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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Looking Back at Frontier Radio

WMSE’s birthday party

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Today, it’s hard to escape the constant allure of media buzz—24-hour news, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook—available at our fingertips and formatted to suit our individual preferences. But back in the late-’70s, it was a completely different era. A kid from Bay View would have been hard-pressed to find a Milwaukee radio station that played anything other than the standard Top 40 hits, let alone the New York Dolls or MC5. But one day it happened. In 1978 or ’79 Tom Crawford, today the station manager at WMSE, turned the dial on his radio and discovered that someone was illegally broadcasting all kinds of music from the frequency at FM 91.7. Now completely legit and broadcasting at 3,200 watts, 91.7 WMSE celebrated its 29th birthday March 17.

WMSE’s history actually begins in 1922 when the School of Engineering of Milwaukee (now the Milwaukee School of Engineering, or MSOE) received a joint broadcasting license with the Wisconsin News, a Hearst-owned daily evening newspaper. They were assigned the call letters WIAO and licensed to broadcast on a radio wavelength of 360 meters. Although the license called for unlimited time at a power of 500 watts, WIAO had to share the 360-meter band with WCAY (Kesselman O’Driscol Music Co.), WHAD (Marquette University) and Milwaukee’s first radio station, WAAK, a 100-watt broadcast that began operating on April 26, 1922, from Gimbels department store. Employing a student-built transmitter and 100 watts of power, WIAO went on the air from the school’s Marshall Street building on Oct. 23, 1922.

On Aug. 18, 1924, WIAO changed its call letters to WSOE, following a shift to a new frequency of 246 meters. Before the year was up, the School of Engineering purchased a 500-watt transmitter and twin towers from one of the country’s first religious stations, WCBD in Zion, Ill. The Wisconsin News took over programming, while the school handled the technical operations. In 1927, the station was authorized to increase its power level to 1,000 watts.

After Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, the newly created Federal Radio Commission began reassigning radio frequencies, which ultimately affected nearly 600 of the nation’s 694 radio stations. On June 1, WSOE was shifted to a wavelength of 270 meters and its power reduced to 500 watts. To compete with WTMJ, the Milwaukee Journal’s station, the Wisconsin News entered into a new lease agreement with the School of Engineering and changed the call letters of WSOE to WISN to reflect the new arrangement.

The WISN station was sold to the Wisconsin News in November 1930, but continued to operate from the School of Engineering until 1932. That year, the school reorganized itself as a nonprofit corporation, changed its name to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and moved to the newly purchased German-English Academy on North Broadway. Hearst took over operational responsibility for WISN and moved the station offices and studio to the Milwaukee Sentinel building on Michigan Avenue.

Thirty-seven years later, MSOE students signed on a carrier current (a type of low-power AM broadcasting that doesn’t require a broadcast license in the United States) with the call letters WSOE. In July 1978, MSOE students applied for an FM construction permit for an educational station on 91.7 MHz; the permit was granted in December 1979. From 1978 to 1980, WSOE operated as a 5-watt unlicensed FM station. In 1980, it voluntarily shut down to make room for MSOE’s very own, very new 1,000-watt FM station: WMSE.