February 9, 2014 12:35:01 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Station Manager Steve Ellis remembers that morning 20 years ago. The time was just before 6 a.m., March 21, 1994, and he was about to flip the switch for the first broadcast from WMSV 91.1, a new radio station on the Mississippi State University campus. It was a big moment -- the result of a student-centered movement, including a petition and referendum. An earlier campus station had been off the air for a long time; people were ready.
A lot of thought went into the debut. What listeners first heard was Ellis' voice: "The next sound you hear will be one you've been waiting for for three years -- WMSV-Starkville" and then a brief clip of Pink Floyd asking the world, "Is there anybody out there?" Turns out, there was.
The first full song was Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now," appropriate for the occasion. Nancy Bigelow Cheney, then a graduate student from Columbus, DJ'd that first morning. She remembers another song played, "These Are Days" by Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs.
"It kinda of captured the spirit, that this is what we've been looking for -- these are days you'll remember," said Cheney, who today works with show choirs and choral students at Jackson Academy. She was one of the original believers. One of more than 80 student volunteers who signed up for two-hour on-air shifts.
"I remember the call for volunteers. I've always loved having a mic in my hand, always loved the stage -- and this was an opportunity to have a microphone with nobody looking at me!" recalled Cheney.
Two decades later, it's time to remember. WMSV is celebrating its 20th anniversary with concerts and a reunion for former staffers and DJs. It began Feb. 8, with a show by Paul Thorn. A concert with John and Jacob, Los Colognes and Big Country's Empty Bottle is set for Saturday, March 22 at Rick's Cafe.
In the meantime, friends of the station are getting their commemorative anniversary T-shirts and hoodies, swapping anecdotes on a staff alumni Facebook page, making travel plans for the reunion and, for those near enough, stopping by the station to dust off memories in front of a wall of photographs.
Offering an alternative
Ellis was charged with "building" the noncommercial community station from pretty much scratch. He's still at the helm today.
His biggest priorities early on were determining a format, getting music, and putting together a staff. Ellis met with every group he could to see what music people were hungry for. The format eventually selected was AAA -- adult album alternative.
"We looked at doing something that wasn't already in the market," said Ellis. "Alternative means alternative to what's out there." The station's Top 100 list at wmsv.msstate.edu today offers a good profile of what listeners are tuning in for: artists from Bonnie Raitt and Beck to Pharrell Williams and Imagine Dragons.
Ellis sent hundreds of letters to record labels to get on their serving lists and initiated a relationship with a local record store for the loan of music to get started with. He interviewed students sometimes eight to 10 hours a day. And even though the station is noncommercial, underwriters were needed. Rick Welch of Rick's Cafe was the station's very first underwriter, said Ellis. "And he's been one for 20 years."
Compared to the old 10-watt radio station on MSU's campus, WMSV's 14,000 watts is a heavy-hitter. It's radius is 70 miles. That reach makes it an important part of, not just campus life, but community life.
"Most college campus radio stations look 'in' to the campus; they program primarily for college populations," explained Ellis. "Because of our size and strength, we look 'out' and really try to entertain the community at large. And we're really focused on promoting MSU to the outside community."
Krista Vowell of Starkville was with the station from 2000 to 2007 and served as news director. WMSV has been and is a vital partner in community life, helping reach out to the area and serve, keeping listeners informed as well as entertained, she said.
That community includes a worldwide audience now. Since the station began a webcast in 2007, distant listeners -- many of them former MSU students -- have messasged in on the station's site from places like Canada, Belgium, Ireland, Alaska and New Zealand, not to mention most every state in the union.
In 1994, getting the music out was a lot more labor intensive than it is today. There were two turntables, a cart machine that resembled an old eight-track player and an array of other gadgets.
"My goodness, in the on-air room you need two things and that's it these days: You need a board (microphone, etc.) and a computer," said Ellis.
Staffing has substantially changed, too. It's moved from a volunteer-base to paid. While the station is professionally run by Ellis and News/Public Relations Director Anthony Craven, it is entirely student-staffed. Ellis estimates about 250 staffers have come through WMSV in its first two decades. For some of them, it changed the course of their lives.
"I never realized at the time exactly how important it was going to be for my career," said April Hill who did newscasts as a student in the late 1990s. Now 38, she is news director and anchors broadcasts at a radio station in Tulsa, Okla. "I never imagined I would end up in radio. I told Steve on Facebook that he might just be responsible for my career."
Chelsea Castoria, 26, was a DJ from 2005 to 2007. She's working in radio in Memphis, Tenn., now. "I'd never given radio a serious thought until I got the job at WMSV, and once I got there and got trained, I fell in love with the radio lifestyle. It was a sweet little gig."
The crew of Castoria's era called Ellis "Papa Steve," she said. And she well remembers staff meetings about correct pronunciation of names, like singer-songwriters Bruce Cockburn (Coburn) and Edie Brickell (Brick-ell) -- "the two most mispronounced names," laughed Ellis.
"Steve Ellis was the consummate mentor and leader, but more than anything else, an encourager," said Barbie Bassett of Madison, who did weathercasts at the station in the mid-1990s while working on a master's degree. Today she's a well-known meteorologist with WLBT in Jackson and is the national meteorologist with American Family Radio Network, on 190 stations across the country.
"Steve was so intent on making sure I was successful and that I sounded professional on the air. He taught me things I probably would have been made fun of for ... " As a "typical country girl," Bassett had a hard time with "get" and "git," "dubya" and "double-u," "pitcher" and "picture," she said. Ellis pointed these out, as he did for many staffers over the years, in an encouraging way.
"Broadcasting one semester at that one radio station opened up a door (for me) to broadcasting every day since," said Bassett.
Eric Fritzsius was part of the original crew. He's 41 now, an actor and freelance writer in Lewisburg, W. Va. He grew up in Starkville. If he could tell those working at the station now anything, it would be to value the creativity WMSV affords, because it is a rare thing in commercial radio.
"I would not have traded those two and a half years there for anything," he said. "I didn't go to my high school reunion, but I'm coming to this one."
The greatest thing about those days was that "no one knew what they were doing, so none of us could do anything wrong -- there was a lot of space to explore and experiment," said Suehyla El-Attar. The Starkville native was at the station for three of the early years. She became its news director in 1997. She's now an actor, writer and audio book narrator in Atlanta.
An abnormal amount of talent seemed to coalesce in that place at the same time, she said. "But there was a desire to be professional, to grow within it. So many that I worked with went on to stay in that field, in music or creative broadcasting ... it was really kind of phenomenal."
It was a time when everyone was asserting their independence and identity all at once, El-Attar continued. "Everything I got from WMSV I incorporate into my entire profession. Steve Ellis can look back and look at what we're doing now, and he can know he's a part of that."
From time to time, Ellis may think of retirement; he's been with the university for 30 years, after all. But he relishes the opportunity to be involved in artistic endeavors, the music and to be around "really talented, energetic college students." His hope is that those who have come through the doors have had a positive experience.
"I'm real proud of our folks. It's good to know we've created a good product, and I think we've represented MSU and Mississippi well. ... Retirement? Why? I've got the greatest job on earth."
Editor's note: Learn more about the March 22 concert and anniversary merchandise at wmsv.msstate.edu, or call the station, 662-325-8034.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.