More than any other person, Robert Chapman is responsible for the creation of WDBS. If it weren’t for Chapman, DBS would probably still be a campus AM station at Duke, and 107.1 FM would be the FM soul voice of WSRC, the black-format daytime AM station in Durham.
It was Chapman’s vision, together with several others, that gave birth to the WDBS that went on the air in May of 1971. Two years later, Chapman was out of it, and by 1974, he was calling it “dead.” His involvement since has been peripheral, lending his assistance or interference (depending on your point of view) as an interested outsider. In the meanwhile, Chapman, one of those people who Makes Things Happen, has also been intimately involved in the creation of many other worthy enterprises including:
— WAFR, the country’s only black community-owned-and-operated non-commercial radio station, now temporarily off the air.
— Triangle Women’s radio, the unsuccessful competitive applicant for the FM channel now occupied by WUNC.
— The Duke Media Center.
— WVSP, the black-oriented community FM station in Warrenton, N. C.
—The Durham Bicentennial office, including coordination of the highly successful folklife festival.
— The reconstruction of St. Joseph’s Church in Durham, now the area’s foremost performance center.
Chapman’s views regarding DBS, its impending sale, and the drift of its programming over the years are certainly worth printing. They not only balance my own, but represent the opinion of others as well — people who feel that the kind of often-chaotic “free-form” radio that was once DBS is sorely missed. Although the WDBS we hear today began as a commercial enterprise in 1971, its roots are two decades deeper. WDBS was born in 1951 when the Duke University Men’s Government Association created a voice to combat the Duke Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper. With a $1,000 grant and an army-surplus transmitter, the first WDBS sent its signal barely yards from its headquarters in the Gray Building on the West Campus. For years it languished, going on and off the air, like most campus radio stations, until the mid-sixties. In 1965, Duke dumped $7,000 into the station, most of which was wasted, according to Robert Chapman, then an involved sophomore. This came a year after Duke President Douglas Knight appointed a “Duke FM Committee” to study the possibility of making WDBS an FM voice for the university.
An engineering firm was hired to study the technical possibilities, and plans were drawn for a high-power FM facility which would broadcast on a then-unoccupied channel from a huge tower to be constructed near Wallace Wade Stadium. This would have made WDBS the most powerful educational facility in the southeast. WDBS started to call itself “WDBS, soon to be WDBS-AM and FM.” Meanwhile, the AM transmitters broke down and for awhile, the station ran without them, broadcasting only over speakers here and there.
In 1967, the transmitting tower of WUNC, the FM station at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the only powerful non-commercial FM station in the state, was struck by lightening. (It stayed closed down until 1976.) Around that time four undergraduate WDBS staffers, Evans Wetmore, Bob Conroy, Ken Ross and Chapman, formed an internal group called “Operation Walrus.” Their ambition was to make WDBS a real radio station. First they planned to go shortwave. Wetmore, an electronic whiz now with the Public Broadcasting System in Washington and a member of the current WDBS Board of Directors, drew up plans for an 8-tower shortwave transmitting station from which Duke University students could speak to the world.
It never happened.
Neither did the earlier proposal.
All hell broke loose on college campuses everywhere. So Duke President Knight was unconcerned with building a statewide or worldwide voice for the same radio station that co-ordinated a three-day occupation of his home by protesting students.
But Operation Walrus persisted. Without money for a big noncommercial station and without the shortwave idea being practicable in the first place, the covetous eyes of the student walri fell on WDNC-FM, which was the languishing FM outlet of WDNC, then a stodgy fourth-rate farm show-and-Sinatra station owned indirectly by the Durham Herald-Sun newspapers. WDNC-FM now WDCG, was a 36,000-watt station that sat on (and still does) a channel where powers up to 100,000 watts were allowed. It would have been an ideal long-term buy for Duke. Chapman and company talked to Steed Rollins, the Herald-Sun publisher and head of Durham Broadcasting Company, which held the license for WDNC-FM. Rollins expressed an interest in selling the station for $75,000. A proposal was made to buy the station with a $120,000 loan from Duke to cover purchase price and expenses.
In July, 1969, Durham Broadcasting Company met and voted the idea down. So our heroes descended upon WSRC-FM, the near-forgotten FM voice of WSRC, a daytime-only black-format Durham AM station. The WSRC board was “tickled pink”, according to Chapman, to sell the FM license and transmitter for $60,000. The interest of the Duke Board of Trustees was solicited, and things looked ready to go.
Then on July 10, 1970, the official proposer on the Board of trustees died. And the stock market fell. A new rush proposal was made, for Duke to underwrite a bare-bones $65,000 loan to WDBS for purchasing WSRC-FM and for making capital improvements. The Trustees met and deadlocked. An appeal was made to Terry Sanford, the former governor who replaced Douglas Knight as President of Duke University. Sanford proposed to the Trustees that he be given power to do whatever he wanted in regard to the DBS matter. He got it.
In late July, 1970, Sanford called Chapman in Florida to report the doing of the deed; the deal passed. Now, Sanford wanted to know, what was a realistic amount for purchase of WSRC and for needed improvements? Over a weekend, Chapman and friends turned out a proposal for $120,000, including a complicated deferred-payment schedule. Sanford slid this proposal past the Trustees and $14,000 was turned over to WDBS for construction of facilities and first payment to WSRC.
Paperwork on the transfer began in August. Meanwhile the option on WSRC-FM ran out. After all that work, the WSRC people were having second thoughts. Chapman did some fast negotiating and got an extension.
Meanwhile, a call came from two local black people. They wanted to meet. Seems that WDBS was about to remove from the airwaves the only night-time black radio outlet in town. Something had to be done. A protest of the transfer could cost months, if not kill the effort completely.
Within 30 days, the application for WAFR, the new black-community noncommercial FM station for Durham, was filed with the FCC, Within 3 months after that the FCC issued a construction permit and HEW gave WAFR a $50,000 grant for facilities construction. Chapman orchestrated the whole WAFR deal. WDBS would be clear of any interference there.
Or so he thought.
On December 12, the WSRC to WDBS transfer was filed with the FCC.
On December 15, the United Organizations for Community Improvement, a black community group, filed 19 “petitions to deny” with the FCC. Through some involved negotiations, deals were made and the petitions were withdrawn.
During this period, WDBS, still campus-AM-only, did what Chapman calls “superb” coverage of the Mayday demonstrations, and the solar eclipse. The station also produced humorous ads for “Wellington Raffelators,” “Zack’s Kill City,” “Magellan Oil Company” and “Specific Telephone,” some of which are legendary. The “raffelator” spots still run occasionally on DBS.
On May 17, 1971, still using WSRC’s tower, WDBS became an FM station when, by mistake, “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer came over the air. Then the official “first song” was played.
It was “Here Comes The Sun,” by the Beatles.
The airwaves around Durham haven’t been the same since.
Of all the creatures that inhabit the airwaves, among the least listened-to are the college campus-only AM stations. Too weak to reach more than a couple hundred feet from the dorms to which they transmit, their scope is too microscopic for federal regulation. Most such stations are juke-boxes playing endless records interrupted by sophomoric and self-serving play-disc jockeying by undergraduates who get a cheap thrill from being “on the air,” even if the signal has trouble getting out the window.
There are some exceptions; quite a few in fact. And in the late ’60’s, WDBS was one of them. It not only captured a healthy share of Duke Student radio listenership, but achieved some national notoriety as well. Most important from today’s persective is the historical thrust it provided for the WDBS that now exists.
Asked about the real motivation behind “Operation Walrus” and its efforts to make WDBS an FM station, Chapman replies:
“The motivation was political. We wanted to use the station to stop the war in Vietnam. That’s what everyone was into at the time.”
And WDBS was certainly into the leftist thinking that prevailed so visibly on college campuses back then. It was the very essence of an activist medium, and it worked. Among other things, WDBS:
— endorsed legalization of marijuana in 1965;
— called officially for an end to the Vietnam war in 1965;
— helped orchestrate the occupation of President Knight’s house and the lengthy vigil that accompanied it after Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 (the station broadcast live from the house for 35 hours, at the same time providing coverage for ABC radio news);
— had its correspondent to the Republican convention in Miami, a Vietnam Veteran Against the War with full press credentials, thrown out of the convention hall and onto the front page of the New York Times as a major news item of the day;
— broadcast a 30-minute program on the above to the thousands of demonstrators who camped out in Miami’s Flamingo Park.
“We were already doing some great radio before the FM ever got on the air,” Chapman says. “And once we were on with the FM, we did some of the best radio ever heard. The best sets, the best joke ads, the best features and large doses of political stuff. It was chaos, but it was good.”
The impetus for the station was not only political.
“There was a concurrent music revolution going on. We were the only station around that was a part of that. We went on a theory of radio as something more than a jukebox. We did live remotes from everywhere — ‘Live from the Pier,’ ‘Live from the Bluebird Cafe,’ and more.”
The DBS energy became international, sort of. According to Chapman, DBS set up a tape exchange between Radio Moscow and American college stations. “It was amazing,” he says. “We’d give them a topic, like ‘The Soviet man on the street attitude about the Vietnam War,’ and they’d send back this elaborately produced program. So Radio Moscow ran in Durham every Sunday night.
“The people over there were so taken with the deal that we once got a very official letter from Nicolai M. Karev, Editor in Chief of Radio Moscow, that read ‘We are prepared to cooperate in any way with WDBS . . . ’ ” What happened to it? “Well, it fell apart after awhile,” Chapman says. “The tapes were some kind of horrible East German stuff that ate up the heads of a tape deck in no time. After awhile they wanted the tapes back. Now they’re in the Duke Archives.”
The whole thing was anarchic, but with a driving principle.
“DBS always had a policy about being open. We called it ‘open door, open microphone.’ Anybody who wanted to go on the air could do it. They could just walk right in. We even had a KKK guy show up once to do his routine on the air,” Chapman says.
The key, he contends, was students.
Everything was run by student volunteers. They didn’t need the pay. It was an honor to go the radio, to be part of DBS. It should never have been considered a ‘job’ for anyone.”
But gradually, it did become a job.
As Bob Conroy puts it: “The idea of a volunteer staff, with its brilliant high spots and its pitiful low spots, was the first to go.”
People started to get paid. And the station had a debt to pay off, with advertising revenues — money that was hard to get while the station had a flaky “Duke student” image in the minds of potential advertisers, and even harder to spread around once the staff turned professional.
It wasn’t an easy transition.
According to Conroy, “With the volunteer situation, there was no way you could attract and hold the necessary high-quality sales people.”
While the “Duke student” image persisted in the marketplace, the student government, ASDU, saw DBS as too non-Duke to warrant funding from the student coffers. They voted in spring of 1973 to kill further funding of the station — funding which up to that point guaranteed repayment of the loan from Duke.
Chapman sees this as an important turning point.
“It was a hatchet job,” he says. “The station broadcast an appeal to the students, the community and ASDU, to keep the funds. There was a huge turnout at the ASDU meeting, including some nice little old local guy who almost never left home. He got up and spoke to a hushed room in the most touching scene I can remember. He said WDBS is the best thing that ever happened to Durham, that it was a real connection between Duke and the community. And he was shouted down by some student jerk who said that DBS had ‘nothing to do with Durham.’ It was absurd. So they voted it down, by one vote. I stood up and told them that they had just killed WDBS, that they’d thrown the station to the wolves of the marketplace.”
In Chapman’s history of DBS, the wolves not only forced DBS to compete for dollars, but the situation had the effect of closing out new blood. And new blood is essential for interesting radio.
“Any creative organization has to have challenges, new ideas, fresh blood. Foment and Ferment. It needs to churn. There is no permanence. You need constant upheaval to remain creative. DBS has proven this to the Nth degree.”
So what would Robert Chapman do to “save” DBS, to change it from what it is back to what it was?
“I’d turn it back over to students. Without the payroll, they can meet the debt. It can be interesting again. All those great talents that made the high points at DBS, the Babskis, the Conroys, the Rosses, the Wessons, were all students. Listen to WDUK (the current campus-only station). They’re doing some good radio there. And DBS is closed off to them. I’d also make three immediate changes:
- Do classics in the evening, while WUNC does “All Things Considered . . . this is an obvious competitive move:
- Identify as Duke’s voice; and
- Be solicitous of Duke . . . run their ball games, become involved again.”
Actually, the third suggestion is already happening. WDBS is now the FM voice of Duke sports, running the exciting national championship games as I write this.
It hardly matters, since the station is being sold. The new owners will most likely retain the most positive connections with the “Duke image,” especially the sports and call letters, while abandoning others, like the beat-up facilities.
Meanwhile, Chapman offers a poignant observation about the could-have-beens that he finds absent from the radio station he labored so hard to create and preserve:
“Not long ago, I stopped by there to run an errand. A Duke student came to the locked door and talked to somebody on the intercom. He told the voice on the little speaker that he just wanted to visit the station, to see what it was like. He was turned away because the voice on the speaker couldn’t be bothered. It was heartbreaking for me to see. I thought, ‘That kid could have been Robert Chapman in 1964.’ ”
Well, that would be a touching way to end the Chapman Report. But it’s misleading. DBS’ door is open most of the time, including all business hours, and visitors there are certainly treated with more congeniality than at most stations, which use a receptionist to distance official happenings from the wandering public. The event described by Chapman must have occurred after hours, when the door is locked and it’s highly difficult for the disc jockey to answer the door.
A final journey.
It has been five years since Robert Chapman had any official connection with DBS. Yet even so, seven years after he midwived the station, Chapman is largely responsible for the intended sale of DBS to Village Broadcasting Company.
Several months ago, a deal was arranged which would have transfered the station quietly to a group known informally as BLS. This group, composed of at least one Duke professor, promised to keep the format and improve the station’s facilities. Chapman heard about the setup and told Jim Heavner, who heads Village Broadcasting Company, in hopes that Heavner’s entry into the proceedings would stall sale of the station. Chapman expected Duke to see the wisdom of holding on to the property, re-establishing one dream of a student-free-form operation.
In all this, Chapman’s hand had the surgical touch of a rhino. The quiet arrangement, months in preparation, between WDBS and BLS, fell like a house of cards. Now Village Broadcasting, which Chapman fears will turn DBS into another CHL, may be about to take over.
And the dream of free-form radio at Duke is more distant than ever.