Raising Their Voice

WEMC's general manager, Jon Kauffmann-Kennel
WEMC’s general manager, Jon Kauffmann-Kennel, says the steady growth of Eastern Mennonite University’s campus radio station has allowed the school to share its values with a wider audience in the community.
Photo by Michael Reilly

By Tom Mitchell, Daily News-Record

Neither John Martin nor his fellow alumni from Eastern Mennonite University imagined that their senior class’s parting present to their school would get the mileage it got.

In the spring of 1954, Martin and the rest of the graduates at what was then Eastern Mennonite College, along with seniors at neighboring Eastern Mennonite High School, gave a gift that kept on giving: a transmitter that increased power, range and, ultimately, impact, for EMU’s fledgling radio station, WEMC.

While Martin, 77, can’t recall its cost, the new conduit "was definitely an improvement," he said.

"We didn’t have any specific goal in mind when we started this," said Martin, a retired seminary and university professor. "We couldn’t think what it would become down the road."

Exceeding Founders’ Hopes

WEMC-FM 91.7, which this fall celebrates 50 years on the air, eclipsed its founders’ highest hopes. What was a booth with a 10-watt signal that barely traveled beyond school grounds now uses a 2,000-watt transmitter to reach listeners more than 40 miles away. A program once confined to chats about campus life today plays five styles of music and airs national and world news from two syndicates: British Broadcasting Corp. and National Public Radio.

Before being publicly licensed in 1955, EMU’s radio "station" existed as a wire speaker that barely worked.

"A [tree] limb would come down on the wire, and the wire would continually need repairing," Martin said. "It didn’t work very well."

The improved site, built mainly to upgrade broadcasts of church services, gradually grew to become the daily operation it is today. The station eventually moved from EMU’s chapel in what is now Lehman Auditorium to its current location at Astral Hall on the university’s west side.

Today, WEMC’s programming stresses news and public affairs. The station is on the air from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

With virtually no advertisers, WEMC relies almost exclusively on donations, said Jim Bishop, EMU’s director of public relations. Bishop has long-time ties to WEMC, and says the station’s noncommercial style affords WEMC more flexibility than its commercial counterparts. With no sponsors, WEMC can freelance more, including in its menu of public-service programs and weekend "specialty" music shows.

Cultural Clout

WEMC’s legion of managers includes the station’s newest director, Jon Kauffmann-Kennel, who came to EMU two years ago from a similar post at Goshen College in Indiana. While he is relatively new to his post, Kauffmann-Kennel, 51, is impressed with his station’s past. Kauffmann-Kennel applauds WEMC’s early patrons who, however unknowingly, chartered their station’s course with what he considers a progressive gift.

"The gift that the class of ’54 gave was very forward-looking," Kauffman-Kennel said. "In the Mennonite church contest of that era, technology and modern things like radio would have been looked at a little warily, so they were forward-looking, at least in terms of [creating] wider church attitudes toward broadcasting. But they also gave the university an opportunity to share its values with a wider audience, a larger community."

The station’s emphasis, Kauffmann-Kennel adds, has also stretched WEMC’s presence.

"Over 50 years, WEMC has gone from being more internally to more externally focused," Kauffmann-Kennel said. "The station’s original power didn’t carry too far beyond the [adjoining] Park View neighborhood. Now we’re tying to bring EMU to the community and the community to EMU."