“I’m thinking about taking early retirement.”
Ray Shirley was kidding when he wrote that in a letter from September 1977, but his frustration was not.
Assistant vice president for continuing education at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Shirley was charged with jumping through the multiple hoops to get WUTC-FM/88.1 up and running at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His exasperation with the effort and early retirement thoughts were expressed in a letter to his supervisors as the process dragged on and on.
WUTC aired its first broadcast on March 10, 1980, but it certainly wasn’t easy getting there. One roadblock after another threw itself in the way after the plan to crank up the station was first brought up in 1975.
It wasn’t until Aug. 1, 1982 that WUTC broadcast its first locally produced program, which marks its official birthday under FCC rules. The station’s 40th birthday is this month.
First on the list of WUTC necessities was obtaining the 88.1 FM frequency. WUTS-FM, the station at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, already was licensed for it, so agreement had to be hammered out for Sewanee to switch to another spot on the FM dial.
After University of the South moved to 91.5 FM in 1976—it later moved to 91.3 and is now closed down—the Federal Communications Commission still had to approve the change. Government bureaucracy jammed the process for 15 months, and Sewanee moved to its new frequency in February 1977.
The FCC then dragged its feet some more, not granting the license for WUTC until 1978. According to a letter Shirley wrote in April 1977, the FCC’s slowness made him “itchy and nervous.”
After the FCC said “yes,” a group of 31 local leaders, including the mayor of Chattanooga, the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, a Baptist pastor, director of the NAACP and president of the League of Women Voters, began a study in 1978 to determine whether UTC even needed a radio station. Some said “no,” but the majority said “yes.”
With the go-ahead secured for WUTC’s creation, the site for its transmission tower was selected on Signal Mountain. But state rules about legal contracts created issues with the permission to build the construction. More delays.
Even after the contract was signed in May 1979, the construction company still hadn’t started work 45 days later, a situation that further irritated Shirley.
Once the tower was built, arguments broke out between UTC and WTCI-TV, which had its own tower on Signal Mountain and didn’t want WUTC to access its tower along the same route as the TV station’s. In the battle over that issue, Shirley said he’d probably made a “permanent enemy” of WTCI’s general manager.
When everything was properly signed, OK’d and handshakes all around in late 1979, buying equipment for the tower and the station’s studio on the UTC campus itself cost about $53,000.
Originally located in Founder’s Hall Room 202, the studio moved to basement of Cadek Hall in 1984, where it stayed until its recent move to the top floor of the State Building on McCallie Avenue.
For its first eight years, WUTC’s programming was mostly a rebroadcast of shows from WUOT-FM, the National Public Radio station at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
John McCormack , WUTC station manager in 1984, said he wanted to make WUTC “part and parcel of the everyday lives of the people in Chattanooga,” according to a story in the Echo, the student-run newspaper at UTC
“WUTC will have open ears to the community. If they have ideas we would like to hear them,” he said.
UTC officials wanted the radio station to be the exclusive NPR station in Chattanooga, but that title was held by WSMC-FM, the station at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, a suburb of Chattanooga.
NPR didn’t like the setup with WSMC because the sabbath for Seventh-day Adventists runs from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday, so the station wouldn’t broadcast NPR programming during that time, airing religious programming instead.
With pressure from NPR, Southern Adventist worked a deal with UTC and, in 1995, WSMC transferred its NPR license to WUTC, making it the exclusive NPR station in the Chattanooga area, which it has been ever since.
That was a no-brainer. Just go ahead and do it. And we did,” said Fred Obear, chancellor of UTC at the time.
Obtaining that license has given WUTC access to such shows as “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” Fresh Air,” “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and “This American Life.”
In its early days, WUTC’s musical broadcasts were classical, but in 1987 it became “Jazz 88.”
Richard Winham, who joined the station in 1987 and now is most popular show host on WUTC, said the format change “was when we started to make a noise. That was when started we establishing an identity.”
Winham had a morning show on the station—”Morning Light”—which played soft jazz, aiming for an easy way to welcome the day. Not so easy if you’re the host, though, Winham said.
“Try running jazz in the morning,” he said with a laugh.
The station now airs a blend of NPR programming and music that runs the gamut from alternative rock to blues to electronica, bluegrass, folk, reggae and more.
WUTC has added new shows to its schedule: