Radio

The history of radio in Centre County has been shaped by technological developments, social change, and commercial interests. Radio is an intimate medium, and local stations are often the only stations available to listeners, even as they are shaped by distant economic trends and federal regulation.

With notable exceptions, most radio programming has been the outside world coming to Centre County, with popular music and talk programming originating elsewhere for local re-broadcast. However, the people who made local transmission possible have lived in the county, with familiar voices being heard for decades.

The first radio station in the county was 8XE, an experimental station operated by the Engineering Department at Penn State. Experiments began in 1909, with call letters assigned as one of the first authorized by the federal Radio Act of 1912. Although the station was sealed for security reasons during World War I, engineering research continued, and classes in engineering and military communications were still offered.


The forerunner of WPSU was 8XE, an experimental radio station operated by the Engineering Department at Penn State and the first to broadcast Centre County.

After the war, the station broadcast an intermittent schedule of public information, weather, news, farm reports, lectures, music, and sports commentary with support from Penn State. In 1922, the station was reauthorized with a change of frequency, power, and call letters (WPAB). The call letters changed again in 1924 to WPSC. With the economic downturn in the early 1930s, WPSC ceased operation in 1932, but experimentation and amateur training continued under the call letters W8YA.

In the 1920s, radio broadcasting spread across the United States, despite technical challenges in both transmission and reception. During this time, if someone owned a radio, it was common for the neighbors to gather to listen to special events and favorite variety programs that featured musical acts, comedy, and radio drama. Near Waddle, outside State College, residents erected an antenna that allowed reception of distant stations, and people would gather in a community center to listen.

By the 1930s, better and less expensive radios were available, and families were able to listen to NBC and CBS network stations from far away. As early as 1930, nine stations were broadcasting from Philadelphia, two from Pittsburgh, two from Scranton, and, closer to Centre County, one each from Lewisburg, Altoona, Johnstown, Lancaster, and Williamsport.

The American system of federally regulated, advertising-supported broadcasting was firmly established when WMAJ-AM began local commercial broadcasting in 1946. W. K. Ulerich, Penn State alumnus and publisher of the Clearfield Progress, started the station with an Army surplus transmitter. WPHB-AM, Philipsburg, a daytime-only religious and country music station, signed on in 1956. Another daytime-only station, WBLF began broadcasting in 1958, as part of the Allegheny Mountain Network, a local group of stations owned by Cary Simpson and based in nearby Tyrone. In 1961, WRSC-AM, State College signed on as a competitor to WMAJ and WBLF.

Early “Full-Service” stations, as they were known, provided local public-affairs programs, call-in programs, public-interest interviews, and popular music. FCC regulations required some public-service programming as a condition for operating a commercial radio station.

Since the 1960s, these programs have been typically broadcast on Sunday mornings and largely vanished after deregulation in the 1980s. With the development of “Top 40” music programming, more airtime was devoted to musical entertainment than to full-service programming. Sports play-by-play and sports talk also were a popular staple, and today Penn State football, basketball, and wrestling have continued to be heard on stations that usually play music.

FM broadcasting was authorized by the FCC in 1941, and the first FM station in Centre County was licensed to Penn State as a 1,000-watt educational band station at 91.1 FM, with broadcasts beginning in 1953. One of the first educational FM stations, WDFM had difficulty reaching an audience because most listeners had AM radios. As a result, WDFM also simulcast at times with WMAJ-AM to give students greater access to its programming. The call letters were changed in 1985 to WPSU, and the station started carrying programming from National Public Radio.

By 1993, WPSU had become a full NPR affiliate, had increased power, and had changed frequency to 91.5 FM. Over the next four years, the station – with a higher power repeater station in Kane (WPSX 90.1 FM) and several lower power translators in Altoona, Bradford, Clearfield, Dubois, Treasure Lake (since decommissioned), and Huntingdon – was reaching what had been the largest geographic area unserved by a public radio signal in the lower-48 states.

Penn State also applied for and received, in 1995, a second, 100-watt FM station license, WKPS-FM, to maintain student-operated radio for the campus. Students have been prominent personalities in local broadcasting, with several remaining in the area for their broadcasting careers. The generations of students who hosted enduring alternative music programs have maintained a consistent, if variegated, identity for “The Lion – 90.7 FM.”

Religious stations on the educational reserved band of the FM spectrum have been broadcasting in Centre County since State College-based WTLR went on the air in 1995. Based in Bellefonte, Invisible Allies Ministries operates WRXV from State College and WRYV from Milroy. Other stations include WKDN, State College, part of the Tennessee-based Family Stations ownership group. WJVM, Bellefonte is a Catholic radio station with studios and offices in State College. Other religious stations outside the frequencies reserved for educational broadcasting include WKPA-FM, WEJO-LPFM, a low-power FM owned by Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy, and several translators.

With studios in State College, WGMR-FM went on the air in 1961 as a commercial, 50-kilowatt sister station to WTRN 1340 AM in Tyrone (Blair County). Playing country music for most of its history, the station was briefly a “Top 40” station and, briefly, a critically acclaimed alternative station (“The Revolution 101 FM”). WXLR-FM, State College signed on in 1965 as a sister station for WMAJ 1450 AM. Originally playing so-called “Beautiful Music,” by the late 1970s, it was a competitor for rock music listeners with WQWK-FM, a sister station for WRSC-AM.

Fran Fisher was a mainstay of radio in Centre County for decades and the voice of Penn State’s football team.

Several stand-alone FM signals entered the county’s commercial radio marketplace in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986, WZWW-FM, Bellefonte (“3WZ”), owned by local engineer Dan Barker, started broadcasting an “Adult Contemporary” music format, which it has maintained through several ownership changes. In 1996, WPHB-FM Philipsburg was sold to local owners who changed the call letters to WUBZ-FM and the format to modern rock music.

In 1991, 94.5 FM began as country music WGGY. Several stations in the area have used the “Froggy” country-music identity. The station currently plays current hits as B94.5, WBHV-FM. WZRZ-FM, with Mill Hall as the city of license, signed on in 1995. After a city-of-license relocation to Pleasant Gap and a series of format changes, and notably for a short time, as alternative radio “The Freq” (an effort to duplicate, in commercial radio, the style of “college radio”), the station currently plays “classic country” music. WBUS-FM, Boalsburg, signed on April 13, 1998. The call-letters and classic rock music format moved to 99.5 FM, Centre Hall on January 22, 2019, with WMAJ-FM, State College at 93.7 FM playing contemporary popular music.

With a few exceptions, music programming on all stations brought popular music from national acts to the county. National radio talk programs, whether broadcast on AM or FM — including Larry King, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, All Things Considered, and others — were produced elsewhere and heard here. Local news from full-service radio stations WBLF-AM, WPHB-AM, WMAJ-AM, and WRSC-AM has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on market forces and management strategies. WPSU-FM has offered local and regional news coverage more recently, although most of the news programming originates from Washington, DC.

Automation systems made radio operations without personnel possible, but local radio announcers have, nonetheless, spent decades talking to the county’s listeners while operating the equipment that brought outside music and talk here. Familiar names who are still heard in the coun ounty include Wendy Williams, Kevin Nelson, Tod Jeffers, Pat Urban, Sally Sherman, Kristine Allen, Ruth O’Brien, Roger Corey, Pat Boland, Jerry Valeri, and Jeff Brown. Sports announcers have included Fran Fisher, Steve Jones, Jack Ham, Jerry Fisher, and Joe Bastardi.

The 1996 Communications Act allowed ownership of more than one station, and that led to consolidation of station ownership more recently. As ownership rules changed through the 2000s, out-of-county owners have acquired local stations, even while retaining local voices and heritage call letters.

Consolidated ownership saves money and maximizes profits; the community benefits from having more radio stations, but localism declines, and format changes occur more often. Despite these changes, radio programming has remained the same, the people have remained, and even the call letters stay the same despite changes in ownership and corporate structures.

David Dzikowski

Heritage Station Call LettersCurrent Station Call Letters
WMAJ 1450 AMWQWK-FM
WMAJ 99.5 FMWBUS-FM
WBUS 93.7 FMWMAJ-FM
WGGY 94.5 FMWBHV-FM
WQWK 97.1 FMWOWY-FM
WGMR 101.1 FMWFGE-FM
WXLR 103.1 FMWAPY-FM
WPHB 105.9 FMWQCK-FM

Sources:

Barfield, Ray. Listening to the Radio, 1920-1950. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Barnouw, Eric. A History of Broadcasting in the United States: Volume II – 1933 to 1953. New York: Oxford, 1968.

Frost, S.E. Education’s Own Stations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1937.

Manchester, Hugh. “The Big Spring.” Centre Daily Times, August 10, 1999.

Strausburger, Mark R. “8XE.” QST: An Amateur Wireless Magazine, April,1916.


First Published: June 10, 2021

Last Modified: October 3, 2021