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Remembering WYEP's 1983 power increase and switch to the new 91.3 frequency

A building with satellites and wires going in and out.
Katie Blackley
WYEP's transmitter site in Hazelwood.

WYEP is celebrating our 50th anniversary, and we’ll be sharing aspects of the station’s history throughout the year.

As soon as WYEP began broadcasting in 1974, it was obvious to those behind the scenes that the station’s signal was not fully adequate. WYEP co-founder John Schwartz recalled WYEP's first day on the air, “Here we were, we had the station on the air, and I started to drive around the greater Pittsburgh area in my car. This is the first time I had really to try and figure out how good or how bad the coverage was, and I remember being very dissatisfied with it.”

WYEP’s transmission antenna on top of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning was allowed by the Federal Communications Commission to pump out a relatively puny 850 watts. More power meant more coverage area, but a stronger signal could potentially interfere with other radio stations in the region. There were negotiations with the FCC and other radio stations to allow for a power increase, but the process was protracted and costly to the perpetually cash-strapped WYEP in those days.

The effort eventually paid off, however, and WYEP signed off the air for nearly three months to change tower locations from Oakland to Hazelwood and to install a new transmitter. We went back on the air the morning of March 31, 1983, on the new frequency of 91.3 (we were at 91.5 on the dial for our first eight years) and the capability to broadcast in stereo for the first time.

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DJs Larry Berger and Kevin Amos hosted the first show back on the air. Amos exclaimed to the audience, "We're back on the air after being off since about Jan. 8 and we have higher power now, back up at 18,200 watts.”

Berger added that morning: “It's such a good feeling for us. This power increase has been planned since 1975, and after all of the red tape, after all of the technical work, and all of the things necessary for WYEP to finally be able to implement it, it's finally here. And I hope you agree with us that it's been well worth the wait!”

Despite the jubilation of the moment, the power increase had some unintended consequences. Bluegrass Jam Session host Bruce Mountjoy was also on WYEP’s board of directors in the mid-1980s. He recalled, “The thinking was, when you upgraded the signal by a factor of 10, you would also upgrade your coverage area by factor of 10 and your income by a factor of 10, which didn't happen.”

Peter Rosenfeld, also a board member at that time, added, “All these expenses now suddenly were on a station that didn't raise very much money. You know, every dollar that went to pay the electric bill was a dollar that didn't go to repairing something.”

By 1985, WYEP was in serious crisis: Equipment was frequently breaking down and there was simply not enough revenue coming in to deal with it.

“As things started going south, we were off the air more than we were on,” Mountjoy said. “Something would blow out. Then we would need to find some money to buy a part for the transmitter, a tube, or a piece of equipment we needed.”

WYEP's board of directors decided a major change was needed and a tough decision was made.

“We needed to take the station off the air so that there was no question in terms of FCC compliance,” said Rosenfeld. “And we would rewrite the bylaws and come back as a station that was governed more like a traditional nonprofit organization. At that point, it was Halloween 1985. We went off the air, that was our last broadcast.”

The station remained off the air for almost two years. It was not guaranteed that WYEP would return to the air, but we survived the crisis and began broadcasting again in 1987 from a new location at Chatham University (Chatham College at the time).

Be sure to join us at our 50th Anniversary concert at the Byham Theater on April 16 featuring Shawn Colvin and KT Tunstall (tickets are on sale now). And listen on April 30 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.

Director of Creative Services and host of The Grooves Brian Siewiorek came to WYEP in 2004 from WCBU in Peoria, Illinois, where he worked as a journalist, hosting All Things Considered and managing operations. His award-winning career has included stints in rural Alaska as well as WKSU at Kent State in Ohio.