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Remembering troubles with WYEP's first studios and transmission antenna

A brick building with a black-and-white photo of a doorway and sign overlaid.
WYEP's first location on Cable Place in South Oakland. Color photo from 2014, black & white inset from 1975.

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

Getting WYEP on the air for the first time back in April of 1974 was a challenge in dozens of ways: Equipment had to be purchased or donated, and all of it had to be done on a shoestring budget. One such task that had to be done was setting up a broadcast antenna to get the station signal out to listeners’ radios, The University of Pittsburgh generously agreed to host the fledgling station’s antenna high atop the Cathedral of Learning. One of WYEP’s founders, Ellery Schempp, was a professor at Pitt at that time, and he was tasked with getting the antenna mounted.

Ellery Schempp

“There was a mast already and we had to attach our antenna to this,” Schempp recalled. “Well, that's way the heck up there. I got my friend Dan Bunce—who was active in the Pittsburgh Explorers Group, a mountain climber—myself, and belaying rope. Dan climbed up there pretty high and attached the antenna.”

But even mountain climbing experience didn't change the precarious nature of mounting an antenna 540 feet above the ground.

“It was a pretty scary thing,” said Schempp. “It's very high. It's a bit windy and I remember it was kind of a chilly day. And you're feeling extremely exposed. So yeah, it's not for the faint of heart.”

Fortunately, all went well, and the antenna was connected to the transmitter. It would remain on top of the Cathedral of Learning until 1982.

The home for WYEP during its first 10 years of existence was on Cable Place in South Oakland.

“The number one thing that we were trying to do is to get a place that was inexpensive,” explained John Schwartz, one of the founders of the station. “Nowadays, there's probably not that many people that remember that the Cable Place studios, but to call them modest might give them too much credit. This was in the basement of a warehouse-y building, and it was a literally a subterranean environment. It was nothing fancy, that's for sure.”

The late Jim Hurray, a WYEP DJ from 1974 to 1985, recalled in a 2013 interview, “There was a wall back there, when it would rain real hard, you’d see waterfalls come down.”

Peter Rosenfeld

“The waterfall part is certainly right,” concurred Schwartz. “Yeah, you could get streams of water through the light fixtures at times. Not a good situation.”

Naturally, this environment could prove hazardous for DJs. “A fellow named Kevin Amos was doing an afternoon jazz show,” said Peter Rosenfeld, a longtime board member of WYEP. “There was a big thunderstorm going on and Kevin called me and said, ‘You gotta get here right away.’ ‘So what's the matter?’ He said, ‘the place is flooding and I can't get off this wooden chair because everything is sparking.’ All the electrical stuff that was on the floor was shorting out, but for some reason the station was still on the air. Now, the breaker box was at street level, but he couldn’t get there because there was all this water surrounding him. There was about a foot of water on the floor down there, it was very wise to keep his perch on the wooden stool. But he kept broadcasting, he was quite a trooper.”

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.

Mike Sauter started at WYEP in 2004 and held various positions, including Midday Mix host, music director, program director, and station manager.