KINGSTON, R.I. – September 26, 2014 – It’s 1939 and Germany invades Poland as World War II begins. The U.S. Department of Agriculture starts the first food stamp program, and the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup.
And in Kingston, a small group of radio enthusiasts gather in South Hall at Rhode Island State College to launch the college’s first radio station.
Seventy-five years later Rhode Island State College is now the University of Rhode Island, and that embryonic radio outlet is now WRIU, URI’s student-run, independent FM radio station, which arguably provides the widest range of musical and public affairs programming of any Rhode Island station.
Inspired by the University’s beginnings as an agricultural and mechanical arts school, the station was originally called WHOE at the state college. Like the college that grew into a University, this student organization continues to grow in size, influence and popularity as it marks its diamond anniversary.
An executive board staffed by students oversees the 3,400-watt station that reaches nearly all of Rhode Island and some sections of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. Its priority is to provide commercial-free programs that are unlike any already offered on other FM and AM stations in the region.
“I think what makes us so different is that we have such a variety of music. We have jazz, classical, reggae, world, electronic and hip-hop. We also do pop, like what’s heard on the top 40 countdown, but we try to stay away from that because so many stations already offer that,” said URI senior communications students major Sara Holland, FM program director, and a resident of Mahwah, N.J.
The online station not only offers music, but also provides extensive coverage of URI athletics, including some club sports.
Holland and others are examples of students who found a place to do what they love while gaining real-life experience.
“When I first came to URI I was a journalism major who didn’t love writing. Then, I joined the station, and I had a great time. I ended up loving journalism,” said Holland. “Someone can join for fun, even if they don’t know what they want to do. In the end, it could become a passion.”
Former FM Sports Director Jake Levin, who graduated from URI last spring, also found his place in the journalism world through WRIU.
“My favorite part about working at the station is actually talking on the radio. I realized I wanted to do something involving sports talk or radio play-by-play of sporting events as a career, so it’s great practice for that.”
Gregg Perry, a 1988 URI journalism grad who is now president of the public relations firm, the Perry Group, built a foundation for his professional career at the radio station.
“WRIU is a great place to start for any career pertaining to the public because it requires you to have responsibilities and take responsibility for your actions,” said Perry, who had a lengthy and distinguished career in radio news with WPRO and WHJJ. “You have deadlines to meet and the duty of providing your listeners with programming they will find interesting. Most importantly, you have to do it on time.”
Perry is one of many alumni who have worked in radio thanks to their start at WRIU. The legendary “Voice of the Rams,” Jim Norman, a 1956 graduate and member of the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame and the Rhode Island Broadcasters Hall of Fame, started his more than three decades behind the microphone at WRIU. He covered 1,286 consecutive Rhody football and men’s basketball games as a professional and anchored the sports information office at URI for decades.
Duffy Egan, the director of engineering for Cumulus Media in Providence, Worcester and Springfield, Mass., which operates, WPRO AM and FM and Lite 105 locally, became hooked on radio while working at WRIU as a student in 1972. He remains the station’s contract engineer to this day.
“I was only at URI for three semesters, but that time gave me my great career in radio,” he said. “You learn everything from organizational dynamics, teamwork, and responsibility. You have to show up and when you don’t, thousands of people are going to know about it. This is where the seed corn develops, and they have a blast doing it.”
While not working for Cumulus, Egan spends his time at the WRIU Plains Road transmitter. “I am in the background in all kinds of supporting rolls. My job is to make everyone sound good. The station is big enough and organized enough to be credible, but it’s small enough that you can move around and find your niche.”
Steve Salhany, now the vice president of Hot AC for CBS Radio, the operations manager for CBS Radio Hartford and the program director for WBMX and WODS in Boston, worked at WRIU from 1982 to 1986, beginning on the AM side of WRIU, which could only be heard in the residence halls at the time.
“I hosted a Wednesday afternoon show called Party Time on 90.3 WRIU-FM for four years, and I also served as the program director for one year,” said the 1987 URI graduate who majored in communications.
And then there are the brothers Gray, Walt, a 1979 URI journalism graduate and now a reporter and anchor with News 10 in Northern California, and Tim, a 1989 journalism graduate, formerly a sports reporter and anchor at NBC 10 in Providence and now president and CEO of Tim Gray Media, Inc. and founder and chairman of the World War II Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to telling stories of World War II veterans and survivors.
“WRIU was instrumental in launching my still 34-year-and-counting career,” said Walt, who hosted a news show on WRIU in June of 1978 called “NewsProbe. “That was my start. I also did play-by-play of URI men’s hoops in 1979, including an NIT game at Maryland and many other home and away games that year.”
And while URI students often parlay their time at WRIU into great careers, there are those in the community who’ve spent a lifetime at the station as volunteers DJs.
WRIU’s reggae DJ, Peter Dante, always had an interest in radio and was heavily involved in music as a kid, just not as a musician.
“I wasn’t ever a musician. I just always really enjoyed music; it was kind of my life. I went to a record store that had a poster on the wall for WRIU. I wanted to be involved, so I got in touch with them. Now, I’ve been up there for almost 32 years,” said Dante. “I like introducing people to music. I own a record store, too, so I do it all day long in there. I realized I really like doing that on the radio, too. I get a lot of requests.”
WRIU’s Laura Travis, who has been on the air since 1982, is very thankful for the station and its work. Her show, The Celtic Realm, started as the reincarnation of a previous Irish music program and is a prime example of the station’s musical variety.
“The listenership for this program has grown steadily over the years. What happens with more popular forms of music is that listeners realize there is something long and deep at work there; they know there is more to it, and they seek it out and find radio programs like mine. They can get informed about local concerts to attend, artists they can enjoy, and get familiar with a living tradition that continues to inspire,” said Travis.
“I think WRIU is an astounding place, very diverse, really significant. It was designed on the original idea of public radio—locally based, informative, responsive to interests and needs within the community,” Travis continued.
The station depends entirely on contributions from individuals made during Radiothon, the fund drive held each semester, and a stipend from the Student Senate. The Senate annually allocates about $45,000 to the station. During its most recent Radiothon, WRIU collected $20,000. The total is down a bit from previous years, most likely due to the recession. To make a donation, go to http://www.wriu.org/donations.html.
Because WRIU is a non-commercial radio station, Radiothon is its most important fund-raiser money, Holland said. Donors are often rewarded with WRIU gear– bumper stickers, pens, water bottles, T-shirts and duffle bags.
General Manager Madison Moreau, who will graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, has been at the station all four years of his URI career.
“Working at the station has helped me learn effective task management,” the North Kingstown resident said. “As the GM, I have a role in all phases of the station.”
While Moreau became involved with the station because of his love of music, he is most proud of his efforts with the previous general manager, Chris Warren, to expand sports coverage to nearly every varsity team and several club teams on the FM station and RIU2, the online station.
“I love our staff, but one of the challenges each year is to train new student staffers,” he said. “I am proud to say that every one of our sportscasters and every member of our executive board is a URI student.”
For additional comments about the station’s history, click here for the most Quad Angles issue.
Sabrina Galiney, an intern in URI’s Department of Marketing and Communications, contributed to this press release.
AN ANNIVERSARY MOMENT: Madison Moreau, left, of North Kingstown, general manager of WRIU, and Sara Holland of Mahwah, N.J., FM program manager, raise their coffee mugs in honor of the station’s 75th anniversary. Both are URI students. URI photo by Nora Lewis.
AROUND THE WORLD: Rachel O’Keefe, an RIU2 DJ, the online side of WRIU, works with Sara Holland, FM program manager, to select tunes that can be heard online around the world. O’Keefe is an environmental science major from South Orange, N.J. URI photo by Nora Lewis.
IN HIS STUDENT DAYS: Jim Norman, URI class of 1956, in the WRIU studio as station manager before he became the legendary “Voice of the Rams.” Photo courtesy of the 1956 URI yearbook, The Grist.