Requiem for a Radio Station
When I heard the news that Wheaton College (IL) had sold its campus radio station WETN-FM to an outside owner, it was like hearing the news that a friend who had been in ill health for a while had been involuntarily euthanized. That may seem overly dramatic, but for anyone who has been a part of a college radio station — especially this one — it’s appropriate.
WETN played a significant role in my Wheaton experience, as it did for hundreds of students during it’s 69-year run. Some learned to write news copy. Others learned radio production — whether with a razor blade or a computer mouse. Some announced music, while others provided play-by-play sports coverage. Some sold underwriting, and others coordinated chapel broadcasts, which had been a staple of the radio station for years, three times a week.
Regardless of what role we played, we all have fond memories of early mornings or late nights in the studios of WETN, whether it was housed in Pierce Chapel, Breyer Hall, or most recently in the basement of the Billy Graham Center. The opportunity to use the airwaves of WETN was always a privilege because it meant representing Wheaton to the community and, in recent years, the world. Just as athletes who step onto a playing field or a musician who walks onto a performance stage, broadcasting on WETN was a rewarding experience that taught lessons we have carried with us throughout our lives. Our experiences at WETN are as diverse as the vocational paths that we have followed since leaving Wheaton.
It’s unfortunate that in year in which Wheaton has suffered some terrible PR — some of it self-inflicted and some of it undeserved — that this would be the capstone. While colleges all across the country are expanding their radio broadcasting programs, Wheaton is choosing to sell an asset that could have provided an incredible academic and institutional resource. Anyone who is paying attention to these trends would see schools like Hillsdale, Olivet Nazarene, North Central College, Northwestern University, and Loyola University all housing vibrant and thriving radio stations, each uniquely filling a role for students and the larger university community. Wheaton, however, appears to be reading the landscape differently.
I’ve spent nearly twenty years in the broadcasting industry — a vocation for which I was well-prepared by Wheaton and WETN. This is a space to which I pay close attention, and I can say with certainty and authority that radio is alive and well. Recent data shows that, in America, radio continues to reach 93% of adults on a weekly basis — more than TV, smartphones, and PCs. The over 15,000 radio stations in the country account for nearly $20 billion in total revenue for the industry. These statistics do not take into account the exploding arena of podcasts, which are re-imagining the medium of radio in the digital age.
And what about those college students, those Millenials who have allegedly eschewed traditional radio for other platforms? Turns out, that’s just not the case. According to Nielsen, “Millennials hold the majority when it comes to the number of weekly radio listeners by generation in the U.S.”
In an article in the Wheaton Record, the student newspaper (for now), a campus administrator suggested that the College has already begun shifting media content into digital platforms, leaving terrestrial radio to languish. The sale of the radio station would free up space and resources for the Academic and Instructional Technology department, which, according to Dale Kemp, vice president for finance and treasurer at the college, would, “ create a culture focused on efficiency, excellence, process improvement and teamwork.”
If that sounds like institutional bureaucratic doublespeak to you, that’s because it is. It reflects a mentality within the institution that liberal arts, rather than focusing on the good, the beautiful, and the true, must be more concerned with the efficient, the cost-effective, and the productive.
I don’t profess to understand the intricacies of the economics of the College, and while I understand that the College must be discerning in what programs and projects it funds, it’s stunning to me that, at a place like Wheaton, the desire and means to continue operating a radio station no longer exist.
Wheaton enjoys a substantive Communication department, a highly-esteemed conservatory of music, a competitive athletics program, and a schedule of enriching chapel services each year. All of these initiatives have been supplemented and enhanced by their relationship with WETN over the years. It’s sad and disappointing to see a resource like WETN slip away with so little regard. It’s as if the College didn’t believe that anyone cared about it or benefited from it. It simply became another budget line item that had long been viewed as a liability rather than an asset. What’s so infuriating is that the College let the station go for a mere $150,000 and sold it to a third party that has absolutely no local ties to the community. It’s insult layered upon injury.
As this chapter in both the College’s and my own personal history comes to a close, I’ve chosen to reflect on the many people I met and had the chance to work with at WETN over the years.
I remember guys like station manager Dave Houk, who would go on to become an ordained Episcopal priest. It’s a path similar to the one taken by sports directors Brian From and Ryan Kron, both of whom are now ordained pastors.
I remember helpless radio geek Dave Trout, who now runs a non-profit ministry promoting quality Christian music. Dave did just about every on-air shift at WETN, and his afternoon show with Amy Ensz was must-listen, circa 1996. Dave remains an extraordinary dedicated and creative mind.
I remember other gifted on-air communicators like Kerry McGee, Jeff Cunningham, Tim Martin, and Geoff Sheehy — all of whom followed paths into the field of education.
I remember the baritone voice of Dave Brewer, which truly was a gift of God, which Dave has gone on to use as a voiceover artist.
I remember grad students like Doug Kimball and Jeremy Tracey whose enthusiasm and passion for radio were infectious, as they were as eager to be a part of WETN as us undergrads.
I remember Heather Skold as the unflinchingly upbeat morning news anchor who is now a television news anchor in Colorado Springs.
It was through WETN that I met audio savants Brian Porick and Matt Gruett, as well as a frequent partner in crime, Michael Rivet.
There are so many other names who found a home at WETN during our time at Wheaton— Dave Swartz, Aaron Groote, Evan Lensz, Josh Hall, Pete Flitton, Dave Tebbe, Brad Pihl.
I am incredibly grateful to the staff and faculty members who invested in WETN because they believed in it. People like Artie Terry, Dennis Okholm, and the late John Fawcett. I remember the endless hours “Uncle Christmas” Larry Eskridge would devote to the annual month-long Christmas programming. I remember Joy Trieglaff, Denise Donndelinger, and Kelley Robbins who all three loved WETN as a family. I’m grateful for Mark Bartlebaugh, radio geek and all-around great guy, who funneled his passion for radio into WETN during his time as station manager.
I also recognize that each us stands on the shoulders of giants, those who have come before us to make the way clear and straight. To that end I am grateful for men like Joe Davis, a long-time radio executive with Salem Communications; Wes Bleed, former news director at WGN; and the legendary Dr. Edwin A. Hollatz, whose vision and passion for broadcasting birthed WETN in 1947 and whose dedication to the craft trained generations of communicators.
I remember lots of long hours with my roommate Jon Peterson and our good friend Andy McCauley, learning all that we could in the studios of WETN. No job was beneath us. No task was too small or inconsequential. From early morning church broadcasts, to late night music release parties at the college bookstore, to all-night remotes from MSC, we did it all.
It’s at WETN where I was exposed to the music of Rich Mullins, Caedmon’s Call, Sixpence None the Richer, and Andrew Peterson. I had the pleasure of meeting all of them as they would pass through Wheaton and drop-in on WETN over the years.
I’m sure there are names that I’ve missed, as memories have faded over time, and if there’s anyone I’ve left out, please forgive me. There were so many who made such an impact through WETN during those years.
It’s easy for outsiders to tell Wheaton how it should conduct itself, and often, that unsolicited advice can come across as overly critical or even hostile. But I’m not an outsider. I hold Wheaton in high esteem, despite it’s shortcomings and missteps. But the disappointment I feel now over this decision comes more from the fact that so many students, so many alumni, and so many friends of the College will be losing a piece of the Wheaton culture that has contributed — and could continue to contribute — so much to life of the institution.
I’m grateful for so many rich memories and the ways in which WETN prepared me for my vocation. I hope that each us who has been a part of WETN can continue to carry on a little bit of what the station has meant to us wherever our paths may lead us.