The Early Days of WREK
Editor’s note: Larry Griggers worked at WREK during 1968-1971, when the studio was just getting started in the fifth floor of the Electrical Engineering building at Georgia Tech. He submitted these comments in response to our request for historical insight from WREK alumni.
“Check it out!” I excitedly told my roommate as I read the article in the Technique that a group of students were looking for anyone interested in starting a campus radio station. I had worked in high school as an announcer at WBBT in Lyons, Georgia before leaving for the big city to pursue a degree in Industrial Management at Georgia Institute of Technology (new students always say the full school title, don’t they?) and this sounded like a great way to use that experience to get in on the ground floor of this student effort. It also sounded like it would be a ton of fun.
“Give it a try,” he said encouragingly.
After some false leads, I made my way to the 5th floor of the EE building where the organization meeting had been called in a nearby classroom. It was a wretched site that greeted me. The room was a mess, almost unfit even for storage, and very small. There were only a handful of students there, but fortunately, each of us had a different and very much needed skill to bring to the table.
The organizer, Dick Crouch, had family connections to WSM in Nashville and was very animated while telling us how his dad had arranged for us to get the original “board” (a radio term for the mixer that allows the announcer to control signal levels on all the inputs to the radio transmitter) originally used by the Grand Ole Opry. WSM was also willing to donate a transmission tower. “The Student Council has agreed to give us the money for a 17 watt transmitter,” Dick said enthusiastically. I believe they contributed over $10,000.
We all agreed that Dick should be the General Manager. He had done a good portion of the preliminary leg work and was a natural leader.
Geoff Mendenhall got dubbed our Chief Engineer. He was a EE major and knew all about the engineering job ahead. I remember, however, the look of dismay on his face when the long awaited board arrived. It was a mess and full of dirt dauber nests and spider webs! Undaunted, however, he diligently set about replacing the worn and inoperative parts.
I was the only one of the original organizers that had extensive broadcasting experience and I got the job of Chief Announcer. I immediately put an ad in the Technique recruiting announcers and soon thereafter started up a class to train the new recruits. “You need to try to develop a mid-western dialect,” I told my class of about five volunteers as I passed out copy (radio term for newsprint) for them to read aloud. We practiced for hours getting ready for the big day.
I understand the station now radiates 40,000 watts, but my recollection is that we started with a 17 watt FM transmitter. Geoff built a linear amplifier (from scratch, I believe) that boosted the power to around 750 watts. With the special antenna array donated by WSM, we were able to squeeze the signal down to a donut-shaped pattern that lay in the range where antenna’s where most likely to be. We had an ERP (effective radiating power) of around 7,500 watts. Enough to shower the campus and make a fairly good trip to much of the Atlanta suburbs. We were mighty proud of that meager power.
We knew that we wanted WREK for the call letters from day one, but upon filing our application to the FCC, we learned that the letters had been recently licensed to someone out west starting up a station there. We struggled with some other call letters (WGIT, WTEK, WGAT), and reluctantly agreed on WGIT. However, we were very disappointed that our first choice was not available. Finally we decided to take a shot in the dark and plead our case to the holder of the new license. Remarkably, they recognized the uniqueness of the call letters and surrendered the license to us where Georgia Tech could have the call sign WREK!
Excitement filled the room on that day in April, 1968, when we went on the air. Dean of Students, James E. Dull, who had helped, encouraged and guided us from day one, was on the other side of the broadcast glass with a host of other school dignitaries, staff and student supporters. As Chief Announcer, I had the honor of being the first broadcast voice! My first words were: “Rambin’ Reck Radio …… is on the air!”
Well, maybe I don’t get any points for originality, but at 20 years of age and with everyone on campus there or tuned in …. well …. I was a bit nervous. Immediately after making that announcement, I started up the Rambin’ Reck Fight Song. Turning down the music I begin a “voice over” and told the audience the story of the student station startup. I gave a well deserved credit to everyone who had made it possible, especially the student body. Immediately after that, I spun the record “Spooky” by the Classics IV.
Why “Spooky”? I have often asked myself that question. We had not discussed a first tune among us, so it just became my choice. The Classics IV were extremely popular on campus and Spooky was at the top of the charts, but I think the subtle message was how apprehensive we all were. We knew we had started up something historical that would become a part of the great tradition of a great Institution. It was our first opportunity to build a “business” from the ground up, just a group of students pulling together to do something important with generous funding from the entire student body and good support from Dean Dull and other Georgia Tech officials.
Originally there were two schools of thoughts on WREK’s programming. Dick believed we should compete with the local Top 40 stations. He wanted to play popular hits using the popular Drake format (Drake was the music consultant that talked most of the Top 40 station in the nation to fire all the DJ’s and go to a music only format in the late 60’s. He shocked the country when a 50,000 watt station that was popular all across America fired the nation’s most popular DJ, “Murray the K”). “We will have an advantage over the commercial stations in that we can play more music,” Dick would proclaim. We had a UP wire coming in with national and state news. “We should stick to regular news,” he continued.
“The students gave us the money for this station,” I insisted. “We should serve them. I think we should stick to student and campus news. We can interview professors and do specials on campus events. We can carry Georgia Tech sports that otherwise would not be broadcasted.” I felt strongly that we should direct our programming at our fellow students, focusing on news they would find interesting and helpful. While Dick prevailed on the music format, I prevailed on the news. We had great music that all young people in Atlanta loved and news that the students appreciated. It was a lot of fun. My broadcast name was “Larry D. Michael” (well, you try to say Griggers over the air!).
Everything was live in the early years before the automation equipment was purchased. The announcers quickly became bored with just sitting there during their shift and spinning records. Soon my staff of announcers begin abandoning the Drake format and sneaking in their own favorite music when Dick was not paying attention. WREK gradually took on the off-beat flavor that still characterizes it today. Dick eventually capitulated (well, after all we were all volunteers) and let the individual announcers do their own thing.
I was delighted to find the website devoted to WREK today. It brought back a lot of pleasant memories. I now live in Locust Grove and still tune in occasionally to 91.1 to see what the students are doing on the air. I continue to feel a kinship with the station and it fills me with pride to see how well she is doing with her ever changing cast of announcers. Her signal will continue to radiate strong long after me, Dick, Geoff and the others fade away. But we left our mark on our Alma Mater, and that makes me smile …….
Larry M. Griggers (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 1998
Edited by Chris Campbell, September 1998.