Remembering WCAL

The St. Olaf College radio station WCAL was a pioneer in broadcasting.  It went on the air as an experimental licensee 9YAJ in November 1918, as soon as the ban on radio transmission was lifted after World War I.  In 1922 it became WCAL and was, arguably, the first listener supported station in the US in 1924 when, in a financial pinch, it asked listeners and students to contribute.  From 1928 to 1954 it was completely listener supported with no help from St. Olaf College.  In 1949 it had more than 60,000 index cards with the names of donors.  WCAL was on 770 kHz (AM) and shared time with KUOM in Minneapolis.

WCAL FM went on the air twice.  In 1948 it was a pioneer FM station; the idea was to support it commercially.  That didn’t work.  WCAL was ahead of its time.  The station was active only for a year or two. In 1967 WCAL-FM returned to the air as a 100 KW non-commercial station on 89.3.    As a student I helped build that station and wrote several sections of the FCC application including an ascertainment of community needs.  The experience that Suzi, Sandie Anderson, Dave Molvik, Dale Constantine and I had in putting WCAL FM on the air gave us the skills to build KAXE in 1976.

In 1991 WCAL AM, 770 handed over its shared part of the AM frequency to KUOM in exchange for the ability to put its FM antenna on University property closer to the Twin Cities to give WCAL better urban coverage.  To compensate for the loss of signal to the south, St. Olaf College built KMSE in Rochester, MN.

On my birthday (November 21, 2004) St. Olaf College transferred WCAL to Minnesota Public Radio to become KCMP, “The Current.”  While I applaud MPR’s move to reach a younger listenership I mourned the loss of the station where I learned my craft.  I pretty much broke off relations with St. Olaf College.  I was angry and hurt by the way the college handled the handover.

Slowly I re-engaged with the college.  I attended the Christmas Festival last year after more than a decade absence from the campus.  Suzi, Brian, Kevin, Shannon, Liam and I visited St. Olaf this week and I entered the WCAL building for the first time since the station went dark.  I was not sure how I would feel.  It brought back so many memories.

When I entered the building I saw the Master Control Room (Studio E) clock.  Every morning I would tune in WWV on a short wave radio, set a stopwatch at the minute beep, go to the master clock and, if it were off, post a big +2 or -1 sign on the glass to show that the clock was off by that number of seconds.  Then with the stop watch I reset the clocks in every studio, A through H, while the old tube AM transmitter warmed up.  At 5:58:40 the transmitter went on and the National Anthem spun on a turntable in Studio D.

The building was made with each studio having separate foundations set in bedrock.  These studios were soundproof.  Studio A was an auditorium studio where there were organ recitals and from which we broadcast Norwegian language church services.  Studio B was its control Room.

Today Studio A has a fine organ and is used for organ recitals and other student performances.  Studio B, its control room, is fully digital and records the recitals for students use and to post on the St. Olaf Multimedia website  Studio C is also a new digital control room, three years old, where staff and students produce recitals, concerts and St. Olaf chapel services for web casting.  There is a video link from Studio C to Boe Chapel so it can serve as the control room for events in there.  Studio D is still the main announce studio where St. Olaf’s weekly production of church music “Sing for Joy” is voiced.  It can also host roundtable discussions for webcast.  Other studios?  Well Studio H has a rehearsal pipe organ.  There are other rehearsal organs sited in the building using the building’s unique sound isolating construction.  The studio suite is still dedicated to Milford C. Jensen, “The Boss,” who was my mentor and served that role for generations of broadcasters.

Visiting the building was somewhat healing.  The studios are in use.  St. Olaf is still “broadcasting” events and music from the college, although not the inventive and adventuresome stream of Classical Music 24 hours a day that I treasured.  I can almost convince myself that St. Olaf, in dropping the FM station and going to the web, is following the tradition of innovation it showed in 1918, 1922, 1948, 1967 and in 1991 when it dropped AM to concentrate exclusively on FM.   I hope that in four years, in 2018, St. Olaf has the grace to celebrate 100 years of mass communications via AM, FM and the web, to celebrate the call letters WCAL and to honor the pioneers, Hector Skifter, David Johnson, Milford C. Jenson and Paul Peterson, who were leaders in St. Olaf communications and mentors to many of us in communications today.


8 thoughts on “Remembering WCAL

  1. Many thanks, Rich, for the article and photos! Paul Peterson is truly one of the finest people I’ve ever known. I still miss having WCAL on the air. I imagine there will always be an empty spot there in my mind and heart.

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