WPLN Turns Fifty

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A handwritten log

A handwritten log

It’s official: Nashville Public Radio is now 50 years old. Considering that FM radio was still a new frontier in broadcasting a half-century ago, it’s a significant anniversary. So it only seems appropriate to look back at how things have changed at this station over those years.

The first broadcast day lasted just 12 hours, beginning at 9 am with what the day’s program log billed as an opening ceremony. That audio seems to have been lost, but evidently the small room in the Richland Park Library that served as both the station’s broadcast booth and its taping studio was crammed with city officials. The Mayor was there, along with the city’s Chief Librarian and members of the Library Board. “There was a lot of handshaking and many good wishes, and we were under way,” was the recollection several years later in a WPLN program guide. After an hour of speeches, a turntable began to spin and the needle dropped on a recording of a Brahms sextet.

It was a gentle start to a clever bit of problem-solving.

According to current station president Rob Gordon, the merger of city and county governments earlier that year meant the library system was expanding, too. Music librarian Alvin Bolt couldn’t find the money to buy records for every branch, but then he spotted a notice in the Federal Register that grants were available for building radio facilities. Bolt realized he’d found the solution: the records in the main library could be played over the air for everyone. As Gordon puts it, “it was a beautiful idea.”

Not everything broadcast that first day was music. There was a 14 minute long recording about Vikings, for example, and a live children’s show called the Inky Winky World News. Over the next few years, WPLN added in more educational features, delivered on vinyl record from a crazy quilt of international sources with titles like Vistas of Israel, Moral Philosophy, and Patricia in Paris.

But then, in the early seventies, things started to change a little. WPLN and 72 other stations formed a new organization, which then used telephone lines distribute a daily, live broadcast. The program guide introduced listeners to All Things Considered as a “new concept in broadcast journalism…It will be different not for the sake of being different, but will attempt to fill a need not met by other media.“

There were immediate ripple effects on the local level. The twice-weekly French lessons were bumped off the air, for one thing. More importantly, the station hired a news director. Local programming took on new depth with interview shows like Coffebreak and Pointe Three and once in a while WPLN even fed stories up to All Things Considered.

WPLN program grid, circa 1975.

WPLN program grid, circa 1975.

As NPR added Morning Edition and Garrison Keiller began telling tales from Lake Wobegon, the library gave WPLN the go-ahead to extend its broadcast day, begin holding membership drives, and boost the signal. Eventually, in the mid-90s, the library agreed that its radio station was all grown up, so to speak, and ready to survive on its own.

That was just sixteen years ago. Independence has been the station’s shortest chapter so far, but one marked by rapid growth in terms of output, reach, and, thanks to our generous listeners, support.

There were certainly hiccups along the way to this anniversary, and goodness knows there are challenges ahead for all kinds of broadcast media. But today, standing at fifty years old, we can’t help but feel a little proud and very, very grateful.


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