Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

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.

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.

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.