Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Once you've visited thousands of broadcast facilities over a quarter of a century, it's easy to start thinking you've seen pretty much everything. One big cluster's studios look a lot like another big cluster's studios, one high-power FM site looks an awful lot like another, and on it goes. But that's why we try, whenever we can, to flavor our tourism with the sort of unique spice that can only come from a good college radio operation - and when we visited Pittsburgh in the summer of 2011, we got to see a neat one indeed, right on the heels of a stop at an even more unusual broadcast facility.
Nobody does "geek" quite like the students of Carnegie Mellon University, and so it should be no surprise that the student-run station there, WRCT (88.3), boasts a nicely sophisticated setup in its studios on the ground floor of the University Center building. That lobby/lounge area looks into one of the main corridors in the building, and from the lobby there's a window looking right into the main air studio, where we find "Zombo" rocking the airwaves on this Friday afternoon. (He's now on from noon until 4 each Friday, and you should listen.)
It's all Logitek gear here, both in the main studio and in the production/news studio that's across the glass in a big room where WRCT's racks also live. (Hey look - it's a reel-to-reel deck!)
There's a big, overstuffed record library filled with tens of thousands of actual vinyl records across the hallway, and those records do indeed get played on a lot of WRCT's freeform programming, not least of which is "Radio 9," the nostalgic look back at 1970s-style radio presented each Saturday at noon by our host on this visit, Jay Thurber.
Unlike most weekend DJs at college stations, Mr. Thurber also had the keys handy to go take a peek at the WRCT transmitter, located at the top of a stairwell of Warner Hall across the quad and accessed by taking the elevator up to the floor of the college president's office and then going up. The QI on the right side of the picture is WRCT's old transmitter; there's a newer solid-state unit hiding in the locked cabinet behind it. That three-bay directional antenna on the roof cranks out 1750 watts ERP, serving at least the core of the Pittsburgh market quite nicely. (And, again, this being a school proud of its geeks, WRCT was one of the first stations anywhere to do full-time streaming.)
If Jay's on at noon on Saturdays, and if Zombo was following him when we visited in 2011, what occupies WRCT's Saturday mornings? That 6-to-noon slot is the longtime home of an even longer-time Pittsburgh radio institution. "The Saturday Light Brigade" dates back to 1978, when Larry Berger started to do a simple radio show for kids on another Steel City noncomm, WYEP (91.3).
Over the years, SLB grew considerably, spinning off into its own nonprofit organization in 2000 and adding additional stations around western Pennsylvania and Ohio to carry the show, which came to include live musical performances and lots of in-studio kids as guests.
In 2001, SLB signed a deal with the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh to build a new SLB studio facility within the museum, giving museum visitors a chance to watch the show at work on Saturday mornings and to take part in production sessions during the week. The new studio opened in 2004 in a room in the basement of the museum that doubles as an auditorium. (By then, SLB had moved its on-air home from WYEP down the dial to WRCT.)
There's a stage at one end where kids can play dress-up, a big open area in the middle where bands can play, and then there's SLB's nifty two-room studio facility at the opposite end, with big windows looking out into the auditorium.
SLB didn't skimp on the new facility: that's a very nice Klotz console Larry's using in the main studio and a Telos phone system in the control room where his wife Rikki produces the show and interacts with young callers.
And being a show for kids, there are plenty of young voices heard each week on SLB - not just on the phone but in person, too, where visitors to the museum often find themselves inside the studio and engaged in friendly on-air conversation with the gentle Larry Berger. The Fybush family was no exception on this day in 2011: that's Ari, then not quite 8, making her Pittsburgh radio debut by introducing the band's live performance.
Thanks to WRCT's Jay Thurber and SLB's Larry Berger for the tours!
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Next week: Glens Falls, NY, 2011