Pitt’s 92.1 WPTS-FM expands progressive programming

By Amy Friedenberger

When Jeffrey Shucosky was a sophomore, he would sleep from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. because he had to… When Jeffrey Shucosky was a sophomore, he would sleep from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. because he had to host a radio show on WPTS during the dreaded late-night time slot.

He’d make the walk into the silent William Pitt Union, bypass the early-morning cleaning crew and play some jams from the deserted studio for anyone who happened to still be awake between 2 and 4 a.m.

“Occasionally, I’d have to wake up the security guard to let me back in,” the current senior said about his predawn dorm return. “I think she wondered where I went for those two hours.”

Nate Hanson, the station manager for 92.1 WPTS-FM, a 24/7 noncommercial station owned by Pitt and funded through the Student Activities Fund, referred to those time slots as “a rite of passage.”

Some traditions never change.

But this year, WPTS, composed of roughly 100 staff members, decided to “go against the status quo,” as Hanson called it, adding a host of new components to the radio, including a variety of new programming and projects, such as a magazine.

When WPTS formed at Pitt in 1957, 12 students made up the staff of the radio, which was on the AM dial and only reached students in the William Pitt Union and nearby dormitories. Since its inception 55 years ago, the students who make up WPTS have transformed the station into one that engages all of Pitt’s campus.

Pitt alumnus Adrian Cronauer, a former U.S. Air Force sergeant and radio personality, spearheaded the creation of WPTS. Cronauer would later serve as the inspiration for Robin Williams’ character in the 1987 film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Williams plays Cronauer, who arrives in Saigon to DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service. Cronauer gained popularity for his humorously witty shows.

Just as Williams’ character challenged the strict guidelines for music selection he was expected to follow, WPTS has similarly been challenging the mainstream music scene.

“We’ve been on air for a very long time,” said Hanson, who puts in anywhere from 30 to 35 hours a week at the radio. “We are specialized in progressive programming.”

Expanding on progressive radio

The term “progressive” is one that Hanson believes encapsulates WPTS.

“Essentially, anything you hear on WPTS is going to be progressive,” Hanson said. “Really what that means is that it’s cutting edge, fresh, something you can’t get anywhere else on an FM dial.”

In order to produce the station’s wide variety of programming, each WPTS staff member is required to put in two staff hours a week. Tasks for the hours can range from reviewing CDs to participating in “The Morning Show” from 7 to 9 a.m.

Students can play music from the automator, CDs, records, iPods or personal collections. The station houses more than 10,000 CDs and receives about 50 new ones each week from musicians looking to get air time.

To get their shows out to listeners, the WPTS staff members use an automator system and streaming options on their recently revamped website. A turn of the radio dial to 92.1 FM brings WPTS’s progressive music to the public.

But Hanson didn’t want the radio to just stick to music.

WPTS launched a new website that includes podcasts and displays shows that go on the air. New shows include “Ex Post Facto,” a discussion about political happenings; “Earthlings Talking Earth Things,” a show about environmental issues; “The Pitt News on WPTS,” on which the newspaper’s staff members host discussions about news issues; and “The Oakland Zoo Show,” an immersion into the Oakland Zoo that serves as a pregame show.

“One of my biggest initiatives was reaching out to different student organizations and having a greater presence on campus,” Hanson said.

Dan Scullin, the radio’s program director, approves what goes on the air. A new show he approved is the “Super Slot,” which gives DJs an hour to play whatever they want, but with the hopes that the material be “radically unique.” In the past, “Super Slot,” which airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m., has featured yodeling cowboys and grindcore — music that draws inspiration from genres such as death metal and industrial music.

“I’m excited about this year because I think we can really leave our own fingerprints on WPTS,” Scullin said.

Hanson’s inspiration for the year was spurred by his examining other professional media and finding that radio broadcasting didn’t need to keep the staff locked up in a studio all day.

So when he hired managers, he looked for the same innovation and creativity that he had at the back of his mind. The staff set up a projects board, and one idea that emerged was the creation of a magazine.

The 19-page magazine booklet included stories about the importance of progressive broadcasting.

And on March 12, immediately after students arrive back on campus from spring break, WPTS will host the group No Age for a spring concert.

The radio staff members also put their voices in print when they partnered up with The Pitt News at the beginning of this year. Through the partnership, WPTS staffers contribute stories to the Magazine and Weekender sections of the paper on Tuesdays and Thursdays, respectively, and Pitt News writers and editors take part in the weekly news show on the radio.

“It’s given us a lot of opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Michael Macagnone, the editor-in-chief of The Pitt News. He noted that allowing writers to take part in the station’s news show, which airs Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., provides them with experience in a new medium.

Building a legacy

On Wednesday afternoon, DJ Rachael Grace lounged in an office chair in a back studio surrounded by thousands of CDs, one shelf topped with Chuck Mangione and Donnie Iris albums. She was hosting her blues program and training senior Rodra Burruss, who wants to start a show on WPTS.

“Everyone has their own tastes and personality with their music, and it’s really cool to bring that out on the air,” Grace said.

She said the variety of programs WPTS offers provides the opportunity for anyone who has an idea for a show to fit in.

Right as WPTS staff members walk into the office, on the glass panel beside the wooden door — with a note that tells the last person to leave to lock the door — is taped a collage of achievements, jokes and memories. There’s a photo of a staffer at a Steelers game next to articles that ran in The Pitt News this year.

And there’s a black-and-white photo of a bearded Hanson from a year ago with the words “Legacy Maker” along the bottom. Staffers make the joke because their station manager always tells them to work hard, because they want their work to be remembered. Hanson will laugh, but he means it when he says it.

“Think about your legacy and what you’re going to leave behind,” he said.

Parthena Moisiadis contributed to this story.