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Remembering the Days — Left of the dial and right in your ear: the history of WUSC-FM

Remembering the Days - episode 83

WUSC-FM got its start in 1947, providing a training ground for generations of DJs, radio engineers and station managers. Students are still eager to be WUSC DJs, but the motivation today is more focused on sharing a personal passion for music. 


Monday through Friday, Ethan Nicholas is a mechanical engineering student at USC, going to class, studying hard and looking forward to his senior year. But on Thursday mornings from 9 to 10, Ethan Nicholas takes on a different persona …

[DJ radio chatter]

Ethan, aka DJ Bloom, is one of nearly 200 deejays at WUSC-FM, the University of South Carolina’s radio station that’s been broadcasting since 1947.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at how WUSC got started and how the station has changed over the decades.

[radio promo]

There are at least 600 college radio stations across the country today, and some of them, like WUSC, got their start in the late 1940s when the Federal Communications Commission began offering noncommercial education licenses for radio.

Surplus transmitter parts left over from World War II helped put WUSC on the air early in 1947. Engineers used a process called "carrier current" to send the radio signal through the university’s electrical wiring system. Students could plug a radio into an on-campus outlet to hear WUSC programming, which, in those early years, consisted of "music to study by" — mainly classical music — along with an early morning devotional show and coverage of student body meetings.

The original studio for the station was in a small brick building that had been used as slave quarters on campus before the Civil War.  You can still see that building located right beside the President's House on the Horseshoe. In the 1950s, the studio was moved to Rutledge College on the Horseshoe, and a few years later it moved to the Russell House, where it still operates today.

In the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s especially, hundreds of students worked as DJs or support personnel at WUSC, preparing for professional careers in radio.

Rick Wrigley was a freshman majoring in engineering in 1963 when he signed on as a DJ at WUSC.

Rick Wrigley: “When I came to the university under a naval ROTC scholarship, I had no idea that there was a radio station here. And I ran into a fellow by the name of Steve Rakowski, who was at the time the program director here at WUSC. And he told me about the station, and I came over here and got hooked. The next, I think it was the following Friday, I wound up doing my first show.”

Rick was still a newbie at the station later that semester when tragedy struck the nation.

Rick Wrigley: “I was walking across the old Davis Field. I heard somebody yell: ‘They they killed Kennedy!’ And I was like, 'Holy cow!' And I started running toward my room across Davis Field, to get to a radio to find out what was going on. I said, 'Wait a minute. I got it better than that.' I turned around and came up here to the station, and we had three teletype machines, UPI, weather, AP, and the UPI and AP machines were going 'bang bang bang bang bang bang' and bells ringing, and it was just insane.

“We decided we would stay on the air, but we would limit ourselves to playing somber music and the news and station identifications. And just basically, this is what we're doing. We're playing somber music.”

The mid-1970s brought a major change to WUSC. The carrier current method of distributing the station’s signal was discarded, and in its place a 20-foot antenna was attached to the top of Columbia Hall. WUSC was broadcasting its signal with a whopping 10 watts of power. The station could finally be heard off campus.

Frank McCain was a high school student in Columbia at the time.

Frank McCain: “I'd been listening to WUSC-FM since they started broadcasting freely over the air in the spring of ‘77 when we were in high school here in Columbia. And since it was such a unique station, so fun, and the music was so distinct and unheard elsewhere, it was fun to listen to. And when I started at Carolina, I certainly listened to it.”

Frank became a student DJ — Freewheelin’ Frank as he was known — in 1983, the same year the station boosted its signal strength to 3,000 watts and changed its frequency to 90.5 where it’s been ever since. The power boost introduced WUSC programming to a much bigger audience that was eager for alternative music not getting airplay on commercial stations.

Introducing listeners to new music remains a core mission for WUSC, which today has nearly 200 student DJs who are eager to serve up an eclectic musical mix. Unlike their predecessors from long ago, most of those students aren’t aiming to work in radio after they graduate. I asked Evie Ellis, the student station manager, why DJ positions at WUSC are still so popular.

Evie Ellis: “It's a desire to share, I think. So our mission statement is to educate the listener and the DJ, and it's people who are passionate about sharing music with other people and really not only having that passion, but really wanting other people to experience music the way that they do. But there are, you know, 193 of us. So all together it's 193 different ways to experience music.”

“You’re listening to 90.5 FM, left of the dial and right in your ear.”

That’s Brent Riley, or to use his WUSC DJ name, Brent “Stud Dog” Riley, who was a freshman at Carolina in 1989 and quickly joined the radio station’s DJ corps. He DJ’d a show every year he was in college until his last semester when he became a substitute teacher. After that he was an alumni DJ every summer from 1994 to 2005.

Brent says all that experience as a DJ — speaking into the void and hoping someone is listening — helped prepare him for a lifelong career in teaching high school English.

Brent Riley: “I like, I guess, the showman aspect of it, which is also like teaching, you know, getting up and saying things to see the reaction you get. I guess there's, there's that. But it's odd in the sense that there is no feedback like, you can't hear if a joke lands, you know. But I think that might have helped me out as a teacher because high school students are not laughing at jokes as you can probably imagine. But through my radio experience, I know just to to plow through it, you know, like, I think it's funny. And sure enough, I find out after these students graduate or when their younger brothers come in that they did actually appreciate all the jokes, it's just, uh, it wasn't outward.

“I did a year as a virtual teacher, and I found out that my radio stuff helped out a lot because at that time they didn't require the students to be on camera. So really, I was just talking like, I don't know if anybody was listening, but through the radio, I just kind of treated it like that way. And I think it kind of helped out maybe the one or two that was listening.”

Brent’s daughter Arden is a student at USC and, like father, like daughter, she’s a WUSC DJ.

Clair de Lune was never a student DJ at WUSC, but years ago she was working as a student advisor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication when some of her student advisees encouraged her to become a DJ, too.

Clair de Lune: “I'm big in blues. And so they were like, you got to come down and do the blues show.  I had always loved blues, but I just didn't think there was as much to it as rock. Oh dear Lord, was I wrong. That was an education for me, really.”

Clair dug in and discovered a much deeper reservoir of blues music than she had ever imagined. Her show, “The Blues Moon with Clair de Lune,” attracted a large and loyal audience for 30 years, and Clair acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of American blues musicians.

She parlayed that into a book, South Carolina Blues, published in 2015, and she went on to teach several courses at USC about blues music and other music-related topics.

Clair de Lune: “The regular faculty didn't think those courses would have rigor or merit, and I made my courses harder than hell. I had an engineering student say, ‘It's the hardest course I've ever taken. And I'm an engineering major, lady.’ And I went, ‘Well, did you get anything out of it?’ He says, ‘Best course I ever took.’ So, you know, the kids loved it. I loved the kids. They were just great.  

"But it's the only course at USC that I think required you to go into a smoky bar and do your research. So there was that — 90 percent of them were already there. They might as well write a paper and get some good out of it.”

Before we sign off on this brief history of WUSC-FM, let’s go back to Rick Wrigley, the student who became a DJ in 1963. Rick got a job at WCOS radio before he even graduated and went on to work at WIS television and radio and South Carolina ETV. Since 2007, he’s been back on the air as an alumnus DJ at WUSC, with an oldies show that features music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

[radio promo]

It's called “The Backbeat Show,” and you can tune in every Monday from 10 a.m. until noon at 90.5 FM or on the web.

Rick Wrigley: “So what I do is bring back long lost oldies that most people don't remember. I mean, there's a lot of great songs that never made it to the Billboard. So my restriction is I can't play anything that was on the top 40 in the last 40 years.”

Rick has an extensive library of oldies tunes that allows him to do something most radio stations abandoned years ago.

Rick Wrigley: “I've got about 50,000 oldies with me so I can take requests from the audience, which is something else we used to do back in the day that you don't see so much anymore. So it stays it stays pretty busy. And I think that's something that again, brings us back to what radio was. It was social media for the '60s and '70s — '50s, '60s and '70s. There was no internet. There was no other way for folks to communicate except through requests on the radio.”

If you want to expand your musical tastes, WUSC is the place to do it — any time you tune in, you’ll find something new on the menu.

[radio promo]

On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going to look back at the history of the Maxcy Monument on the Horseshoe and at Carolina’s first president for whom it’s named. We’ll also have a special guest on that episode so I hope you can listen in.

Thanks for listening today, and forever to thee.