WYEP staff memories: Music discovery, free-form format, and flushing-toilet promos
WYEP is celebrating our 50th anniversary, and we’ll be sharing aspects of the station’s history throughout the year.
We asked WYEP hosts and staff to share some of their memories about their experiences at the station. L.E. McCullough hosted two shows of traditional Irish music on WYEP from 1974 to 1976. Don and Suzanne Stewart were WYEP hosts from 1976 to the early 1980s. And Tripp Clarke was an on-air host from the early ‘90s to 2008.
L.E. explains that WYEP was part of a movement to bring traditional and roots music to a wider audience. “Irish traditional music was just starting to become popular in the U.S. in the mid-1970s,” he says. “All over the country, community and public radio stations like WYEP were hosting shows that featured ‘roots’ music,” and that of course included WYEP. “WYEP had many ethnic and roots music programs in the 1970s that boosted scores of local musicians and music venues.”
“Shows like mine,” L.E. says, “and the other WYEP music programs helped listeners and performers connect and ‘find’ each other in the real world.” And that connection “helped Pittsburgh diversify its music scene at the time.” He adds, “What was meaningful was knowing that the music I aired was reaching an enthusiastic audience who enjoyed the music as much as I did.”
Don and Suzanne Stewart moved to Pittsburgh in the fall of 1975 and they heard about the non-commercial music being aired on WYEP from a friend. “During those early days, listeners were invited to tour the station in the basement of 4 Cable Place in South Oakland. Suzanne and I decided to visit and ended up volunteering,” Don recounts. “While talking with the program director, we were told they didn't have anyone to work on the bicentennial July 4th, which was coming up in a few months. She asked if we would be interested in working. We agreed and ended up with our first time on the air running the whole day, 8 AM to 10 PM. We called it the ‘Bicentennial Bru-Ha Ha.’ Nothing like jumping in with both (or four) feet!”
When asked what made their WYEP experience meaningful, Don offers, “I'd have to say meeting a bunch of great people, some of which I'm still friends with today. It also greatly expanded my knowledge and depth of music appreciation. Back in those days, the edict was ‘free form’ and you had to play at least one selection from each section of the record library during each hour of your air shift. Sometimes this resulted in playing African thumb piano music as background to announcing the Rides America PSA."
Tripp Clarke agrees about the need to dive deeply into the music to be a host on WYEP. “The most meaningful experience was simply opening my eyes and ears to music that I was mostly unfamiliar with my whole life. I grew up a headbanger and southern rocker who dabbled with alternative rock in college. When I was signed on to host [the specialty show] First Light I HAD to figure out what music I could play on an early Sunday morning show, so I probably spent six hours getting ready for every four hour show... just listening and listening to unfamiliar stuff in the studio... John Gorka, Patti Griffin, Indigo Girls, and stuff that I generally would never had listened to. My days at WYEP opened a world of music to me that I fell in love with.”
Music discovery was, and remains, a vital reason that listeners love WYEP. Tripp shared an indelible moment he experienced as a host on WYEP. He played a song “that spoke to me deeply called ‘I Forget You Everyday’ by Chris Whitley. A listener called after she pulled over to find a payphone to ask me what I was playing because it was so beautiful. The connection with listeners was magical.”
Tripp also has a cool claim-to-fame in WYEP’s airplay history. He produced a show that he was trying to syndicate to other radio stations, and while the syndication efforts didn’t bear fruit, WYEP carried the program. “As a result,” Tripp recalls, “my show was the first time The Avett Brothers ever aired on WYEP!”
Don Stewart has his own story about a memorable WYEP broadcast. One day, he says, “a volunteer brought a guest to the station for an interview. The guest was Joe Flaherty.”
Flaherty was a cast member on the sketch-comedy television show SCTV alongside other talents like John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, and Catherine O’Hara. But although the show originated in Canada, Flaherty was from Pittsburgh. Flaherty did an interview live on WYEP and then agreed to record a station promo.
In the WYEP studios during the Cable Place years (1974-1985), there was a bathroom directly across from the on-air studio. There was an ‘on air’ sign, and when it was illuminated, staff were instructed to not flush the toilet. “It made a loud ka-woosh sound and could be picked up by the microphone in the air booth,” Don says. “Joe proceeded with the promo, which went something like this: ‘You're listening to WYEP, 91.5 FM Pittsburgh, one of (ka-woosh, slight pause) one of the truly unique stations in radio.’”
“Fortunately, the mic didn't pick up the sound of the toilet flushing, and the promo was widely used for a while after that."
Be sure to join us at our 50th Anniversary concert at the Byham Theater on April 16th featuring Shawn Colvin and KT Tunstall (tickets are on sale now). And listen on April 30th as we share listener’s stories of WYEP memories during that day. If you want to share a story about how WYEP has been meaningful in your life, go to wyep.org/memories.