My first connection with the station was when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago,” says Marta Nicholas, “in 1957 through 1960.
“An oboist, I had put together a woodwind ensemble that got together weekly for our own pleasure. One of the pieces we played was being analyzed in the Humanities I class, so we were invited to come perform it live on the station WUCB, which was only five or ten watts and on only a few hours a day. It may have in fact gone through the phone lines rather than a regular radio transmitter—we used to joke that it went through the plumbing pipes and could be heard only by standing on your head in certain shower stalls. A couple of times I was on a listen-to-recordings-and-chat show hosted by our group’s French horn player.”
Soon thereafter, Nicholas “left the campus and the country.” When she returned in the early seventies, the station had morphed into WHPK, an acronym for Woodlawn, Hyde Park and Kenwood. “It was decided at that beginning to take the potential audience into account. Not only as listeners, but also as possible on-air participants.” Nicholas eventually served as the station’s international music-format chief.
According to Nicholas, up to forty percent of the 160-odd volunteers at ‘HPK are not students, and some, particularly the authorities on musical genres outside of rock, have never had a connection to the U of C. “As far as I know, these aspects of community inclusion, in mission and reality, are unusual in college radio.” Its storied record library includes personal donations, including one batch of classical LPs willed by a professor. Like the U of C community at large, it is anything but self-contained.
WHPK confounds independent college-radio music promoters, or it did, back when the “indies” cared about college radio. The station’s programming was always too erratic and its DJs too diverse (ranging in age from eighteen to eighty) for it to fit in with its larger cousins, whose program directors told the CMJ Top 200 what promoters wanted it to hear.
Now, college radio is hardly the market influence it once was. WHPK has embraced the net, albeit somewhat shakily. The station may have gained its first fans in South Side bathroom stalls, but it now includes an international fanbase that listens to online streaming. That stream goes down a lot.
It merits mentioning that WHPK is almost seventy years old. Its equipment is rickety and in need of repair. It created a U of C tradition that it will need help to actively sustain, from the larger, amorphous community informed by the unique culture brewed on the U of C campus. (Emerson Dameron)