Monday, July 7, 2014

Fifty years of WUAG

WUAG, the FM radio station licensed to UNCG, took to the airwaves on July 6, 1964, for its first test broadcast at 89.9 MHz, a frequency which had been abandoned by Greensboro's Grimsley High School. The new station aired a mix of classical music, news, and educational programming, broadcasting with a paltry ten watts of power. Operated by the Department of Radio and Television (now Media Studies) under the direction of Bill Young, WUAG was not originally a student enterprise. The station began regular operations on September 21, 1964, and was on the air from 11AM to 11PM daily.

WUAG classical program schedule, 1964
Four years later, the UNCG Student Government Association, aided by the Western Electric Company College Gift Program, established a student-run radio station focused on popular music and news. WEHL, which signed on in spring of 1969, was an AM carrier-current station--its signal was transmitted via the university's electrical wiring rather than over the air--and had its studios on the second floor of Elliott Hall (now Elliott University Center).

In the spring of 1971, WUAG signed off due to budgeting and other issues. The University ultimately transferred control of the FM frequency to students. WUAG replaced WEHL as UNCG's student-run station in September, 1973, emphasizing contemporary rock, jazz, and folk music. The musical format was described as "progressive rock" and featured artists and songs outside the "Top 40" mainstream. The first general manager of the new station was Gary Kofinas, a student from Charlotte.

Discussions began in the late 1970s about the future of WUAG. Federal regulations stated that the station could not renew its license as a ten-watt station. UNCG considered upgrading the power to between one thousand and twenty thousand watts and eliminating the student-programmed popular music format in favor of classical music and/or an NPR affiliation. Station manager Butch Fuller went on record in a 1979 Carolinian article as being opposed to the latter option.

WUAG promotional sticker, ca. 1980
By the time of the station's license renewal in 1981, however, the university had delayed its decision so long that no frequency that would allow a power increase was available. FCC regulations did allow the station to continue broadcasting at 106.1 MHz provided there was no impact on any existing commercial broadcaster and no power increase, a fact that worked to the advantage of the student staff as this conditional low-power status removed NPR affiliation as a possibility. Promotional announcements in 1981 and 1982 announced the frequency change and a new brand: "The Music 106."

At about this same time, WUAG entered into an agreement with the Department of Broadcasting and Cinema (now Media Studies) which essentially made it a semiautonomous part of the department. Authority was transferred from the University Media Board, a student organization, to the new University Station Advisory Board, which included students and faculty. The arrangement provided funding for the station and permitted it to host internships but also allowed it to keep focused on its mission of providing alternative music programming featuring a mix of local and emerging artists such as R.E.M., Lets Active, and the Violent Femmes.

Student working in the new WUAG studios, 1984
At the same time, the station strove for a more "professional" sound than some college stations, emphasizing a new level of musical consistency, news and sports programming, 24-hour broadcasting, and staying on the air during breaks and holidays. A 1983 ratings report stated that WUAG was the Triad's top noncommercial station and was actually outperforming several area commercial stations even with its power constraints.

Another benefit of the partnership resulted in the station's 1984 move from its home in Elliott University Center to new facilities in Taylor Building, which provided expanded news, production, and office space. Program Director Duncan Brown initiated the first broadcast from the new studios on Saturday, February 4, 1984, by playing the song "New Toy" by Lene Lovich.

CD release party flier, 2006
By 1991, interference with stations in Raleigh and Salisbury had necessitated another frequency shift, this time to 103.1 MHz. In 1994, the station also began publishing the Dead City Radio zine, profiling alternative musicians such as Polvo and Superchunk. By the late 1990s, WUAG was online with a streaming audio signal that could be heard worldwide, and was also sponsoring local music events and releasing local music compilations on CD.

For most of its history, WUAG had been managed by student employees, some of whom were paid a small salary or stipend. In 2003, Jack Bonney, a former student worker, was hired as the station's first full-time general manager, ushering in a new era of stability for the station. Bonney's position was eliminated due to budget cuts in 2011, shortly after the station moved to its new home in the renovated Brown Building, which was also home to the Media Studies Department. As of 2014, WUAG is once again a student-run radio station, although a close relationship with Media Studies continues.

For more information, please see the WUAG Digital Exhibit that is part of UNCG Digital Collections.

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