John B. Roberts
January 22, 1998
Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia luncheon
January 22, 1998, marked the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the radio studios at Temple University. Those studios, in the basement of Thomas Hall (which the University demolished several months later!) became the home of WRTI AM and FM until 1968, when Annenberg Hall was opened. In late 1946, I proposed that Temple University create an academic program in radio broadcasting. We secured a grant from WFIL Radio and built broadcasting studios in the basement of Thomas Hall, the only place that was not being used on the Temple University campus. And in return for the grant from WFIL we agreed to supervise the educational radio programs being carried by the station.
On January 21, 1998, the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia devoted a portion of its meeting to a commemoration of that anniversary.
Here is the text of an address by John Roberts, founder of WRTI and former President of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia. It was at our meeting at the Adams Mark Hotel at City Line and Monument Roads in Philadelphia. The date was January 21, 1998.
The daily programs were written by the broadcast unit of the Philadelphia Public Schools, and our faculty directed the programs using the school writers and Temple students as performers. The programs followed the Phil Sheridan program, the most popular program in Philadelphia, and preceded a network show that had the second highest rating. The school shows had the third highest broadcast rating in the Philadelphia area, a remarkable achievement for an educational series. Indeed, since the schools provided a large captive audience not measured by the ratings, these educational radio programs had the largest radio audience on any station. The students participated enthusiastically, but longed to create adult programs in sports, drama, talk, and music.
There were no channels available for a standard radio station.
But some college students who created the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System had found a loophole, wired wireless.
Almost everything creates a faint radio signal - electric power lines, electric razors - even garbage. So the Federal Communications Commission could not very well insist that all these sources would require a license. Using this idea, we hooked a ten watt radio transmitter to the University power lines. The signal transmitted along the University wiring was transmitted directly - in short by wires. But the signal also radiated off the University power lines - wired wireless. The direct wired signal was clear, and students and faculty on campus got a clear signal. A car driving down the street near the university lines could also get a signal, but if you got out of the car and went into a house away from the University line area, you would soon lose the signal. However, Diamond Street which once had trolleys and the tracks were simply covered with macadam, had what amounted to a mile high tower lying on the ground and would radiate signals all along that street.
And so the campus had its own radio transmitter on which we could broadcast almost any kind of program we wished. Since the WFIL grant had enabled us to create the Temple Radio Institute to supervise educational radio stations on that station, we used the letters for our new wired-wireless station. The letters TRI were already in use, so the best we could do was to create WRTI.
The station built on a loophole did not reach a huge audience, but it did create ideas - and it is the idea that counts. The first day that WRTI reached the dorms, excited students came running to bring the news. And from then on the WRTI staff kept trying new ideas.
The station could carry commercials, so a student Sales Manager, Dave Rosen, sold time to a music store then located across Broad street from Carnell Hall bartering coverage for free record albums to build the music library. The music store could not pick up the WRTI signal, but Dave plastered the campus through WRTI, and the store continued to buy an hour program each day
A blind disk jockey with a classical music background and perfect pitch blended one 78 rpm record to another in the dark matching the pitch and passage from one record to another.
Another student put on a program teaching foreign language. There was no standard English opening or close. He simply started talking Spanish about Philadelphia so that almost every third or fourth word sounded like English, and people began to understand almost everything he said although it was in Spanish.
Other students decided to put an art program on radio WRTI, and stood as though in a museum looking at a painting, discussing its qualities.
Norman Fell, who later made good in Hollywood, put on a quiz program m Mitten Hall with many free advertiser supplied prizes to an audience that generally ran to about two hundred people, probably more than were listening at that time.
WRTI added to its audience when the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College put wired-wireless stations on the air with Temple broadcasting in the morning and afternoon, Penn in early evening, and Swarthmore in late evening. And they learned that having an audience could be a problem. Swarthmore's key figure was the son of a nationally-known atomic scientist who was very bright and also opinionated. His fellow students sometimes mockingly referred to him as "God", and occasionally it would slip out over the air, and audience protests would reach Temple as well as Swarthmore.
With tremendous effort, WRTI broadcast baseball, basketball, and football games, even thought the audience may not have been that large.
My favorite program to which I listened in the office was hosted by Bob Graham. Bob was dismayed by all the old 78 records which we threw out. - the poorer the record, the more salesmen sent stations hoping to push it on the air and sell more copies.. Bob put on a serious music program in which he would discuss qualities of good music, and then in a serious way play one of these records which violated every aspect of the qualities he had discussed, when Bob graduated and went to work at WCAU, I suddenly got numerous calls from Temple faculty members asking what happened to the program. Many faculty members had apparently been listening to it.
When it became possible, we put a regular FM station on the air, and most of you are probably familiar with WRTI-FM, complete with high power and numerous satellites to send its signal to many parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.
But for many of the people who are here with us today, the old wired wireless WRTI still tugs at our hearts - it was an IDEA, and it reached within us as we tried to see what it could do. And after all, it's the Idea that Counts.
In late 1946, I proposed that Temple University create an academic program in radio broadcasting. We secured a grant from WFIL Radio and built broadcasting studios in the basement of Thomas Hall, the only place that was not being used on the Temple University campus. And in return for the grant from WFIL we agreed to supervise the educational radio programs being carried by the station.
Broadcast Pioneers member Jerry Klein, Executive Vice President of Anne Klein & Associates, a national public relations firm based in our area, was the last student station manager of WRTI-FM. Jerry introduced John Roberts that day. It's not every day that we can commemorate the 50th anniversary of something truly significant. But today we can. For tomorrow, January 22, 1998, is the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the radio studios at Temple University.
The studios were built for the fledgling Radio curriculum at Temple. And later in 1948, Radio station WRTI-AM began broadcasting from those studios. Five years later, WRTI-FM went on the air, broadcasting an amazingly wide variety of programs, not just music, but also dramas, interview shows, comedy shows, news and commentary, sports and much, much more.
The curriculum, the studios and WRTI, both AM and FM, were the product of a vision... one that held that students of this thing called radio should have a real radio station as a laboratory to work in, experiment in, and learn in.
WRTI AM and FM continued broadcasting from those studios in Thomas Hall until 1968, when new studios were opened in Annenberg Hall. I had the privilege of presiding over those inaugural ceremonies. However, less than a year later, Temple moved away the vision. WRTI AM was shut down and WRTI-FM was turned into a station playing just one kind of music, now two as a result of recent events; and most of that is played by paid staff rather than students.
But I'm happy to tell you that the vision is still alive. It lives on in the memories of hundreds of former Temple and WRTI students, many of whom have gone on to meaningful careers in broadcasting or broadcasting education, and several of whom are here today. It lives on in a web site that some of us have created to showcase WRTI the way it was . And it even lives on at another local college radio station, WBZC at Burlington County College in New Jersey. I'm on the professional advisory board for the station, and another WRTI alumnus, Rich Pokrass helped establish it. WBZC has adopted that vision of radio station as laboratory and teaching tool. I think it's no coincidence that WBZC was named the best college radio station in the country in its very first year of existence.
We're honored to have with us today the man who had that vision for the Temple radio curriculum 50 years ago, who made it one of the foremost broadcasting curricula in the country, and who established WRTI and WRTI-FM. He is also a past president of Broadcast Pioneers and one of its distinguished Persons of the Year. I ask you to join me and my WRTI colleagues in expressing our profound gratitude and appreciation to John B. Roberts.
It's not every day that we can commemorate the 50th anniversary of something truly significant. But today we can. For tomorrow, January 22, 1998, is the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the radio studios at Temple University.
Listen to Jerry Klein
Watch John Roberts
How WRTI got started
The AM Signal
AM had advertisers
Some of the unusual programs
Some popular WRTI programs
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Audio, Video & Photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member Jerry Klein
Material courtesy of the WRTI Old Gang Website
Audio & video on the server of Anne Klein & Associates
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