The year is 1975.
In January, three men, including former attorney John Mitchell, are convicted for perjury stemming from the infamous Watergate break-in. Five months before, President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the scandal.
In April, the Vietnam War effectively ends with the fall of Saigon and the surrender of the South Vietnamese forces. Eight months later, neighboring Laos is taken over by communist forces.
With fears of global communism at a high and post-Watergate, anti-government, anti-establishment hysteria surging in the United States, a Georgetown student media outlet found itself engulfed in the antagonism that characterized 1975 and the years closely preceding and following it.
Speaking to the New York Times magazine, disgraced former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned against allegations of corruption two years earlier, said, “there is little will to oppose Communism in America anymore [and] the voice of third-world communism is pervasive in academia. WGTB … broadcasts what seems to be propaganda for the third world.”
Today, WGTB, Georgetown’s radio station, is an online-only station airing programs with various genres of music as well as some sports and other programming. Its programming is entirely student-produced and aimed at a student audience. But in the 1970s, it was an FM radio station, actively courting the listening ears of the general public in the Washington area with a unique music lineup and cutting-edge news content.
Pushing the limits during a turbulent period of American history, WGTB eventually ran afoul with the authorities during the
1970s. The events of that decade significantly shaped what the radio station is today and defined the college experiences of students who were actively involved with the production of its content. This weekend, alumni from the era are being invited back to campus for the station’s “AlumLive: the Radical History of WGTB Revealed” event.
During “AlumLive,” the station will broadcast as normal from its studio, while alumni will gather in Bulldog Alley next to WGTB’s current recording booth to socialize and share their stories. A microphone will be set up on the stage in Bulldog Alley for alumni to speak about their experiences, and they will also be able to see the recording studio if they have not before, said Caroline Klibanoff (COL ’12), general manager of WGTB.
The idea for the event was largely the result of happenstance, Klibanoff said. “Last spring, we were talking about how we should have a better relationship with our alumni because we really had none prior to this,” she said. “I was cleaning up our office and came across all these things, especially from the 1978 controversy about shutting down the station. They looked like some pretty secretive memos. I had known about the history of the station, but didn’t know all the details. I saw that this was a story that really needed to be told.”
Among the alumni that she reached out to, largely by making Facebook contacts, was Thomas O’Brien (COL ’74), who will attend the event this Saturday. He first became involved with WGTB in 1971 and worked his way up the station’s ranks, eventually becoming program director.
During his tenure, the station began to go in the alternative direction that would eventually secure its place in the history books. “When I was there, it was moving in the direction of the alternative radio station. When I was there, we moved from ribbon-read news — reading of the teletype — to a news collective, which was pretty controversial,” O’Brien said. “I thought it was important to be reflective of the community because that was the way things were going at the time.”
The programming that drew so much controversy would seem innocuous today. It included ride-sharing advertisements read over the air intended to facilitate the travels of change-minded youth wishing to travel the country protesting perceived injustice, as well as programming aimed at the gay community, which O’Brien said was, “pretty out there for a Jesuit college at the time.”
Initially, the university did not push back on the students and community members who ran WGTB. In fact, the biggest issue the university had with the station was WGTB’s refusal to air Georgetown basketball games. “They weren’t the national power that they are [today]. That was where we got the most pushback. I honestly do not recall getting any serious interference or negative suggestions or any kind of pressure from the administration at all,” O’Brien said.
With no resistance from the administration, WGTB stayed the course. “We took that [the lack of university interference] as assent rather than disinterest, so we kept pushing the boundaries. It was more the news group that was really pushing the boundaries during the time that I was involved because they were indeed quite anti-establishment. You have to remember, this was during the Vietnam War and during the Nixon administration. There was a lot of activism and we were part of that,” O’Brien said.
He said that as that activism progressed, there began to be signs of outside interference. “There were several attempts to rein in the station or shut it down,” he said. “I don’t know who was behind them. We had complaints. We had to react to the FCC. There were definitely people who were agitating to shut us up. That was going on for a number of years before the university powers just decided to give the problem away.”
Their way of giving the problem away: selling it to the University of the District of Columbia in 1979 for $1.
But the sale came after several years of cutting the station’s operating budget, making it difficult for WGTB to broadcast as normal. In a 1978 letter to general manager John Uttenweiler, staffers Matthew Moore and Reggie Terrell wrote that, “the equipment is in such a f***ed up and sorry state that we have come to the point we never thought we would.”
Caroline Klibanoff thinks that the university ultimately decided to spin off the station because it was airing ads for contraception, broadcasting anti-Vietnam War content, and was largely run by community members rather than Georgetown students. Community members involved included station manager Ken Sleeman, who ran Georgetown Radio from 1971-1975 as a paid employee, despite having no previous affiliation with Georgetown. (He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Maryland at College Park.) Sleeman could not be reached for comment.
The biggest blow came in 1997. “UDC sold it [WGTB] to C-SPAN for $25 million. So that’s why we don’t have an FM station,” Klibanoff said. In the 1980s and 1990s, WGTB broadcast in AM format, rarely with a signal that reached beyond the front gates and never with the official call letters WGTB. In 1996, the station went to its current online-only format.
In spite of all the changes that WGTB went through after Thomas O’Brien and his colleagues graduated, they still treasure their time working together and look forward to returning this weekend.
“The people that worked at WGTB during that period through ’79 kind of all stayed in touch, and they even had some informal reunions before Facebook. Certainly, the [WGTB alumni] Facebook page has helped sweep people up. My exposure to radio during those years was very valuable,” he said.