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Tune In to Tech

In a 1979 deal, Ted Turner got the call letters for his media empire, and the MIT student radio station got a more powerful transmitter.
March 2, 2005

MIT’s radio station, known as WMBR (for Walker Memorial basement radio), broadcasts for 20 to 24 hours every day, and its programming ­includes everything from punk rock to Celtic fiddle tunes. However, the station would probably no longer exist but for a deal its lawyers made in 1979 with Ted Turner, the media mogul who went on to found CNN.

The seeds of the deal were planted in November 1946, when WMIT of the Beaver Network went live, broadcasting three nights a week from 8:00 p.m. to midnight. Much of its programming consisted of classical music, often from recordings that the student operators borrowed from their classmates. MIT students could listen via ordinary radios connected to direct audio lines that served just the dorms, which meant that the station didn’t need a radio license.

For its first 14 years, the station broadcast from the basement of Ware dormitory (now part of Senior House) on equipment that was “a mix of old and new, home-brew and commercial,” remembers Bob Clements ’64, who was an executive member of the station. In 1961, the station obtained a Federal Communications Commission licensed commercial frequency and began transmitting a signal that could reach the fraternities across the river. Since the name WMIT was already licensed to a North Carolina station, MIT’s station became WTBS—for Technology Broadcasting System. The station also moved into new studios in the basement of Walker Memorial. WTBS became known for its innovative programming. In 1966 it pioneered the concept of album-oriented radio, in which radio stations could play any track from an album, not just the singles. It was a format that caught on with pop-music stations. WTBS premiered disco and reggae in 1974 and punk in 1976, well ahead of most commercial stations. Around the same time, the station decided to pursue a power increase to 200 watts. In 1978, when it finally got permission from the FCC for the upgrade, it discovered that it did not have enough money to buy the necessary new transmitter. That’s when the station got a lucky break. Ted Turner, who was just starting to build his media empire, wanted to purchase the call letters WTBS for the Turner Broadcasting System. The station cut a deal with Turner: if he donated $50,000 for the new transmitter, it would give him the call letters. In 1979, Turner acquired the call letters, and the MIT station became WMBR.

Today, the station broadcasts at 720 watts. It airs more than 70 different shows, and nearly 200 MIT students, alumni, staff, and community members are involved in its operation. Its programming today—which includes a show devoted to French-language songs and a live local-music show—is a far cry from that of the classical-music-heavy 1940s, but it continues the tradition of innovative student radio.

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