On Wednesday, November 1, 1961, at 4 p.m., WMUL-FM signed on the air as a radio pioneer – West Virginia’s first non-commercial, educational radio station. Dr. Stephen Buell, Marshall’s director of educational radio-television, completed the dream. He initially applied for an FCC license for station WMCS (Marshall College Station). However, because Marshall gained university status earlier in 1961, Buell chose to reapply, this time with the call letters WMUL. These new call letters were rumored to stand for Marshall University Library, Marshall University Laboratory or as a rhyme with Buell’s last name.
Before Marshall had a transmitter, programs were recorded in the Science Hall, fed through a telephone line then broadcast over local AM station WLPH. On that first day of broadcasting on 88.1 FM, station manager Jerry Ashworth oversaw a 40-person student staff. The first announcer was Jean Bias and that seminal broadcast featured comments from Marshall President Stuart H. Smith, other Marshall administrators, West Virginia Governor W.W. Baron, WMUL-FM Faculty and staff members.
The first broadcast and those following until the opening in 1970 of the Communications Building originated from studios in the basement of the Science Hall. In the beginning, WMUL-FM’s signal was only 10 watts. The broadcast coverage area primarily was limited to campus, although some listeners reported hearing the signal as far away as Point Pleasant.
The station’s originators wanted the programming to serve a special niche in the community (a practice that continues to this day). As such, early music programming featured jazz, Broadway, folk and classical styles. A featured program in those early days was a rebroadcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Other programs included news reported from the United Press International Wire and broadcasts of Marshall sports. The station stayed on the air for six hours a day.
In 1970, the university constructed the Communications Building and WMUL-FM moved into its new home on the second floor, where it continues to operate. However, just as it seemed WMUL-FM was starting to find its place in the Huntington community, the station was almost silenced.
H. Keith Spears, a Wayne County high school teacher, built Fort Gay’s WFGH-FM and became WMUL-FM’s faculty manager in January 1979. Spears was almost the station’s last faculty manager.
The FCC had passed a regulation that stations broadcasting with fewer than 100 watts by June 1, 1979 could lose their licenses. Fortunately for WMUL-FM, Spears upgraded the campus station to 176 watts. After securing the station’s license, Spears set about making certain the station stayed on the air.
During Spears’ tenure, regular broadcast hours were set and community volunteers were added to the staff to help the station stay on-air during weekends. During this time, the station's formats included Urban Contemporary (Streetbeat) and a contemporary Christian format (The Rock). Spears also worked to merge the academic and the extracurricular. Classes began producing documentaries and other public affairs programming for broadcast on WMUL-FM. Spears “speared” the students at the station to do more and more they did.
With financial support from the Marshall Foundation, the sports team took to the road for the first time. The FM 88 Sports Team travelled to Johnson City, Tenn., in 1983 to broadcast the football team’s game with East Tennessee State. Not only was it the first road broadcast for WMUL-FM, but it covered a Herd victory that gave the football team its first winning season in more than 20 years.
During Spears final year as faculty manager, a radio-television graduate returned to Marshall after working for nine years in the coal mining industry near Man, West Virginia. That graduate, Charles G. Bailey, had worked for the station in the early 1970s, but in the mid 80s he worked as the student station manager primarily because he was sent there by Dr. Dorothy Johnson, the chairperson of Department of Speech.
In 1985, Bailey succeeded Spears as faculty manager. Much as his predecessor, Bailey’s primary task was to make certain WMUL maintained a viable radio signal in the Tri-State area. As such, another power increase was in order.
After much work and plenty of changes, WMUL-FM once again increased its wattage to 1,150 watts on Wednesday, September 6, 1989. With the increase in power came stereo broadcasts and an expansion in all areas of programming, especially sports. During Bailey’s early years with the station, the "Asheville Experience" began. That was the name given to WMUL-FM’s annual trip to Asheville, North Carolina to broadcast every game of the Southern Conference Men’s Basketball tournament. Eventually the FM 88 Sports Team added the women’s basketball tournament. Because the station broadcast all the games, the conference took notice. As a result, the Southern Conference presented WMUL-FM with the Commissioner’s Award in 1995 for covering the entire men’s and women’s tournaments over a
10-year period. The "Asheville Experience" eventually moved to Greensboro, NC, but in 1997 the Experience ended when Marshall said goodbye to the Southern Conference and hello to the MAC.
Basketball wasn’t the only sport to keep the FM 88 Sports Team busy. The Thundering Herd football team won a pair of 1-AA national championships, one in 1992 over Youngstown State, and a second in 1996 over Montana. Both times, the FM 88 Sports Team was there providing live play-by-play coverage. The 1997 football season brought new opportunities as the team transitioned to the MAC; however, it was a nonconference bout 61 years in the making with West Virginia that provided the biggest stage. While the West Virginia University radio station's sports staff watched the game from the press box, the FM 88 Sports Team was once again on the call. As the years have progressed, the FM 88 Sports Team has added Marshall soccer and volleyball to its docket of games to be called, and now WMUL-FM is the exclusive radio home of Marshall Women’s Basketball thanks to a partnership established by student manager Vince Payne with head coach Royce Chadwick in Chadwick’s first year with the university in 2001. Now, the FM 88 Sports Team routinely delivers more than 150 live broadcasts of sporting events each academic year.
The Newscenter 88 Team also has expanded. In 2005 and 2006, the team was named Outstanding News Operation by the West Virginia Associated Press. The newscenter studio received a technical upgrade with a $50,000 digital console and new countertops, while the on-air side of the newscast expanded to 30 minutes. To better serve the Tri-State area, the news staff members put on three, three-minute newscasts during the afternoons, the 30-minute "5:00 p.m. Edition of Newscenter 88" and four, two-minute newscasts at night. The expansion of coverage has included students covering such events as the "We Are… Marshall" movie and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
A project by Eric Himes has blossomed into a web juggernaut. WMUL Online or www.marshall.edu/wmul was launched in 1998 by Himes as a part of a class project. Todd McCormick helped make certain that on Thursday, October 14, 1999, the station streamed its first game, a national television football broadcast against MAC rival Toledo. In 2005 Deven Swartz added a second stream to accommodate an NCAA tournament appearance by the Marshall Volleyball team. While Adam Cavalier was in Columbus calling Marshall’s first-round loss to Ohio State on the Web, other FM 88 Sports staffers simultaneously broadcast a regularly scheduled Marshall basketball game. Now, the website draws in excess of 100,000 visits a year, and the stream has broken records routinely for overall listeners for single events. Recently, the Marshall – Ohio State Football game in the 2010 season opener had more than 1,300 online listeners.
WMUL-FM’s promotions staff is active as ever. The station routinely puts on a homecoming carbash, which will enter its 10th year with a limousine to smash. Other promotional mainstays include carnivals, Hair from the Herd – WMUL-FM’s partnership with Lock of Love – Green and White Open Houses and on campus remotes.
Before 1985 WMUL-FM had three West Virginia Associated Press Awards hanging in the student manager’s office. By the time WMUL’s 40th anniversary celebration rolled around in 2001, the station had garnered 454 state, regional, national and international awards. Now, in the station’s 50th year of operation, that number stands at more than 1,100. More than a third of those awards are for first place. Furthermore, in the 2010-2011 academic year, WMUL-FM’s student broadcasters shattered the record for most awards in a year with 131, 32 more than the next closest tally of 99 set in 2009-2010.
As the station roars to the future, it does so with a brand new automation system. WMUL-FM began broadcasting 24/7/365 March 1, 2010, at noon with a ceremony featuring Marshall President Stephen J. Kopp, Student Body President Sean Hornbuckle, W. Page Pitt School of Journalism Dean Corley Dennison, WMUL-FM Student Station Manager Adam Cavalier and Operations Manager Michael Stanley. When the station started in 1961, the music staff had 1,500 long play albums at its disposal. Now, the station can use more than a terabyte of space for music that currently stores more than 15,000 individual cuts of audio. That number is expected to grow substantially in the coming years.
Perhaps these past 50 years can be summed up in a poem written by former dean of the College of Liberal Arts Joan Meade for WMUL's 40th anniversary:
Why few of our students were scarce alive on that memorable day in 61
When WMUL’s operation was begun.
Tonight we gather to celebrate this radio station as our laureate.
We look back to the start of that first operation,
West Virginia’s first public ed station.
When its puny wattage before it grew
Couldn’t broadcast the news across 5th Avenue.
More power was needed. Who did it?
Well shucks! It was boosted by Keith Spears – promoter deluxe.
These days Chuck Bailey is considered most slick,
In extolling the station his own Baileywick.
He makes certain that its reputation accrues
With word of award winning students and news.
Now the audience here – or so I am told,
Has students deemed young,
And adults presumed old.
Yet all of you are the radio station,
You volunteers have made its reputation.
So tonight we salute your distinguished career,
As history of broadcasting – well done – far and near.
And I offer this toast to your future endeavor:
May your equipment be new,
And your students most clever.
May your future exceed what your past can foretell.
All hail to W-M-U-L!