The Birth and Beginning of WERS

Radio was brought to Emerson College in the spring of 1932 when Arthur Edes, known at the time for his NBC broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, introduced the inaugural course “Radio Address” in the speech department. The focus of the class was for students to gain practical radio broadcasting experience by presenting student-written plays on WEEI, the station at which Edes worked. Radio offerings grew steadily over the next decade—especially after the founding of the School of Broadcasting in 1934—but it was not until 1947 that students would have their own radio station.

Students being instructed while broadcasting at WEEI.

Students being instructed while broadcasting at WEEI.

By 1947, the radio curriculum had grown in popularity with returning World War II veterans eagerly making use of the G.I. Bill, but students lacked the space to practice live radio programming on-campus. The College’s first radio station, WECB, therefore became a platform through which students could perform and share various types of segments, including classical and swing music, Shakespearean plays, and soapbox operas. However, WECB was a closed-circuit station, so programming was transmitted through College buildings by wires rather than being broadcast over the air. While the students were grateful to have a radio station, they remained adamant that they wanted a publicly broadcast forum.

Emerson students would not have to wait much longer for their much-desired public FM radio station, as WERS would hit the airwaves in the fall of 1949. Radio professor Charles Dudley spearheaded the project in May of that year by petitioning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a license to allow students to broadcast on a non-commercial station. After that initial petition, Dudley and his students went to work building the station’s studios at 130 Beacon Street. The FCC approved their license for public educational programming in the fall and students signed on to the air for the first time on November 2.

According to Charles Dudley, the original programming for the radio station was meant to be “stimulating and wholesome…of an informative and educational nature” (Century of Eloquence, 291). Although the music was limited to classical and semi-classical genres, WERS provided a space for students to hone their performance and writing abilities through such other programming as on-air debates, documentaries, dramatic performances, and news programs.

Student Ernie Phelps broadcasting from the WERS studio in 1958.

Student Ernie Phelps broadcasting from the WERS studio in 1958.

Over the proceeding decades, changing audiences would lead to more diversified programming, including segments designed for children and families, cultural and spiritual diversity, and wide-ranging musical tastes. This programming has received several accolades throughout the years, including repeated listings as the #1 student-run college radio station in the United States by the Princeton Review as well as multiple awards from the Associated Press.

References

A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College, 1880–1980 by John M. Coffee Jr. and Richard L. Wentworth, 1982.

Rebekah Kallgren (Archives Intern)

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