When student G. Irvin Lehman wrote an English paper in the 1930s suggesting that Eastern Mennonite College would start a radio station in the future, opposition to the idea was so strong that he was reprimanded for his idea. A little more than twenty years later, broadcasting equipment was installed into the balcony of the chapel-auditorium, and WEMC became Virginia’s first noncommercial public radio station.
Today, the station is managed and operated by James Madison University and almost exclusively plays automated classical music. But for years it was a community fixture that broadcast chapel services, “educational programming” and a variety of music, all facilitated by student-announcers and engineers.
Once reviled, radio becomes a ‘missionary project’
It’s not clear at what point Mennonite attitudes toward radio broadcasting began to change, but in 1950, a Mennonite men’s quartet named The Crusaders began to sing live on Saturday mornings for 15 minutes on a local Harrisonburg station, WSVA. Within two years, the program expanded as The Mennonite Hour, which was considered “a missionary project of the church.” By the end of 1953, the program was broadcast on 35 stations and EMC offered up space for recording.
In 1954, WEMC was founded with money from the class of 1954 and The Mennonite Hour became Mennonite Broadcasting Incorporated – which is now known as Mennonite Media.
By the late 1950s, WEMC was running up to 70 weekly programs such as “Mennonite Hour Chorus,” “Titus Bender’s ‘Point for Today,’” and “Children’s Story Time” from the balcony of the chapel. The station used a ten-watt transmitter, which had “a signal that barely got off campus on a windy day,” according to alumnus Jim Bishop who worked at the station both as a student and later as EMC staff.
WEMC broadcast daily Bible readings (Alexander Scourby recorded on vinyl, Bishop remembers), regular chapel services, community and public service announcements, and coverage of home women’s and men’s basketball games. Bishop hosted a weekly campus activities report, as well as “Focal Point,” a public affairs program.
“I always wished there were more student-produced programs,” Bishop said. “Someone would get one rolling and then it would end when the student graduated or lost interest.”
Alum Dwight Wyse has similar memories of programming. “I remember one program that I did for a number of years called ‘Folk Music Around the World,’” he said. “That was on Saturday nights. I got married between my junior and senior year and my wife and I would go up to run that program together. We played anything from The Singing Nuns to Simon and Garfunkel.”
One year during the biannual revival services hosted on campus, “the Holy Spirit seemed to be present,” remembered broadcaster Terry Cowan. Regular programming was dropped for the rest of the day, as students and faculty shared testimonies until the evening.
From Lehman to Astral Hall
In the early 1970s, WEMC, needing more space, moved up the hill into the recently renovated Astral Hall. The higher vantage point boosted the station’s signal beyond the campus borders and into the greater Harrisonburg area.
Cowan served as WEMC’s station manager for a number of years and was instrumental in facilitating the move. Cowan, like Wyse and Bishop, learned how to broadcast on the job, as there wasn’t any training available to the students who wanted to work in the station at that time.
“During my time at WEMC, my vision was to provide a window so that the community could see what was going on at the college,” he said. “Before the station existed, there were guys who strung telephone wires throughout the community to they could put speakers in people’s homes so the community could listen to chapel.”
Today, WEMC has a 2000-watt transmitter and is broadcast up and down the Shenandoah Valley. But in the 1960s and ‘70s, “we were limited in our power because of Sugar Grove observatory to the west,” said Wyse. “They tightly controlled how far you could send your signal.” (Sugar Grove Observatory is still part of a United States National Radio Quiet Zone, in which radio transmitters are strongly controlled so that scientific research and military intelligence work can be conducted.)
Wyse graduated in 1968, but was the play-by-play announcer for men’s basketball games for a decade. He said one particular game stands out. In 1971, James Madison University played EMC in the old gym. At the time, JMU wasn’t the athletic powerhouse it is today; it was close game. In the last second, EMU (who had been behind) scored and won the game.
“I was speechless,” Wyse said.
Unable to let listeners know what had just happened, he looked for help from his fellow commentator. But his partner was gone. He had abandoned his post and was jumping around on the court in celebration.
By the mid-1980s, WEMC was playing more and more contemporary Christian music and holding bi-yearly “WEMC Weekends” to raise financial support for the station. Student-announcers would volunteer for 30-hour-plus “marathon” fundraisers. Some years they met their goals, but increasingly they didn’t.
It’s not entirely clear why the station began struggle. Money certainly had something to do with it (pledges became harder to secure) but also student interest in running the station began to wane. In 2007, James Madison University took over the day-to-day running of WEMC, although EMU continues to own the station and license. Students are no longer involved. An EMU advisory board determines programming, which includes broadcasting Park View Mennonite Church’s service every Sunday following the hour and a half musical program “Mostly Mennonite, Mostly A Capella.”
“I think that the original purpose has been changed and I am sorry to see that,” said Cowan. “I think it would better serve the college’s interests if it was still operated as an arm of the college.”
Bishop, who ran a show right up until the JMU take over of the station, agrees. Many alums who were heavily involved with the station over the years view the transition as a tragedy.
But for now the arrangement is working. Since the station moved to mostly classical music, listenership has doubled and the station remains alive. (Financial difficulties were such that by the mid-2000s some suggested the station should close entirely.) And, should the desire and drive emerge in a new generation of students, the station is still there, waiting for new voices to revive the rich tradition.
Editor’s note: While freelancing for EMU marketing and communications, Kara Lofton ’14 also reported for WMRA in Harrisonburg. She is now Appalachia Health News Coordinator at West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
This is the third article in an occasional series leading up to Eastern Mennonite University’s Centennial celebration in 2016-2017. Other articles have featured Park Woods Cabin and the first female pre-med student.