent supporter of EMU today. In the late 1970s, Dingell was part of a group of legislators who established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The CPB's role was to provide grant money to university or college radio stations that would help such stations transform into full-fledged community radio stations. To qualify for grant funding, these stations had to meet certain conditions. These included: broadcasting at least 18 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; and having at least five full-time employees.
WEMU qualified. By this time, the station was on the air from 6 a.m.-1 a.m., or 19 hours per day.
"This was to encourage educational stations to become real radio stations," Timko said. "Not something that just operated at the discretion of the University, but something that could be a real source for the community."
"We've really grown up. We really took 89.1 FM to another level in the late 1980s and early 1990s," Yohn said. "We made sure that people knew this was no longer a college radio station. We streamlined and restructured our scheduling to be more in line with the way that we know people would prefer to listen to the radio."
While it was bolstering its staff and reorganizing its format, WEMU also was building its reputation as a signature jazz station. In addition to its various jazz programming and frequent guest artists, WEMU began to branch out into the community, sponsoring and broadcasting the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival (now the Detroit International Jazz Festival) and Frog Island Festival (now defunct) as well as broadcasting live from the annual Ypsilanti Heritage Festival.
"People are very loyal and have pet causes and organizations. When they see an organization reach out to help their organizations, it solidifies the loyalty of the listener," Motherwell said.
And that loyalty has kept WEMU viable. When the state of Michigan experienced a major economic downturn in the early 1980s, EMU's administration cut WEMU's operating budget from $275,000 to approximately $150,000 beginning with the 1982 budget, Timko said. As a compromise, the University said it would match whatever WEMU could raise from pledges to bolster its budget.
"We had a goal to raise $20,000 and we raised $40,000. It was a nice surprise," Timko said. "The University did that (match funds) for two years. Then they stopped because they said we raised too much."
Today, WEMU raises more than $500,000 annually from its combined pledge drives to cover operating expenses and consistently receives the highest amount of funding from EMU's annual faculty/staff campaign, Motherwell said.
A large part of WEMU's quality is its niche coverage, providing detailed traffic reports and construction hot spots along major arteries such as I-94, I-23, M-14 and Washtenaw Avenue. The station also devotes more coverage than most to local school board, county commission and local city council meetings.
Still, the station's listeners recognize its musical quality and have voted WEMU the best radio station for music in the Ann Arbor News' Readers' Choice Awards for the past two years.
Some of the prestigious guests that have stopped by the booth through the years have included Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis, documentarian Ken Burns and the late Don Canham, a former NCAA high jump champion, teacher, administrator, businessman and visionary who helped found the field of sports management.
"I think it always has to stay connected to the local community," he said. "Even if (listeners) don't like jazz, they can be comfortable coming to us to listen to what happened in the news, at the local school board meeting and traffic construction updates."
For more information about the open house, call 487-2229.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their careers and lives, and to be better citizens.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.
Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.