The History of WYEP
WYEP’s Cable Place era, 1974-1985
On April 30th, 1974, a group of community members launching a brand new station gathered in a cramped studio space in South Oakland. “I think it was around 1 p.m.,” recalled one of the station’s founders, Jeff Smith. Sean Connolly, one of those community members, wrote about the occasion in WYEP’s printed program guide one year later: “There was a sudden joyous shouting over the FM band. Exuberant celebration, screaming and yelling, the unschooled spontaneous voices of Pittsburgh literally cried out over the otherwise completely unimaginative airwaves of FM Pittsburgh.”
“We basically had a little party,” Jeff Smith explained. “We had no idea how many people would have been listening.”
Almost two years had elapsed since the founding of Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting. During that time, there were a lot of details to oversee and a lot of paperwork to file. A studio site was found in a church, but that fell through. Then the station was to be located in the shell of a mobile home. Then, in the living room of a commune. Eventually, the basement of former mounted police stables on Cable Place in South Oakland was secured.
The process of putting together the station dragged on for what felt like an eternity. Another one of WYEP’s founders, John Schwartz, said that during this time one person involved considered joining a traveling circus until the station began broadcasting.
In addition to renting space for the studios and training volunteers, call letters had to be filed to and approved by the Federal Communications Commission. “WYEP” was not the only candidate batted around by those involved in starting the station. Other call letters considered included WHIP (as in a “HIP” station), WYOU (radio for “YOU,” the listener), WSHD (for Shadyside, the location of a communal home where many of the station founders were dwelling at nthe time), and also WHOA!
Instead, they settled on WYEP because they liked the positive yet colloquial variation on “yes.” Sometimes, Jeff Smith would tell people that the letters stood for “you entertain Pittsburgh” or “you educate Pittsburgh,” but that was actually an ex post facto acronym.
WYEP’s first studio space was not regal in appointments. “The number one thing that we were trying to do was to get a place that was inexpensive,” John Schwartz remembers. “To call them ‘modest’ might give them too much credit. This was in the basement of a warehouse-y building.” Not by intention, but WYEP was quite literally to be “underground” radio.
Current WYEP Bluegrass Jam Station host Bruce Mountjoy, who began at WYEP in 1979, says that the basement studios were generally the only signs of life in the building. “There was nothing upstairs. It was a garage. The guy who owned it stored a bunch of stuff in there.”
The late Jim Hurray, an early DJ on WYEP, chuckled when he recalled the original studios in 2013. “It was nothing fancy, that’s for sure. There was a wall back there — when it would rain real hard, you’d see waterfalls come down.”
“The waterfall part is certainly right,” agreed John Schwartz. “You could get streams of water through the light fixtures at times. Not a good situation.”
Another DJ, Patricia Lowry, described the experience of entering the early WYEP in a 1999 Post-Gazette article. “You open the glass and steel door under the sign that announces ‘Unsold Radio For Real Ears.’ You walk down a grungy hall until you come to a wooden door. You open it and walk down ancient, uneven steps, leaping over the broken one and hoping the rest will hold your weight “
Lowry continued her mental tour of the station: “You are in a cellar that never sees the light of day, except once over there to the left, beyond the row of ‘offices’ stuffed with old desks and bookcases, when someone — a burglar, I think — broke the window. We’re standing in the reception area, outfitted with a couple of cast-off sofas and a picture window with a view to the live-performance studio, which in turn has a view to the air control room.”
Bruce Mountjoy adds a sense memory to his description: “This whole place smelled like mold and mildew.”
The on-air programming was wildly diverse. Here’s a sample of some of the early WYEP’s shows:
In September 1982, the FCC gave approval to WYEP to increase power from 840 to 18,000 watts and to move the transmitter location from on top of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland to a tower site near Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood. In April of 1983, WYEP signed off the air for two months to make the switch to the new transmitter. At the time, the station had just 825 “subscribers,” or financial donors. But it also had no paid staff. Everyone, from DJs to administrative workers to board members, were volunteers.
And the programming was remarkably diverse in both content and presentation. Part of the programming schedule in the early 1980s was devoted to jazz, blues, rock, soul, folk, gospel, bluegrass, news, sports, dance, reggae, oldies, women’s programming, new wave, comedy, poetry, and ethnic shows devoted to Native American, Jewish, French, Arabic, Indian audiences.
It was hoped that the increased power and subsequent wider signal coverage area would lead to more listeners and, with luck, more donors. However, these hopes did not translate into enough financial support to keep the station comfortably surviving. News reports throughout 1984 featured more and more bad news: a transmitter fire, vandals damage WYEP transmitter, the coax cable to the transmitter site failed. A spokesperson from the station told the Post-Gazette in September 1984 that, “without additional personnel or funding, its future could be endangered.”
In fact, there was not enough money in the station’s budget to keep the equipment adequately maintained and, by 1985, one staffer recalled that WYEP was off the air as much as it was on the air. WYEP was silent from February 15, 1985 to mid-April, and then only returned to the airwaves during drive times on weekdays. After months (if not years) of difficulties, the WYEP board voted to take the station off the air until it could reorganize, rewrite the station’s by-laws, and attempt to focus on a programming approach that would be self-supporting. On Halloween 1985, WYEP went silent once again — this time intentionally.
WYEP’s Chatham College era, 1987-1994
By September of 1986, after being off the air for nearly a year, it was reported that WYEP hoped to sign on again in the near future with studio space at Chatham College. After several false starts in 1987, WYEP finally returned to the air on a regular basis on October 27, 1987, with new program director Mikel Ellcessor announcing, “WYEP, formerly operated as 91.5, now returning to the air after a hiatus of almost two years. Featuring brand new studios, much new staff, and a whole new approach to programming.”
The station’s board chairman, Peter Rosenfeld, told the Post-Gazette that the programming was going to concentrate on “jazz, folk, New Age, avant-garde and international music.” Of the new 40-person on-air staff, Rosenfeld said, “about 15” of the hosts were continuing from the Cable Place era of the station, including some that have continued on to today, like the Afternoon Mix’s Rosemary Welsch, Bluegrass Jam Session’s Bruce Mountjoy, and Big Town Blues host Wrett Weatherspoon. Other hosts that carried on from the earlier years were Larry Berger of the Saturday Light Brigade, Buck Brice, Glenn Grannemann, and Harry “The Wire” Wagner.
One of the changes in programming philosophy was eliminating the “checkerboard” approach to the show schedule. Instead of an unpredictable hodgepodge of, say, a jazz show followed by a news show followed by a rock show that could change from day to day in a manner that listeners could find rather random, WYEP’s programming would follow a predictable “strip” that would be consistent each weekday. “You can hear folk music from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week,” WYEP’s new general manager Doug Bostrom told the Pittsburgh Press in an interview. “Before, you might have found a folk program at 10 a.m. for an hour, a folk program for an hour at 4 p.m.” Although the station had experimented on occasion with this sort of “stripped” consistency from day to day, the challenges of a having a volunteer on-air staff made it difficult to maintain.
Early signs pointed to positive public response. WYEP was pulling in around 20,000 listeners weekly, a far cry from the early years when the audience was too low to be measured. Bostrom declared that the station was in a better financial situation than “any time since 1978.” WYEP’s first on-air fundraiser took place in February 1988, and the station had a goal of $40,000. That amount was said to be twice as much as WYEP ever took in during a fundraiser in the Cable Place era. The success of the fundraising led to the station operating without a deficit, something that was previously unusual.
At the start of 1990, WYEP acquired a satellite downlink that allowed for access to a wider array of public radio syndicated programming. In January 1990, shows like Mountain Stage and Pacifica Network News were added to the on-air lineup. In June 1990, a morning show called “Kaleidescope” debuted, hosted by Rosemary Welsch. The show was well-received, and by late 1991, Kaleidescope was expanded by an hour.
But although the Chatham College facilities for WYEP were very different than the subterranean environment of Cable Place, it was by no means a perfect location. “Chatham was always cramped,” then-program director Mikel Ellcessor told WYEP in a 2014 interview. “There were five full-time people working out of a room that was 15 by 20.” Rosemary Welsch recalls of those days, “It didn’t even have space for six desks. So I didn’t get a desk. I got a drawer.” Heidi Rinkacs, the general manager at that time, added in 2014, “So the size in itself made it inevitable that we would move on.”
WYEP started a capital campaign to renovate rented space in the South Side. In August 1994, the station announced that in September it would be moving to the Birmingham Place building at 2313 East Carson Street.
WYEP’s East Carson Street era, 1994-2005
WYEP moved to 2313 East Carson Street over the weekend of September 30, 1994. The new location was 2,197 square feet, and it doubled the space available to the station compared to the Chatham location. Staff boasted that the new facility was “nearly equal” to a recording studio.
The move to the new South Side studios marked the first time that WYEP would transition locations without a lengthy period of dormancy. And the improvement of space was like a breath of fresh air to those working at the station. “It was more than one room,” Rosemary Welsch remembers. “It was this huge area where there were cubicles and there were windows.” Mikel Ellcessor said of the change, “It did so much to improve our quality of life at work that I think it really unlocked a lot of creativity. Suddenly you now have natural light coming in, so of course your morning show is going to behave differently when you can watch the sun come up.”
In 1996, WYEP plunged into the internet world and launched our own website at www.wyep.org. In addition to the still standard fare of a program grid and concert listings, the early website also had an “interesting links” section, with links to many local cultural organizations as well as to online music resources (now mostly defunct) like the Internet Underground Music Archive and the online magazine Addicted to Noise.
During this period of the station’s history many on-air shows started that still have a home on WYEP’s program schedule: The Soul Show, The Saturday Mix, Dubmission, Roots & Rhythm Mix, Saturday Sunrise.
On June 20, 1998, WYEP brought the syndicated public radio program The World Café to Pittsburgh for that show’s first ever on-the-road tapings. The show recorded a week’s worth of interviews and live performances at The Andy Warhol Museum that host David Dye would dub a “Week at The Warhol.” All of the participating musicians would perform at a stage set up behind the museum, marking the inaugural WYEP Summer Music Festival. The inaugural artists included Terry Callier, Maia Sharp, Bio Ritmo, Holly Cole, and Billy Mann.
The WYEP airwaves were treated to an unusual programming special on January 2, 1999. Listeners who tuned into The Soul Show on that date heard host Steve Chatman get married live on the air from the station’s studios.
WYEP had always welcomed musicians in for live performances and interviews, and the Carson Street era of the station was no different. In fact, the station started drawing ever-bigger names to perform live over the airwaves. Patti Smith, John Mayer, Indigo Girls, Trey Anastasio of Phish, Norah Jones, John Hiatt, and Joan Baez were just a few of the artists who came in for sessions.
Despite the studio and office space being larger than what the station had known previously, the Carson Street location had to be expanded twice for additional offices, studios, and a conference room. Still, it was becoming clear after the turn of the century that WYEP would soon be outgrowing this newest location. In 2002, WYEP’s board voted to move ahead with a plan to raise money and build a new home for the station.
WYEP’s Community Broadcast Center era, 2006-present
WYEP closed out 2005 by flipping the switch to broadcast for the first time from the newly-built Community Broadcast Center at a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve. The building’s performance space allowed station supporters to join the studio audience when artists came by the station to perform live on the air.
The Community Broadcast Center had more room than WYEP needed which came in very handy when WYEP welcomed a new radio station into the organization in 2011. 90.5 WESA is Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station, and it joined WYEP in broadcasting from studios in the same facility.
As WYEP looks forward to marking its 50th anniversary in 2024, we are excited to serve you with the great music on the air, online, and in the community!