As WPRB celebrates 75 years on the air, PAW Tracks looks back at the student experience at the radio station in interviews with two alumni: Sally Jacob’88, a former DJ and music director; and John Shyer ’78, who covered news for the station and eventually became station manager.
PAW Tracks is also available on iTunes — click here to subscribe
If you have a story for a future episode, email us at email@example.com.
WPRB, Princeton’s campus radio station, is celebrating 75 years on the air this fall. To mark the occasion, we spoke with a pair of alumni about their experiences at the station. We begin with Sally Jacob, Class of 1988, a DJ and music director during her time on campus.
Sally Jacob: I grew up in Alabama in the 1970s and early 80s, and at this time you have to remember there was no Internet. There was no YouTube. You couldn’t just go play things and hear them. Even cable TV was just getting started. MTV had only been a thing for a couple of years, and they mostly played live videos of hair-metal bands. So to be exposed to culture outside of the mainstream, you had to really seek it out.
College radio and other non-commercial radio was one of the main ways you could hear music outside the mainstream – jazz, reggae, punk, different ethnic musics. It’s hard in this era of instant streaming media to explain how much that mattered and how it felt to hear these sounds that spoke of entire worlds outside of your reality.
When I got to Princeton, and that was in the fall of 1982, the very first thing I did was blaze a path to WPRB. At that time it was in the basement of Holder Hall and the transmitter was in Holder Tower. As a freshman I had to start with an afternoon shift, and eventually I was able to work my way up to a coveted primetime evening shift, and I was just constantly at the station.
I became music director in 1984 and just spent hours and hours there every week. This was the era of punk and new wave, and there was a tremendous energy around the idea of alternative rock music and a big creative explosion, and New York City was really an epicenter of that. I think punk acts like the Ramones out of New York City, you hear them on TV ads and at baseball games now, so it’s easy to forget that when that music first came out they sounded really, really different, and in fact, quite threatening to some people. You literally could not hear them in this country except on college radio stations.
I was definitely very excited about being not only at Princeton, which is of course a great academic opportunity, but I was excited about the proximity to New York and the shows there. I was even excited about the New Jersey scene, which I’d read a little bit about in magazines like New York Rocker, and I knew that there was the great alternative music scene based in New Jersey. And at WPRB at the time that I was there we made a lot of effort to support the local scene.
It wasn’t very glamorous. You spent a lot of time in the basement in moldy stacks of records, just plowing through listening to things, reviewing the new records that came in. But socially I think it was an amazing experience. I think you can talk to anyone who’s worked at the station and they’ll tell you that we really formed lifelong friendships there.
We definitely played a lot of what’s called indie rock now as well, though back then I don’t think we always called it indie rock. We called it college rock, in fact, or alternative rock. Acts like R.E.M., the Pixies, the Violent Femmes, all the bands on SST [Records], Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, those were hugely popular acts on the station. And as I mentioned, we also really tried to support local music not just from Princeton, but from the rest of New Jersey and Philadelphia. Acts like the Feelies, the Smithereens, the Bongos, the Stick Men, R. Stevie Moore, and that’s just to name a few.
I love music and I just loved being a DJ. I just loved the idea of putting out music that I was really passionate about, even if maybe only 10 people were listening. That idea that maybe somebody was listening and that it was going to mean as much to them as it meant to you. In fact, to this day people will come up to me and tell me, “Oh, you worked for WPRB in the ’80s, I was in high school and I listened to WPRB all the time, and from listening to WPRB I got in to this and that and this.” So in fact, people were listening.
I did not pursue a career in the music industry. I had some offers — it was the road not traveled. I think to this day I love DJ-ing. I don’t get a chance to do it too often. I work in corporate communications and I work as an editor. I’m sure the way you think about speaking to an audience and the way you think about putting information together in new and interesting and exciting ways, I think that love stays with me. I don’t know if anything I did as a DJ really influences that, but it would be nice to think so.
Our look at WPRB continues with John Shyer, Class of 1978, who covered news for the station and eventually became station manager. Before college, Shyer had been an intern at WOR in New York City, one of the most listened-to stations in the country. He didn’t know what to expect when he joined the college radio scene.
John Shyer: I guess I was surprised actually when I arrived as a freshman at how well-organized the station was. Even though we didn’t have the resources of a major commercial station like WOR, nevertheless there was a highly dedicated staff and some people who were really, really good at what they did.
I started out at the radio station in the news department, and the news director at that time was a woman by the name of Daisann McLane [’76]. Daisann, either during freshman week or shortly thereafter, gathered together the new freshmen who were interested in the news department and provided some very good guidance on how to put together a news story for radio.
I and several of the others had experience doing news reporting for our high school newspapers. She made it a point to stress the difference between reporting for a newspaper and reporting for a radio station. What I can remember her saying — I can still remember this, this dates back to freshman week of the 1974-75 school year — is “Let’s say there was a fire down Nassau Street, and you were reporting on that for a newspaper. Your lead would probably be something like, ‘Three fire companies and 15 personnel were called to the scene of a three-alarm fire at 100 Nassau Street starting at 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon.’ If you’re reporting the same story for radio, if you were on WPRB, your first line would probably be ‘There’s a hell of a fire going on on Nassau Street.’” That was a great illustration and it has stayed with me ever since.
The lesson comes through in this clip from 1977, when Shyer reported on the New York City blackout – a major new story, but one that was more than 50 miles away.
Well Rob, a friend of mine, Tom Thatcher [’77], and I decided to climb Holder Tower this evening, the tower on which WPRB’s antenna facilities are located. Holder Tower is located on the highest natural point of land in Mercer County.
Normally from the top of the tower one can see a bright white glow in the direction of New York and of course, in the direction of Philadelphia. The view from the top of the tower tonight? A little different from what we’re used to seeing up there. The normal white glow from Philadelphia was in place but on the horizon in the direction of New York City, absolute blackness, not one light to be seen. Of course, lights in New Jersey were visible up in the direction of New York, but after a certain point they disappeared in the haze and there was total blackness.
So that was the view from Holder Tower tonight, an unusual sight, and if any of you WPRB listeners out there have interesting stories to tell, I hope you’ll let us know about it.
Shyer says he probably wasn’t working that night. Most likely, he was just hanging around at the station, in the basement of Holder Hall — a memorable place for all who spent time there.
John Shyer: The space was cramped. It tended to be cold in the winter and extremely hot and humid in the summer – I stayed on campus for two summers. In some cases it wasn’t as soundproof as we would’ve liked, but it was our home. For those of us who were involved at WPRB, we probably spent more time in the basement of Holder Tower than in any other location on campus except our dorm rooms. For all of its flaws and shortcomings, we loved it.
For most of us who worked at WPRB, our work at the radio station was one of the most important aspects of our undergraduate career at Princeton and is still very meaningful to us, even years down the road. The University is very fortunate to have a radio station like WPRB.
Our thanks to John Shyer ’78 and Sally Jacob ’88 for sharing their stories. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.
For more about WPRB’s 75th Anniversary, check out the Nov. 11 issue of PAW and Gregg Lange’s Rally ’Round the Cannon column at PAW Online. Mudd Library is hosting an exhibition, titled “WPRB: A Haven for the Creative Impulse,” through Reunions 2016. And you can see photos and read stories of WPRB’s past online at WPRBhistory.org, a lively, wide-ranging, and highly entertaining site.
If you have a Princeton story that you’d like to share with PAW Tracks, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.