It was the early '90s, and legendary Pittsburgh soul singer Billy Price was headed to a gig when the radio murmured a soft bass line, offset by fluttering violins and a deep, full voice. WYEP's Rhett Witherspoon was spinning Joe Simon's "Your Time to Cry," and Price was transfixed.
"This song knocked me in the solar plexus," Price laughs. "I pulled off the highway, and I went to a phone booth, called up and said, 'Rhett! Rhett, what was that record you just played?'" That was all it took for Price to fall for the song; he would later record his own version, which ended up on his Soul Collection album. It's just one example of the station's impact on local listeners and musicians alike.
Though it's inspired some grand endeavors, WYEP's genesis was hardly a lofty one. The first cracklings over 91.5 FM on April 30, 1974, came from a few friends, a grand idea, and a basement.
When he suggested building an archive to celebrate WYEP's 40th anniversary, music director and Midday Mix host Mike Sauter met with some opposition: The project was deemed too hard, too time-consuming. Still, he persisted, collecting newsletters, reel-to-reel tapes, and interviews with founders Jeff Smith, John Schwartz and Ellory Schemp. Through it, he's gained a feel for the climate in 1970s Pittsburgh and the urgency with which WYEP was conceived — and preserved.
"If we waited for another milestone, like the 50th anniversary, who knows how much history is going to be lost in that time?" Sauter points out. He shares discoveries with the public daily, through WYEP's "Time Capsule" segment.
As Sauter explains it, WYEP was a very different place in the beginning, and not just because of its decrepit Oakland location at 4 Cable Place. "Almost all of the people who were going to be on the air had no experience doing any kind of radio whatsoever." A sounding board for community announcements, WYEP was not terribly formal. There are accounts of impromptu station keg parties, someone getting mugged on the air, and a DJ almost being electrocuted because of a flash flood.
This early period also made WYEP its own time capsule. Investigative programs were recorded from remote events like a KKK rally, and Sauter has found interviews with folk singer Pete Seeger, science-fiction writer Issac Asimov and Monty Python member Graham Chapman, all now deceased. His research has given Sauter a glimpse into 1970s "society at large, and broadcasting as well."
Schwartz and Smith poured savings into the station, tirelessly securing grants from organizations across the country. Schemp, a University of Pittsburgh professor, got involved mostly because he was the only one of the bunch who owned a suit. Schemp, Schwartz and a rock-climber friend would eventually install WYEP's first antenna atop the Cathedral of Learning.
By 1982, WYEP had improved its signal from 850 to 18,200 watts. But a new transmitter in Hazelwood increased costs, since Pitt was no longer footing the bill. "At the time, we thought: You increase the power, you increase the listenership," recalls former treasurer Bruce Mountjoy, who still hosts the station's weekly Bluegrass Jam Session show.
Ensuing events proved otherwise. "In 1985, we had raised $12,000 for the whole year," remembers former president of the board Peter Rosenfeld. "Even back then, a station with our power had about half-a-million-dollar budget. $12,000 wasn't enough to pay the light bill." It was a fact that Duquesne Light made very clear. In one instance, Rosenfeld was able to temporarily stave off the bill when an attorney from the power company realized he'd be a guest at Rosenfeld's wedding. (The attorney, it turned it, was related to the bride.)
It seemed 1970s WYEP had done something better than 1980s WYEP. "It wasn't just happy hippies on the air," Rosenfeld reiterates, citing the founders' ability to secure foundation support. "In public radio, if you're doing really well, 10 percent of your audience will support you financially." Support from 10 percent of the station's estimated 1,000 listeners wasn't going to cut it, and Rosenfeld says in the '80s, the do-it-yourself vibe at WYEP made the staff hostile toward grant-seeking.
And with disjointed programming — an Arabic Heritage Hour, an American Indian Hour, Irish music and jazz — listeners weren't going to tune in all week, let alone support the station. Mountjoy and Rosenfeld found themselves meeting at Silky's in Squirrel Hill each week, writing a check to the company most likely to shut off their service.