WRVU NASHVILLE 91.1 FM The Student Voice of Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt’s campus radio station was officially chartered by the Vanderbilt Amateur Radio Club in 1953, but the station presently known as WRVU was truly born in 1951 as a pirate radio station operating out of the Cole Hall dormitory.As an undergraduate, Ken Berryhill supported his studies at Vanderbilt by moonlighting as a DJ on Nashville’s popular country music station WMAK. In 1951, he borrowed a soundboard from his employer, connected it to an open current radio circuit he had laid around the Cole building and began broadcasting danceable Country and Big Band classics to the students in his dorm. Dance contests and record giveaways helped Berryhill’s audience on the Vanderbilt campus grow quickly. When he extended the radio circuitry outside the dormitory, Berryhill discovered that his pirate signal reached audiences up to a mile away. Through his charming radio personality and great musical taste, Berryhill quickly gained a dedicated following of students and community listeners.
Berryhill was encouraged by the popularity of his broadcasts to petition Chancellor Harvie Branscomb for the formation of a student-run radio station. Chancellor Branscomb appointed English Professor Rob Roy Purdy, Chair of the Student Radio Feasibility Committee. After meeting with Dr. Purdy and teaching him the basics of radio broadcasting, Berryhill was pulled away from campus to serve in the U.S. military. By the time he returned, two years later, the Vanderbilt student radio station, then WVU, was up and running.
Through his continued broadcasts at WVU, WMAK, and later at WSM, Berryhill became a Country Radio legend. During his career he has interviewed the likes of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Elvis Presley, and Hank Williams, Sr.
In 1998, at the suggestion of then General Manager, Jamie Noble (’98) Ken Berryhill returned to WRVU and once again is entertaining Nashville with his hoppin’ radio show “Ken’s Country Classics”. It can be heard on Tuesdays from 12 – 2 pm on WRVU 91.1 FM. In 2001, the WRVU staff honored “The Father of WRVU” by naming Sarratt 182C the “The Berryhill Listening Room”. Ken Berryhill is an alumnus of 1955 and he is nominated for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
From pirate radio to 14,500 watts of FM power, Vanderbilt University students have literally built WRVU 91.1 up from underground and made it the cultural treasure (and valuable commodity?!) it is today. Motivated only by a love of radio and a desire to connect with the greater Nashville community, Vanderbilt grads and undergrads of all schools, backgrounds and disciplines have come together as volunteer DJs, engineers, and staff members at WRVU Nashville.
Since its beginning half-a-century ago, students have worked around the clock to keep “The Student Voice of Vanderbilt University” on the air. And until now, they have done so with very little interference from the Administration or the Board of the Vanderbilt Student Communications.
In March of 1953, Vanderbilt students purchased the rights to call letters WVU and received FCC permission to broadcast on 600 AM. In addition, VU students operated another, unauthorized “Rebel Radio” station broadcasting between 600 and 675 AM. The pirate signal interfered with both WVU and WSM (650 AM). It didn’t take long for the FCC to arrive on campus to investigate. They located the VU students running “Rebel Radio” and shut the station down. The undergraduates were reprimanded by the Dean of Students and the FCC authorities before joining forces with the students of WVU.
WVU was originally housed in Neely Tower on Vanderbilt campus. The space was cramped and there was no heat or air-conditioning. Initially, the station ran over closed circuit currents. An FCC inspector came to campus in these early days & found that the wires were a potential fire hazard. He gave the students a few weeks to correct the problem and when he returned to shut down the station, he was surprised to find WVU was up to code.
Dr. Raphael Smith (’55) was one of the early pioneers of WVU. As an undergrad, Smith served as the station’s first technical director and engineer. His activities included laying army surplus field wire through the campus steam tunnels to transmit a radio signal to the dorms and being on call 24/7 for repair of equipment.
Smith went on to obtain an MD from Harvard and become a world renown cardiologist. He joined the Vanderbilt faulty in 1969 and directed the Coronary Care Unit and Heart Station. He also became chief of cardiology at the Nashville Veterans Medical Center. The cardiology unit of the Nashville VA Medical Center has since been named after him.
WVU’s “Over the Air” broadcasting began with transmitter and modulator built by VU engineering students. According to the WRVU files in the Vanderbilt Special Collections, the original turntables and microphones were borrowed from other VU undergrads “until they graduated”.
WSM, a great friend to Vanderbilt student radio, leant WVU space on their property in West Nashville, affectionately known as Love Hill. The American Tobacco Company, maker of American Spirit Cigarettes, sponsored the tower rental as well as the AP News Service for the student-run station. The legendary Jack Dewitt (’28) radio pioneer and founder of WSM, offered much technical assistance to the young collegates building the station. In February 1954, WVU announced its first regular schedule. In addition to news and music, the campus radio station broadcast discussions with Vanderbilt professors and visiting lecturers.
In 1962, Vanderbilt University proposed the elimination of WVU. Costing nearly $1,000 dollars a year, the administration felt the program was not cost-effective. Station Manager David Bullock (’63) recognized the emergency and called the students to action. Bullock launched many programs to increase the visibility and fiscal independence of WRVU. Under his direction, the station formed a Capital Improvement Fund Staff. These student organizers published a leaflet entitled, “Say Mr. Businessman, Do You Know…”. The flyer discussed the advantages of underwriting on Vanderbilt Radio and it was distributed to local and national businesses. Eventually, local businesses such as The Pancake Pantry and the Elliston Place Soda Shop began sponsoring WRVU programming and publications. Rand Hall and the Vanderbilt Bookstore also paid for sponsorship of WRVU. In 1963, WVU obtained the rights to broadcast Vanderbilt Baseball. Coca-Cola provided the underwriting.
During this time, students of Vanderbilt’s radio station also began producing the WRVU Folk Festival. The concert series begun in 1963 brought musicians from the Grand Ol’ Opry to perform in Neely Auditorium. Minnie Pearl, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs are among the many legendary performers who performed in Neely Hall and provided interviews for Vanderbilt student radio.
Besides reaching out to the vibrant music community of Nashville, WVU students of the early 1960s began involving Vanderbilt faculty in broadcasting opportunities. This included a weekly program dedicated to academic issues. This mid-day broadcast featured a different faculty member discussing an issue of his/her choice. Prior the beginning of each semester, a schedule of topics and guest professors was distributed to all departments with requests to place relevant show information within their syllabi such that students could tune in when appropriate.
By the late 1960s, under the direction of GM Rick Geyer, WRVU began publishing a weekly ‘zine called “Wave Lengths”. The leaflet included top billboard hits, local movie listings, record reviews, and WVU news. Anthony’s Jewelry, Dr. Pepper, and Falls City Beer purchased small ads in this publication. Among his other achievements, Geyer is responsible for doing much of the leg and paper work that would one day provide Vanderbilt student broadcasters with an FM license!
From virtual elimination to popular success, WRVU was named the 3rd largest station in Nashville in 1967. A year later, in 1968, WRVU claimed the World Record for Playing the Greatest Number of Records in a 24-hour Period. Using vinyl donated by VU students, WRVU Chief Announcer Bob Karr easily surpassed the old number of 518 by spinning 558 records in one day!
The station also became very active on campus in the 1960s sponsoring events like “An Afternoon Smoke In on Rand”. This contest, held on The Wall and judged by an official panel of undergrads, awarded The Most “Suave” Smoker, the person who could keep their pipe lit the longest, and the person who can smoke the most tobacco in a 30 minute period. WRVU DJs also hosted an Alumni Lawn observation of the 1968 Vernal Equinox, coverage of which was transmitted live Over the Air.
John Haile, Editor and Vice-President of the Orlando Sentinel from 1985 to 2000, served as General Manager of the station in 1966. A few years after graduation, Mr. Haile happened to be visiting campus in December 1971 when most the students were home for Christmas Vacation. While there, a colleague with the station received the late-night telegram from the FCC stating that Vanderbilt Radio had received approval to broadcast on the FM dial. Haile and his friend immediately went over to Neely Hall, switched over the transmitter and brought 91.1 FM to life!!!
During the course of the 1970s WRVU students applied for and received several wattage upgrades from the FCC. Fred Katz (’80) became PD in 1979 and worked on the last wattage upgrade from 10,000 to 14,500 watts. Once this upgrade was approved and implemented, WRVU attained a radius of 60+ miles that covered Nashville and her surrounding communities. 91.1 “The Student Voice of Vanderbilt University” reigns as one of the oldest FM radio stations in Music City U.S.A. Today, the students of WRVU find themselves involved in a very serious battle to retain this honorable distinction.
Vanderbilt’s student-run radio station WRVU 91.1 FM is in danger of permanently going off the air. The VSC, the board that claims ownership of WRVU has recently reached an agreement with WPLN, Nashville NPR affiliate, to sell the station’s broadcasting license. This sale would mean the loss of Nashville’s only major college radio station. Explore this site to learn more to get WRVU on the air!