Auburn Magazine

The Voice

By February 18, 2021 No Comments
WEGL_article_title

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.

weblayout_WEGL_pieces

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.

weblayout_WEGL_pieces

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.

weblayout_WEGL_pieces
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-04

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.

weblayout_WEGL_pieces-05

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.

As the 70’s became the 80’s, WEGL was a fixture in It’s a long way to the top If you wanna rock ‘n’ roll ACDC Begin the day with a friendly voice A companion unobtrusive Rush I was tuning in the shine on the late-night dial Doing anything my radio advised Elvis Costello I’d sit alone and watch your light My only friend through teenage nights Queen “We just wanted to play music and keep the momentum going,” said Gamble. “We thought we had something really incredible here.” “WEGL is a platform. It’s a voice for those who might not otherwise be heard.” 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.

weblayout_WEGL_pieces

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.

weblayout_WEGL_pieces-07
weblayout_WEGL_pieces

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

THEN

Cheryl Casey in WEGL

NOW

Brynn Askew in WEGL

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.

Watch Interview with Cheryl Casey and Brynn Askew
Fave Five gaphic
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-10
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-20
weblayout_WEGL_pieces
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-19
weblayout_WEGL_pieces
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-18
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-14
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-17
weblayout_WEGL_pieces
weblayout_WEGL_pieces
weblayout_WEGL_pieces-15