WEGL is 50

WEGL is 50

On April 25, 1971, WEGL 91.1 crackled to life in the first floor of Haley Center.

Help us celebrate the station that defied the odds, gave a voice to Auburn students, and defined generations of Auburn alumni. #weglis50

WEGL’s Founding
& Future

WEGL Photos
& Scrapbook

WEGL
Jingles

Interview On WEGL’s
Most Iconic Photo

DJ’s Favorite
5 Songs

DJ’s Wish WEGL
Happy Birthday

The Voice

The Voice

Fifty years ago, WEGL 91.1 crackled to life in the first floor of Haley Center. This is the story of how an idea became a radio station, and how that station became a powerful voice for Auburn students.

WEGL_article_title

On April 24, 1971, Auburn student Dave Gamble ’74 walked from his dorm room down the concourse toward Haley Center. It was 76 and sunny, and the campus was blooming. He could do this, right? So much talk and work and the day was finally here. Rene Brinsfield ’74 had called him and said they had the necessary authorization from the FCC. Days earlier, they had installed the heavy 10-watt transmitter to the observation deck and the antennae to the roof. They had begged and bartered for funding and equipment. So, yeah, they had worked for it.

Still, it felt surreal as Gamble walked into room 1239 of Haley Center. He went right through the lobby, past the manager’s office into a small studio, cued a 45 on one of the two professional turntables, eyeballing the grooves and rotating the record so the needle sat just before the start of the song. He set the controls on the board, put on his headphones and brought the RCA 77-DX mic a few inches from his mouth. It was almost straight-up noon. He had butterflies, but had done this before—just never at Auburn. No one ever had.

“Good afternoon Auburn University. You are listening to 91.1, W-E-G-L.” Gamble pushed a button. Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” filled the speakers and flew out over an unsuspecting campus and town. Auburn University was on the air.

In 1965, Auburn was one of the few universities its size to not have a radio station. But student support was high for the idea. A survey during that year’s fall registration indicated 94% of students wanted a new station. In October of 1965, the student activity fee was raised one dollar to finance the station. The Board of Trustees delayed approval, and Auburn president Harry M. Philpott appointed a committee to study the station. Then nothing happened. Two years later, H. Floyd Vallery, assistant to Philpott, defended the delay, saying “If we’re going to have a radio station, we’re going to have a good one.” A second proposal failed in fall of 1967.

The idea of a campus radio station would not go away, but was the administration willing to act? James E. Foy, dean of student affairs, said in a 1969 Plainsman article, “In order to be worthwhile, the station would have to attract a substantial number of listeners and there are already four stations in the area.”

But change was in the air in 1969, even on the sleepy Auburn campus. Students wore black armbands and held rallies at Toomer’s corner in protest of the Vietnam War. Even the bad boys of rock-n-roll, the Rolling Stones, had negotiated a contract to play in Memorial Coliseum in November. Controversial plays “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” would soon be performed on campus. The Plainsman reported in February that more than 500 students were enrolled in “Free University,” a series of 25 alternate classes run by volunteers covering topics the university wasn’t teaching.

With Haley Center nearing completion, and the need for more constant student communication (the venerable Plainsman only came out each Thursday), momentum was building as the 1970s arrived. And so was a determined engineering major named Chris Youtz ’71.

Youtz had no intention of being a DJ, but he did believe Auburn deserved a radio station. In January of 1970, Youtz’s passion earned him a leadership position on a presidential taskforce established by SGA president David Hill ’70 to develop a station proposal. Youtz was later elected SGA treasurer, and his knowledge of campus funding and politics would prove instrumental.

“I sat down and started trying to work out just what would be involved to create a station, and that’s when I started digging through all the information from the FCC and reviewing the history,” Youtz said. Youtz saw several things working in their favor. One was pent-up student and campus support. Youtz got letters of support from the speech department, university relations, the educational television department and others. A survey in May of 1970 showed 99.5% of Auburn students wanted a radio station. The Plainsman ran favorable editorials. But most importantly, the now-complete Haley Center already had a nonworking radio station built for communication majors to practice being DJ’s and newscasters.

“It seemed foolish to me that they built a practice radio station, when we could have an actual one,” Youtz said. Youtz reached out to campus radio stations at places like Georgia Tech and Samford University, getting valuable advice on programming and needed equipment. He also—politely—rejected a local station’s offer to run student programming for one hour, every Saturday afternoon, in lieu of not starting up a campus station.

But Philpott was not ready to approve. He wanted assurances the station would have some academic oversight and partnership, perhaps fearing it would simply become a mouthpiece for the unrest on campus. On April 16, 1970 he formed another committee to make recommendations that included Youtz, a War Eagle Girl, a football player, a local station owner and Dean Foy, among others. Youtz thought the fix was in.

“The football player never attended a single meeting, the local radio guy didn’t want the competition and Dean Foy was opposed to the station. So I thought we were doomed,” Youtz said. But after some lobbying, the committee voted 4-3 to recommend the station. A proposal for $15,269.35 to fund it was submitted to the concessions committee. The department of speech would partner with the station and it would be overseen by the Publications Board (soon to be renamed the Communications Board) which also monitored the Plainsman and the Glomerata.

On May 28, 1970 Philpott recommended approval of a 10-watt campus radio station, and on June 1 the board of trustees approved it.

In January of 1971, a letter was sent to the FCC requesting call signs. Youtz had listed his choices in order of preference: WEGL, WRGL, WXAU, WWAU and WQAU. He got his first choice.

“Everybody’s different at WEGL,
but we all come together over
our love of music and radio,”
said current Station Manager
Breland McHenry.

The first WEGL organizational meeting was held in November of 1970 with approximately a dozen people. Gamble said he thought only himself and Jimmy Carter, who would be WEGL’s first program director, had any radio experience. Brinsfield would be named the first station manager and worked with Youtz on the endless staffing and technical details of
WEGL.

On April 25, 1971 (one day after Gamble signed on), WEGL held a grand opening in 1239 Haley Center. Gamble and others spun records, and Brinsfield presented Youtz a plaque for his work making the station a reality. Students and staff mixed in the front lobby, including John Lappiccolo Jr., a speech department instructor and WEGL’s first faculty advisor.

What the staff lacked in experience they quickly made up in enthusiasm. From its first day WEGL mixed news, music and sports, and played more than 18 records an hour. While popular music played during the day, a show called “Heavy Church” played more progressive tunes at night. Later, they even broadcast “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow” during the week.

“We just wanted to play music and keep the
momentum going,” said Gamble. “We thought
we had something really incredible here.”

While the staff tried to stay out of trouble, they couldn’t help but occasionally get entangled in the issues of the day. In 1971, WEGL’s first news director, Rob Rainey ’72, interviewed visiting feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was incredulous at the curfew and dress code that Auburn women had to abide by. Rainey thought the interview had gone great until he got a call from President Philpott at 1 a.m.

“Did you say that Auburn women should not obey the campus curfew?” Philpott asked. “I did not,” Rainey replied after a long pause, “but Gloria Steinem might have said that.”

“Well, there are women sitting on blankets all over the quad, and they won’t go home. Go to the station and issue an apology. Because they won’t listen to me, but they’re all listening to the radio.” Rainey did, and has since gone on to a decorated career as a videographer, doing Emmy- and Peabody-winning work at CBS, NBC, CNN and HBO, among others.

In May 1973, WEGL news director Don Moseley hosted Muhammad Ali at a press conference in Haley Center. A few minutes later, Ali carried Moseley off stage by the lapels of his jacket.

Don Moseley ’73 followed Rainey as news director and recalls the day in May 1973 when Muhammad Ali held a 5 p.m. press conference next to the studio. Moseley, who emceed the event, was told by Ali’s handlers that he would only speak for 30 minutes. At 5:25 p.m. he interrupted Ali to tell the sizable press corps that the champ would only take a few more questions.

Ali picked up Moseley by the lapels of his only sport coat and carried him on stage, yelling he would talk as long as he wanted. Out of sight, Ali straightened Moseley’s jacket and asked if he was alright. It was all a show. Ali answered questions for another 10 minutes. Moseley, who has won Emmys and Peabodys for his production work and is co-director of the Center For Journalism Excellence & Integrity at DePaul University, says it’s still one of the highlights of his career. “How many people can say they’ve been picked up by Mohammad Ali?” Moseley said.

“It changed my education
path, it changed my major,
it changed my career
and changed my entire life…”

As the 70’s became the 80’s, WEGL was a fixture in campus life, broadcasting a wide mix of news, sports and music for students who were looking to get into broadcasting or have their music choices validated.

Ric Smith ’85, senior lecturer in Auburn’s School of Communication and Journalism and stadium announcer for Auburn Football, said when he worked at WEGL in the early 80’s, the idea was to play music you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. This was the height of what was termed “college rock,” where campus radio stations helped promote important bands like REM, The B-52s, U2, The Cure and The Pixies, who often got little airtime on commercial radio. Smith, who became station manager in 1984, said WEGL changed everything for him.

“It changed my education path, it changed my major, it changed my career and changed my entire life, because I met my wife Carol at my first radio job after WEGL,” Smith said.

Grayson Moyer loves WEGL, but music is not his passion. Growing up in Hoover, Ala., Moyer spent his days listening to NPR and talk radio and wanting to do his own podcast. When he walked into WEGL in 2018, his dream met reality.

“I can actually do this,” the junior in engineering recalls. “I can pull this off on a real radio station that will provide support and help me along the way.” Moyer quickly became part of the WEGL staff, hoping to grow the news side of WEGL, and is now their chief engineer. He spends his days making sure the station is running at full capacity and procuring the right technology for live events and in-studio shows.

Sports has been a part of WEGL’s DNA since the beginning. Shortly after Dave Gamble finished his first shift in 1971, sportscasters Jim Bradley and John Duncan called Auburn’s 5-2 victory over Florida at Plainsman Park. Their “booth” was a small table behind the chain link fence that separated the playing field from the wooden bleachers, their voices broadcast back to the station on a rented phone line. Today they broadcast sports as diverse as Auburn women’s soccer and volleyball.

JJ Jackson (’17) first got in front of a mic doing the afternoon announcements at his Asheville, North Carolina high school before taking over a WEGL basketball show called “The Fast Break” from two graduating seniors in 2015. From bus routes to basketball, the move seemed natural to him.

“This is an hour where I get to talk about hoops, which I already do all the time anyway,” said Jackson. “Why not just have a microphone in front of me when I’m doing it?”

Jackson continues to make a living in front of the mic as he hosts a local sports talk show on 95.9 The Tiger as well as does play-by-play for the Auburn Sports Network and SEC Network Plus.

But no one has done more for WEGL sports lately than Jared Dillard (’18). WEGL’s sports director in 2018 and 2019, Dillard created a sports culture on par with the music culture at WEGL, hosting a popular show called “The Extra Point” and recruiting dozens of students to call games and talk sports. Now, walking into the bullpen outside of WEGL’s studios in the Harold D. Melton Student Center, you’re just as likely to hear baseball being discussed as pop artist Post Malone. In 2020, the sports staff won one Alabama Broadcasters Association and two Intercollegiate Broadcast System awards, including a “Best Sports Director” award for Dillard.

Far from just on-air training, WEGL provides leadership skills as well. The staff positions range from station manager to program director, and live events director and all are supervised by station advisor, Brit Bowen ‘13, himself a WEGL veteran. Bowen says he’s most proud of their recent partnership with the EAGLES program, which allows students with learning disabilities the chance to be a DJ. Right now, EAGLES student Bradley Basden programs his own radio show, learning valuable software and communication skills.

The future looks bright for the station as it heads into its 51st year. Moyer hopes to grow podcasting at the station, while current station manager, Breland McHenry, is proud of the partnerships with the EAGLES program, with the Plainsman for daily news updates and with UPC that has brought increased live events and campus visibility.

Talk to any DJ across the 50 years at WEGL and they’ll say the same thing. WEGL isn’t just a studio or a station, but a family. A place to hang out. A group of cool, likeminded people who love music and sports and news, and love sharing that passion with others. Bowen calls it a “place for everyone.” Brynn Askew ’20, last year’s station manager, describes WEGL as “transcendent” before settling on “incredibly cool.” Tim Dodge, an Auburn librarian who has hosted his “Golden Oldies” show on WEGL for 22 years under the name Dr. Hepcat, said it is a way “to get the Auburn Spirit out there.”

Chris Adler ’08, now a producer for the popular Rick and Bubba radio show in Birmingham, moved his couch and drum kit into the Foy Union WEGL studios around 2007 so he could maximize his time at the station. “We were all freaks and geeks at WEGL at that time, but I made more lifelong friends there than anywhere else. We all had the same passion for music and for life. It was the best thing I did at Auburn.” Perhaps current program director Jaylin Russel puts it best.

“WEGL is a platform. It’s a voice for those who
might not otherwise be heard.”

From an idea to a station. From a station to a voice for students. WEGL has not just been on the air. It’s in the air. And it will be for another 50 years. “You’d walk across campus or you’d go to a party and hear WEGL playing on a stereo,” Gamble said. “And you’d think ‘I helped create the soundtrack to someone’s life.’”

CHERYL CASEY AND BRYNN ASKEW ON ICONIC WEGL PHOTO

In 1981, Cheryl Casey ’83 was invited to take part in what would become one of the all-time iconic photos of WEGL 91.1. Forty years later, then Station Manager Brynn Askew ’20 did an homage to the photo. Here they meet for the first time and discuss what the two photos mean to them and WEGL.

Double Bubble: Brynn Askew ’20 (far right) recently recreated this classic WEGL photo featuring Cheryl Casey ’83 and Aubie,
captured around 1981. Watch an interview of them discussing the photos and their time at Auburn

DJ’s Favorite 5 Songs

The Great Debate

The Great Debate

 

Our national discourse seems as fractured as ever.
How do we learn to talk to each other again?

In early 1804, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson opened a letter addressed to him at the White House. Jefferson, entering his second year in office, was at the height of his popularity. He had worked to minimize British influence in the new government and had just negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France, doubling the size of the U.S. and turning the country into a continental power. “I think you ought to get a damn kicking, you red-headed son of a bitch,” read the unsigned letter. “You are a pretty fellow to be President of the United States of America, you dirty scoundrel.” Jefferson had just been flamed.

He was not the first, and surely won’t be the last, to feel the sting of a baseless personal attack. But in 2020, in the wake of another contentious election, a pandemic keeping us cooped up and social issues hitting the streets, our civil discourse seems at an all-time low. How did we get here and how do we get to a place where we’re talking to each other, and not at each other? Talk to any Auburn expert in this field and they will invariably mention two things. One is the rise of social media and the other is 24-hour cable news. While both have democratized news to an extent, they have also created echo chambers where people only go to have their worldviews confirmed. Believe the earth is flat? There are dozens of Facebook groups for that. Believe all conservatives or Democrats are incompetent? There’s a cable news channel that will confirm that for you

These echo chambers have created a tribalism that has hardened people’s opinions and made compromise almost impossible.

“Who would have thought Facebook would be the number one source for news on the planet?” said Emory Serviss, marketing professor and program champion for the marketing major at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business. “But there’s no Fairness Doctrine [a discontinued FCC policy that required broadcasters to present controversial topics in equitable ways] on social media, so people can read opinions that reinforce only what they already believe.”

Social media also has a second layer that leads to our eroding discourse: anonymity. Hiding behind any username, people are often much more confrontational than in person.

“When we’re in front of each other, I may be willing to give and take on certain things,” said Serviss. “But there’s far less of a social penalty for being disagreeable online.”

Mike Milford, associate professor and associate director for communication in Auburn’s School of Communication and Journalism, says our contentiousness has always been there, but now we have new ways of making old mistakes.

Milford says one major development is a “third-party” style of rhetoric being used across our media and political landscapes, where the goal of everyone’s speech is not to accurately analyze an issue or create compromise, but to grab attention.

“It’s kind of like everyone is throwing a Hail Mary every time they speak,” Milford said. In this attention economy, where, according to research, sensational news travels six times faster than factual news, clicks and likes and views are the ultimate goal. This style is most favored in Twitter rants and online in platforms like Reddit, where every comment is voted on and ranked in the thread. No one is merely talking, but everyone is evaluating, ranking and judging.

So how do we get to a more respectful national repartee?  Serviss says it’s about being open minded and escaping the tribalism of modern life.

“Be open to different points of view,” Serviss said. “Be open to ‘different’. The differences are what make us stronger, and just be open to those differences. Don’t immediately close yourself off.”

For Milford, who studies complex rhetorical theory, his biggest piece of advice is surprisingly simple: actively listen to others. And if you must convince someone of something, know it’s going to take time. “There’s a difference between winning an argument and winning someone over,” said Milford. “For real persuasion to take place, it has to take place incrementally. It takes a lot of endurance to be a good citizen.”

Just ask Thomas Jefferson.

Finding A Home

Finding A Home

For more than 25 years, diversity and inclusion programs across campus have helped underrepresented students and alumni find their place on the Plains

WHEN HAYLEIGH HALLAM WAS CONSIDERING COLLEGES in 2016, she looked at things like majors offered, social events and professors. But she also needed something else.

A first-generation college student being raised by a single mother, Hallam (center) was cautious about the transition to college. But in her senior year of high school, she attended a STEM visitation day presented by the Office of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity (OIED) in Auburn’s College of Science and Mathematics and the Engineering Academic Excellence Program in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. There, she found what so many underrepresented students want: a home.

“The department [OIED] really highlighted all the resources that were offered, and I felt like I could be supported there,” Hallam said. “And even my mom was sold. She said she knew I would be taken care of at Auburn.”

Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID) is the hub of many programs at Auburn. Its primary purpose is to accomplish the mission set forth in Auburn University’s Strategic Diversity Plan: establish diversity as a core value at Auburn University. They do this through programming like Tiger Retreat and War Eagle Scholar’s Day, which introduce high schoolers and incoming students to the multicultural aspects of Auburn’s campus, as well as through the Cross- Cultural Center for Excellence which helps ease the transition of underrepresented students to Auburn.

The College of Liberal Arts has two programs that use dialogue and performance to engage and teach. The Mosaic Theater Company is led by Tessa Carr, associate professor of theater, and was started in 2011 to find new ways to encourage dialogue about diversity on Auburn’s campus and in the community. The company performs original performances and is open to all majors.

Two years ago, Joan Harrell, diversity coordinator for the School of Communication and Journalism, and professors Nan Fairley and Julie Bennett created “Becoming the Beloved Community,” an online space for people to share their stories
and find their common humanity. The group hosts regular events, including a talk this summer featuring the mayors of Auburn and Opelika and members of the community to find solutions for racial inequality.

Engineering at Auburn offers many opportunities for underrepresented students. Since 1996, the Engineering Academic Excellence Program has provided academic resources and programs to increase the recruitment and retention of marginalized students.

The 100+ Women Strong program aims to do the same for women in engineering. Last year, the program helped increase the percentage of women engineers studying at Auburn and provided $84,000 in scholarships and awards that supported 40 students and faculty.

Diane Sherrard, program administrator for 100+ Women Strong, said this is a program she could have used while in college. “It is incredibly rewarding for me to hear stories of young women who’ve decided to stick with engineering because of encouragement they received from a mentor, or because their scholarship reminds them that someone out there believes in them.”

Now a prepharmacy major heading into her senior year, Hallam is an OIED ambassador and a living example of the benefits of Auburn’s inclusion programs, some of which date back more than 25 years. Across campus, numerous programs are fulfilling the call from President Gogue, who recently said about diversity at Auburn, “We will work together, and we must do better.

“The program changes our perspective and causes us to see the world from a different view,” says Associate Clinical Professor Valarie Thomas. “It causes us to appreciate and value what we take for granted when it comes to our health.”

Women who want to study at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business also have many great resources. The Women in Business program seeks to create a strong community of students, faculty and staff who promote leadership and professional connections. These development initiatives focus on providing members with the tools and skills needed to become successful business leaders who will influence the diversity and inclusion efforts of their future employers.

The School of Nursing uses travel to help teach cultural lessons. Collaborating with AU Outreach Global, the Harrison School of Pharmacy and the Auburn Social Work program, students conduct free clinics in Ghana, West Africa. The program began in 2017 with an idea from AU Outreach Global to offer free clinics in the Ghanian cities of Sekondi-Takoradi and Cape Coast. In 2020 it evolved into an interdisciplinary program attempting to meet the demands of the clinics and to train students to treat people from different cultures. The program has provided service to more than 3,000 residents, offering free eye exams and eyeglasses, ear exams, blood pressure and complete vital signs screenings, blood glucose screenings, urinalysis, height and weight, patient education and free medications.

“The program changes our perspective and causes us to see the world from a different view,” says Associate Clinical Professor Valarie Thomas. “It causes us to appreciate and value what we take for granted when it comes to our health.”

Helping underserved students discover how agriculture, engineering, technology and natural resources relate to the world around them is the goal of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences’ Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences Leadership Institute. The institute hopes to stimulate interest in agriculture, natural resources and related sciences at Auburn and has scholarship programs dedicated for students who study on the Plains.

The opportunities continue long after one graduates. The inclusion and diversity programming at the Auburn Alumni Association (often in collaboration with other campus programs) includes networking events, resources and training on topics like implicit bias. A new Black Alumni Council was formed this summer and will provide a voice on issues relevant to African American alumni. The council got its start from the annual Black Alumni Weekend, where hundreds of African American alumni return to campus to network and mentor current students.

“This council will play an important role in helping to advocate for the concerns of Black alumni and friends, and build connectivity between Black alumni and the university,” said Erin Hutchins, alumni programs coordinator for inclusion and diversity at the alumni association. “This council will not only serve as advocates, but will assist with the recruitment of new students, support the retention of current students and work to preserve the legacy of Black alumni, especially those who paved the way for us to attend Auburn University beginning with Dr. Harold A. Franklin in 1964.”

For Hallam, all these programs come down to one thing: providing a sense of community. “When you are going through challenging times, it’s nice to have a network and community you can lean on.

Rattle and Strum

Rattle and Strum

KATIE LAMAR JACKSON ’82doesn’t remember the exact date. “I apologize — my memory seems so bad today,” she says. But she remembers the day

It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny afternoon in Auburn. Fall of 1994. People had brought blankets, their dogs and picnic baskets and were sitting on the lawn at Pebble Hill in Auburn. Dozens of them. And they were watching underappreciated Alabama songwriter Steve Young sing and play guitar.

Jackson was anxious. For the past several weeks, she and her sister Jay Lamar ’80 had hustled and planned to make the event happen, and now it looked like it was a success. Jackson couldn’t believe it.

“We were shocked that anyone showed up,” Jackson said. “Just stunned. But, I thought, how great it would be if we could do this again?”

Jackson would do this again. And again. And again. Using equal parts luck, ingenuity and determination, she started bringing renowned singer-songwriters from all over the world to the Plains, averaging a dozen or more shows a year. From that sunny day in 1994, Jackson, Lamar and Littleton spawned one of the longest-running and most-respected acoustic concert series in the country.

One that virtually every musician who has strummed a 12-string has played or wanted to play. One that the Folk Alliance International named a special award for contributions to folk music in 2017. One that, despite its success across the country and even the world for almost 25 years, few Auburn people know about.

One they would give the improbable and very memorable name of Sundilla.

orange banjo illustration

A Shoestring Budget Without the Shoestring

Jackson wants you to know she’s not a musician. “The only thing I can play is the radio. And I guess Pandora now,” she laughs.

But she is a huge music fan and a writer, having spent more than 25 years working at Auburn, mostly in the communications and marketing department in the College of Agriculture. She also has been a freelance writer for decades. She got the idea for Sundilla while interviewing Young for a magazine article in early 1994 at City Stages, the Birmingham, Ala. music festival.

“Later that year, Steve called me and said, ‘I’m going to be coming back to Alabama and I would love to play in Auburn. Can you suggest some venues for that?’” Jackson said. “At the time, the only venues were pretty much bars. And most of those weren’t ‘listening’ venues.”

 

They appreciated the Southern hospitality that Sundilla offered and started to spread the news.

Jackson, Lamar and Littleton decided to create a concert where the performer was the focus. Lamar was then the director of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center at Pebble Hill and booked the lawn. They posted a few fliers around town, and people showed up.

“It’s called being stupid and fearless, I guess,” Jackson laughs. “Just dive right in and go. ‘This would be cool, so let’s try it.’ And then the phone didn’t stop ringing.”

Musicians were starting to call Jackson, because musicians talk when they play a concert series that does things right. They appreciated the Southern hospitality that Sundilla offered and started to spread the news.

Those first few years would establish the reputation of Sundilla that exists to this day. Sundilla treats the artists and the music with respect. Jackson would often let musicians sleep at her house. Volunteers made meals. And on concert nights, Jackson and her growing team would set up all the equipment, leaving the musicians only to worry about playing a great show.

And what about haggling over the box office? The music industry is littered with stories of unscrupulous promoters and venue owners. Not here. Throughout its history, a remarkable 90-100% of the ticket sales would go to the performer, leaving the series just enough money to scrape together the next show.

“It was a shoestring budget without the shoestring,” Jackson said.

Finding appropriate venues was an early obstacle. It was friend and early volunteer Mary Littleton ’88 who suggested they form a 501(c)(3) and approach the local Unitarian church, which is nationally known to partner with local communities. In 1995, they found a new home in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church where most concerts are held to this day (see box below). It would be the perfect match of performance and venue.

The self-described “thrift store-Americana” duo, The Rough and Tumble, perform at Sundilla on Jan. 10, 2020.

The self-described “thrift store-Americana” duo, The Rough and Tumble, perform at Sundilla on Jan. 10, 2020.

Blue Guitar Illustration

Where John Denver Is Next to Elvis

Current Sundilla President Bailey Jones ’87 is surprisingly tall and gives off the easygoing vibe of a liberal arts professor. He thinks before he speaks. He seems to stroll when he walks and blends into a crowd effortlessly. So, it’s easy to mistake this thoughtfulness for a lack of passion.

But ask him what he gets out of all the work he does for Sundilla, and he answers excitedly.

“I get the music, and it’s music that I want to hear,” Jones said. “Not what some guy sitting in some office running the radio station wants me to hear.”

It’s the kind of formatless music that used to appear on the radio he heard as a kid while doing laundry near Lake Martin in Alabama.

“We didn’t have a washer or dryer. So, we would take our laundry to the laundromat in Red Hill, Ala. They had the greatest jukebox in the little café next door,” Jones said. “It was the kind of thing you could listen to all day. John Denver would be next to Michael Jackson, who was right next to the O’Jays, who were right next to Elvis. There were no genres. It was all just good music, and that’s kind of what we try to do with Sundilla.”

Jones grew up in Birmingham, attended Samford University for two years, then transferred to Auburn to study, of all things, reptiles and amphibians. While that may sound like a great background for the music business, he soon switched gears, earning two bachelor’s degrees in journalism and radio and television in 1990.

After doing some video and TV work, Jones moved back to Auburn in 1997 and got a job with a snake removal company, a job he says, “is as bad as it sounds.” And seasonal. In 1998, he started volunteering for Sundilla, after reading about it in a local paper. After two shows, he was on board as a permanent volunteer.

In 2001, Jackson asked him to handle booking for Sundilla. And with no experience, he said yes. Turns out, the hardest part of doing bookings was wading through the dozens of musicians who wanted to play. Sundilla’s reputation remained strong.

In 2005, Jackson’s work and personal life were too much to give Sundilla the time it needed, so Jones took over the concert series for good, continuing the legacy that she started.

The Musicians and The Audience

So why the incredible appeal for musicians? Jones said it’s because Sundilla has always been about two things: the musicians and the audience. They are flexible with their dates — if a musician needs to perform on a Tuesday, they can do a Tuesday. They have volunteers who cook for the musicians and provide a warm place to stay.

Another reason is geography. Auburn is close to Atlanta and Birmingham. It’s near I-85 and Highway 280.

“At times it’s been because we were kind of an oasis,” Jones said. “In fact, our unofficial motto for a long time was, ‘We’re a great place to play on your way somewhere else.’”

But attend a show and you’ll see it’s more than that. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church was built in 1865 by freed slaves. It’s a warm space with high ceilings and incredible natural acoustics, and the stage is softly lit and just large enough for a band. Audience members bring fresh-baked cookies and sandwiches to snack on preshow.

Volunteers at a small merch table in the back greet everyone who walks in. Most nights, “Wildman” Steve Bronson, former owner of venerable Auburn record store, Wildman Steve’s Records, does the sound. And when the performance starts, everyone does something amazing: they listen. Going to a Sundilla show feels less like a concert and more like a family reunion with incredible live music.

Southern singer-songwriter Kate Campbell ’86 has put out 18 albums and played with everyone from Emmylou Harris to John Prine. But she notices the same thing when returning to Auburn to play Sundilla, something she’s done four or five times since the late 90s.

“The staff treat us so well, and the audience is not in some bar talking. They are in a listening room and appreciating what you’re doing,” Campbell said. “The place gives off a certain vibe as soon as you arrive for soundcheck. There aren’t many venues like it in the southeast.”

In 2017, the Southeast Regional Folk Alliance (SERFA) awarded the Unitarian Church and Sundilla a SERFA award for major contributions to folk music. According to Jones, they’re the only venue to ever receive the award.

What the Folk The Legend of How Sundilla Got Its Name

ASK KATIE LAMAR JACKSON OR BAILEY JONES what Sundilla is named after and they both laugh. It’s kind of a long story. And like all long stories, it’s wrapped in a bit of mystery.

But the story goes something like this. The current home of The Sundilla Concert Series is the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church at 450 East Thach Avenue.

That building was originally the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and was the first African American church built in Auburn after the Civil War. It was finished around 1870 by freed slaves using hand-hewn logs transported from miles away by mules.

Before the church was built on the land, the Creek Indians owned it and the man who represented them was named Sundilla. Thus, a concert series was named — so we think.

No matter the origins, Jackson loves the name. “I love the way that it ties back to our local history. The name gives it its own personality.”

“It might be the same as our War Eagle,” Jones says. “The truth might not actually be as good as the story.”

Auburn’s Growing Musical Community

The influence of Sundilla on the local music community is also unmistakable. There are now several smaller, musician-friendly venues around town and a growing community of local players and listeners. The Gogue Performing Arts Center has a full season of shows and concerts, and Opelika this past May held its first Opelika Songwriter’s Festival, which brought in musicians from all over the world. Jones did the booking and landed big names like Dan Navarro and Shawn Mullins as well as a slew of professional musicians and up-and-comers.

While Sundilla hopes to attract more locals, some attendees drive from as far away as Birmingham, Atlanta, Columbus and LaGrange for the intimate shows.

For Mark DeGoti, associate professor of trumpet in the Department of Music at Auburn, a live concert series like Sundilla is incomparable to listening to music on the radio or online.

“They [live concerts] are integral to the community and help create a bond and sense of culture in Lee County,” he said. “Seeing musicians perform live helps give the audience a better understanding and appreciation for the work and talent involved in their craft.”

The art of music is further explored in the Sundilla Radio Hour, which features music and conversation with independent, contemporary folk musicians. More than 335 episodes have been produced and are available as podcasts and run on Troy Public Radio.

Despite its success, Jones worries most about the graying of the audience and Sundilla’s difficulty attracting students to its shows. And while the series is known nationally and internationally, it remains largely unknown to many in the Auburn community. For Sundilla to continue to grow, that must change.

A lobby sign explains how Sundilla’s “listening room” is all about the music and musicians. It reads Sundilla is a music venue specializing in the performing and touring singer-songwriter and acoustic musician. We encourage a listening atmosphere when the performer is on stage and ask that you respect that for the sake of your fellow audience members. We encourage talking and socializing before and after the show and during intermission. Thank you!

A lobby sign explains how Sundilla’s “listening room” is all about the music and musicians.

The Simple Act of Listening

At its core, Sundilla celebrates the emotional exchange between a performer and the audience when both believe in the transformative power of music. While so much of our daily lives is mediated by machines, screens and spin, Sundilla is about the simple act of listening to each other.

Rough & Tumble's dog, Puddle, watches the Sundilla performance from on stage.

Rough & Tumble’s dog, Puddle, watches the Sundilla performance from on stage.

“I am proud that some little silly idea that started off on a lark has so sustained and grown into something bigger,” said Jackson. “And I love the idea of supporting artists of any sort—musical, writing, visual, dance—all of those things, so I’m probably proudest that we’ve been able to bring something both to the community and to those performers too.”

Jones, who counts many of the musicians as friends, agrees.

“I’m glad I get to hear so much great music at these events,” Jones said. “Everybody here seems to be enjoying it. So, good for us, good for them and good for the musicians. Most of these people, they couldn’t make a living if they weren’t really nice, really personable, really interesting. Who doesn’t need more friends like that?”

So why the incredible appeal for musicians? Jones said it’s because Sundilla has always been about two things: the musicians and the audience. They are flexible with their dates — if a musician needs to perform on a Tuesday, they can do a Tuesday. They have volunteers who cook for the musicians and provide a warm place to stay.

Another reason is geography. Auburn is close to Atlanta and Birmingham. It’s near I-85 and Highway 280.