At exactly 4:00 pm on September 21st, 1960, UC's chimes rang out and chief announcer George Brengel announced the birth of WGUC. Since that time WGUC has produced a vast array of entertaining and informative programming.
As WGUC celebrates its past and looks forward to its future, we invite you to listen in on the station's history.
WGUC has been Greater Cincinnati's source for quality classical music for more than 50 years. To some, hitting the big 5-0 means "over the hill." But not WGUC. We're just barely getting started. But, then, just exactly how did we get started...
The Heir to a Rich Musical Tradition: WGUC signed on the air at 4:00 p.m. on September 21, 1960 from its original home at the University of Cincinnati with Joseph Sagmaster as director of broadcasting.
For a city with pretensions to musical greatness, Cincinnati, in the late 1950's, offered meager listening opportunities for classical music fans. Citizens who could afford the price of symphony and opera tickets or an extensive record library were well served. But those who twirled their radio dials hoping to fill the gaps between visits to Music Hall and the Zoo Opera found little gratification in local commercial broadcasting.
Magee Adams, radio critic for the Cincinnati Enquirer, wrote that there was "little, if any" classical music broadcast before 10:00 am; that of the five full time AM stations, only WKRC broadcast any classical music—and that was only four hours a week, including the three hours of the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.
To many in the community, the dearth of broadcast classical music was intolerable—especially since WOSU in Columbus broadcast at least forty-eight hours weekly of fine music at peak listening hours, and on a regular basis. Dan Ransohoff, Bruce Petrie and Addison Lanier, local classical music enthusiasts and members of the Queen City Association, served as the Association's committee charged with the task of bringing WOSU (via a repeater station) or its equivalent to Cincinnati.
Publicity from the Association's efforts brought forth an astonishing response from the entire tri-state area—well over 1500 citizens sent postcards and letters decrying the lack of classical music and fine arts broadcasting in Cincinnati and urged the Queen City Association to persist in its drive.
Shortly after the idea of "another WOSU" had been launched, Ransohoff discussed the idea with Walter Langsam, President of the University of Cincinnati, and learned, to his regret, that such a project was not likely to be given very high priority in view of the many other demands taxing the University's resources at that time.
This set the stage for many more meetings, explorations and discussion, lasting for almost another three years before the vision came to fruition. And, obviously, the University of Cincinnati, after much persuasion and investigation, changed their position on the matter.
WGUC Voices: The 'voices of WGUC' include George Brengel, Carolyn Watts, Oscar Treadwell, Myron Bennett, Paul Laumann as well as John Birge, Elaine Kennedy, Mark Perzel and Gary Barton
Granted, this brief outline is but a mere thumbnail of all the work that went into the creation of WGUC, but it gives you some idea of the lengths to which the committee members were willing to go to insure broadcast classical music would be heard on a regular basis in Cincinnati.
On September 21, 1960, at 4:00 pm, almost three full years after the Queen City Association launched its campaign, radio station WGUC went on the air. U.C. president Walter Langsam named Joseph Sagmaster, an editorial writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, as the station's first manager. Sagmaster, a Rhodes scholar, matched his erudition with a deep love of fine music. His program notes for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra were exemplary, and his prestige in music circles brought attention to WGUC which it could not have otherwise attracted.
WGUC initially broadcast from 4:00 pm to 11:00 pm weekdays, and 12:30 pm to 7:30 pm on Sundays, with forty percent drama and discussion, and sixty percent music (somewhat less than initially promised). WGUC immediately became a montage of the voices and talents of a series of personalities who endeared themselves to the listening audience. The first voice heard on the air was chief announcer George Brengel, a well-known figure in commercial radio. Carolyn Watts served in many capacities, including announcer. Within a year, Myron Bennett joined the staff, bringing with him a rich knowledge of classical music and jazz, which was to serve the station well for many years.
In the last episode of our tale, Myron Bennett had just joined WGUC as Music Programmer. Equally facile in dealing with jazz, classical and contemporary music, Bennett had been attracted to the station by the potential for learning offered by the musical resources in Cincinnati. It was Bennett's persuasive analysis of these resources which won for WGUC a special grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to develop a standard of excellence in music programming for use as a model by other public radio stations.
When the first general manager of WGUC, Joseph Sagmaster, retired in 1969, the task of leading the station into the new decade was left to former announcer and Program Director George Bryant. It was Bryant who led the station into the status as an independent arm of the University from its place as adjunct to an academic department, in a sense giving recognition to WGUC as a valuable extension of the University.
Imaginative and innovative music programs were enco
WGUC Today and Tomorrow: we are proud of our heritage of community involvement and service to our listeners.
Encouraged from the very beginning, and despite many limitations imposed by the available equipment and facilities, WGUC moved into the front rank of public radio stations. As the listening audience grew, the voices, personalities, and fine programming of Paul Laumann, Carolyn Watts, Gary Barton and Ann Santen enhanced the loyalty of thousands of listeners, whose financial support was becoming increasingly important.
The CPB Special Music Grant had been made on an increasing-decreasing basis and itself included seed money to encourage development of local support, financial and otherwise. Community financial support had been forthcoming since the station's founding, with the active involvement of the same members of the Queen City Association who had encouraged that founding. But the contemplated phasing out of the CPB grant, and the CPB requirement of broad community involvement, called for better organized, regular fund raising efforts.
On November 28, 1973, the first meeting of the WGUC Community Board was held. The Board quickly undertook three main tasks: to increase public awareness of WGUC; to encourage private donations for replacement of the declining CPB grant; and to assist the staff in understanding the community's programming tastes. The Board's efforts soon paid off in increased financial resources, a wider listening audience, and greater program diversity. To assist the station's development, John Magro, an enthusiastic and well known activist in cultural circles, became Development Director.
In the fall of 1976, Albert Hulsen became manager of WGUC and began a new era of development and growth. Hulsen's first post in public radio had been, ironically at WOSU in Columbus, at the the very time of the Cincinnati overtures. From Ohio State, Hulsen moved into increasingly important positions in public radio. As Director of Radio activities for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, Hulsen finally was able to penetrate CPB's preoccupation with television and to divert significant funding to radio. Later, his decision to come to Cincinnati was strongly influenced by WGUC's success with the CPB special music grant, the "high profile" being given WGUC by the Community Board, and the position accorded the station in the University policy.
Putting WGUC on the Air: Many people contribute to WGUC's daily broadcast of classical music.
In addition to many administrative improvements, Hulsen moved to upgrade the public affairs portion of the station's programming. Long intrigued by the potential of public radio for thorough examination of local news, Hulsen increased the station's coverage under the leadership of News Director Bob Stevenson.
Hulsen also took full advantage of the fine talents of James Stitt, who became Chief Engineer. Stitt's imagination and expertise enabled WGUC to successfully link up on a regular basis with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Opera, and the LaSalle Quartet. By using the Subsidiary Communications Authorization (SCA), the station was able to broadcast on a "side band" simultaneously with its regular signal to provide special programs for the blind.
A collaboration with WCET, Channel 48, made possible, on April 4, 1979, the first of many WGUC/WCET "simulcasts," permitting listeners to watch musical performances and hear them stereophonically over their FM receivers via WGUC.
As WGUC entered the 1980s, huge changes were looming on the horizon; not only in the technology used for production and broadcasting, but in the station's physical location as well.
The first year of the new decade saw WGUC move from its cramped 20-year-old headquarters on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The new (and still current) digs, located in the Crosley Telecommunications Center on Central Parkway, offered plenty of space for expansion as needed, and the implementation of more and more "high-tech" equipment. The new equipment was more than just a toy, but essential to WGUC's assuming a leadership role in national programming, production and distribution.
The Eighties were a period of tremendous growth. Through a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and partnership with international broadcasting organizations, WGUC was able to make available the first U.S. broadcast of the entire Bayreuth Festival, the Berlin Philharmonic's Centennial Season and Europe's most prestigious musical events.
In 1983, Lisa Ledin (one of the new announcers added in that decade) hosted, in both English and Swedish, the nation's first transatlantic digital satellite broadcast-a live concert from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "I had written the script for the broadcast and had become familiar and comfortable with the Swedish version," recalls Lisa. "But at a reception the night before the broadcast, the Swedish producer looked at it and made several changes, adding long Swedish words of three and four syllables that I wasn't familiar with. Keep in mind that the last time I had studied Swedish was when I was 17. So I got him to read the new version on tape, and the morning before the broadcast, I listened to it over and over. It sure didn't help my nervous jitters, but the broadcast went beautifully."
In February of the next year, WGUC worked with the European Broadcasting Union to produce a live transatlantic digital satellite broadcast of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to nine countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The European connection was via the BBC in London and required the use of two separate satellites. This groundbreaking transmission was hosted by Gary Barton, and featured a work by Cincinnati composer Jonathon Kramer. WGUC's digital transmission of this program was so successful that the EBU decided not to transmit in analog from the United States anymore.
The station's next major production of the decade was a live nationwide broadcast of the opening gala at the new Riverbend Music Center. The concert featured Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, former astronaut Neil Armstrong, famed jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel. Again our workhorse announcer Gary Barton was at the helm, and recalls fondly, "All the backstage rooms were not completed by opening night, so I was put in a make-shift sound booth that was next to the toilet. During the broadcast, someone flushed the toilet, and it wouldn't stop running, making it impossible to either concentrate on the script or be heard over the rush of water. Ann Santen grabbed my script, I got the microphone and we headed out on to the patio to continue. It was raining! I was trying to hold an umbrella, the microphone, the script, announce... when along comes a gust of wind and blows the script all over the place. The rest of it was ad lib, but we got through it. The joys of live broadcasting!"
The Eighties brought about another first for WGUC—the commissioning of new compositions. In honor of the stations 20th anniversary, WGUC commissioned seven College-Conservatory of Music composers to write new pieces that WGUC would then broadcast throughout the United States and Europe.
WGUC advanced in fields other than broadcasting. 1985 saw the first issue of ArtScape roll off the presses, providing members with a monthly magazine and program guide. The station also received the prestigious Post-Corbett award in 1985, in recognition of its service to the community.
Prior to her appointment as General Manager and Executive Director in the summer of 1989, Ann Santen commented on the challenges facing WGUC and public radio at the time. Her observations were a fore- shadowing of the station's course through the 1990s. She told The Downtowner, "Most public radio stations have viewed themselves in the past as educational facilities and/or cultural institutions. Public radio is now going through a crisis in learning how to be a radio stat ion... Public radio is really looking at itself very closely these days...We're trying to figure out what kinds of music people want at what times of day, when they're doing what kinds of things." The station was learning how to become more audience focused.
Several factors caused this self-examination. Funding was shifting from traditional institutional and government sources toward more audience-based revenue. Competition for a person's time and attention was increasing exponentially. WGUC's audience was decreasing. As a result, WGUC needed to understand its listeners' wants and needs and work to meet those needs to rebuild the audience.
The station recommitted itself to providing the area with the finest classical music. This renewed focus on classical music, combined with budgetary realities, necessitated the end of local news production. The broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion was also discontinued. Throughout the 1990s, WGUC continued focusing its format around locally produced classical music programming and in-depth news from NPR's All Things Considered. Oscar Treadwell's Jazz With OT moved to WVXU in 1995. Syndicated orchestra concert programs were dropped later in the decade.
The winds of change were also blowing behind the scenes. From its beginning, WGUC operated as a department of the University of Cincinnati. As a radio station in a rapidly changing technological industry, WGUC didn't fit into the educational administrative system very well. Funding was also a critical issue for the University as a whole. The leadership of WGUC's Community Board and the University of Cincinnati recognized that WGUC could improve its ability to operate successfully in these new times if management had more flexibility in day-to-day matters. On July 1, 1994, WGUC changed its relationship with the University of Cincinnati and became a separate tax-exempt non-profit organization-Cincinnati Classical Public Radio, Inc. (CCPR). UC maintained ownership of the station's license and contracted with CCPR, Inc. to manage the station. WGUC's Community Advisory Board became the Board of Trustees of CCPR, Inc.
Then came the 1994 elections. The victorious Republicans started work on their "Contract With America" which included the call for the end of federal funding for Public Broadcasting. The threat was a wake-up call to public stations across the country. A broad base of support, with funding from a variety of sources, had been WGUC's goal since the start of the decade. This strategy was proving to be the path to survival. The station's membership program was one of the most developed in the country and was continuing to grow and mature. Underwriting support became an important revenue focus. Events like the Cincinnati International Wine Festival were used to generate new sources of revenue. In the end, a groundswell of support for public broadcasting kept federal funding coming to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. However, WGUC and the public radio system experienced first-hand the importance of long-term strategic planning and sound fiscal management.
In 1996, WGUC saw more change on the local and national level. At the start of the year, General Manager Ann Santen retired after more than 13 years of service to the station. She was succeeded by Brenda Pennell, who came to WGUC from a small town in Virginia. She was immediately faced with the repercussions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This act deregulated the broadcasting industry and changed the rules for media ownership. Broadcasting companies began to merge at a rapid pace, once again changing WGUC's competitive landscape. Pennell formed alliances with classical music public radio stations WKSU (Kent OH) and Colorado Public Radio (a statewide network based in Denver), and began to collaborate on classical music programming. Pennell resigned to become General Manager of KUSC in Los Angeles in 1997.
In the interim, while a nationwide search was being conducted for a new General Manager, the station was guided by Christina Phelps, WGUC's Vice-President for Marketing. Richard Eiswerth came on board from Tampa, Florida as WGUC's eighth General Manager on July 1, 1998.
Collaborating on a national level rekindled an interest in national production, paving the way for the production and national distribution of WGUC's award-winning holiday programs Tunes from the Crypt© and A Feast for the Ears© at the end of the decade. To fulfill its mission of introducing classical music to the next generation of listeners, WGUC began to broadcast Classics for Kids© at the end of 1998. Classics for Kids© is now distributed nationally to 17 radio stations and available across the globe via podcasts at www.classicsforkids.com.
Throughout the 1990s, WGUC listeners enjoyed the companionship of some of public radio's finest classical music announcers. The decade began with Myron Bennett, John Birge, Lisa Ledin, Peggy Schmidt and Gary Barton. Bennett's retirement and the departures of Ledin and Schmidt brought Mark Perzel and Elaine Kennedy to WGUC's airwaves. Suzanne Bona joined the station in 1996. Birge moved to Minnesota Public Radio in September, 1997. The following month Brian O'Donnell became part of the announcing staff. Naomi Lewin and Frank Johnson followed soon after.
It was also during the 1990s that John Birge's annual Thanksgiving Day program became a tradition that continues today; Gary Barton explored an eclectic mix of music with The Classical Gourmet, breaking new ground in the appreciation of contemporary and world music; and the local performances and cultural events of Cincinnati's rich music and arts organizations were introduced to the community through Music Cincinnati, Bach's Lunch, PM Plus and Cincinnati Spotlight.
WGUC's commitment to the creation of new classical music continued during the 1990s. The station commissioned seven new works including Philip Koplow's Legacy: J. Ralph Corbett, in honor of the Cincinnati philanthropist and patron of the arts; May-Tchi Chen's Continuum, to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the College-Conservatory of Music at UC; Jeffrey Mumford's a still radiance within dark air, a piece written for WGUC's 35th anniversary; and John Harbison's Six American Painters, on the occasion of Ann Santen's retirement. The tradition continued with the commissioning of composer-conductor Carmon DeLeone to write a work in honor of the station's 40th Anniversary.
Technology played a very large role in WGUC's history throughout the end of the last century. The music library converted from all LPs to all CDs. Digital editing techniques and equipment made razor blades and tape obsolete. In 1995, WGUC launched its first website. In 1998, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded a revolutionary project to put WGUC's music library on computer hard drive. Today, you can listen to WGUC live on the Internet from anywhere around the world.
In 2002, Cincinnati Classical Public Radio Inc. became the broadcast license holder for 90.9 WGUC as the University of Cincinnati formally ended its ownership and transferred the station's license to the non-profit organization. This fundamental strategic change set the stage for one of the most transformative events in WGUC's classical music history.
In 2005, the face of public radio in Cincinnati changed dramatically with Cincinnati Classical Public Radio's purchase of 91.7 WVXU from Xavier University. The university had decided to sell the station to help fund several campus-wide initiatives. As part of strategic planning discussions, the board of Cincinnati Classical Public Radio had identified the value of adding a second station to better serve the news and information audience, allowing WGUC to become a full time classical radio station.
Early 2006 saw the technological advances at… the Cinergy Foundation. More than 130,000 listeners now tune to 90.9 fm for classical music each week, as well as for many local musical events… throughout the area.
WGUC's live signal can also be heard around the world via the Internet online at wguc.org, through the FREE WGUC app, or by asking your smart speaker to “Play WGUC” or “Open Cincinnati Classical.”
In December 2008, 90.9 WGUC earned the distinction as the best performing classical radio station in the country according to a comprehensive report issued by the Station Resource Group and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The report examined the performance of 30 major classical stations in 50 markets, both public and commercial, using a model that combined a station's audience measurements with market characteristics. In the final analysis, WGUC came out on top.
While the current environment presents unprecedented challenges, it also holds promise of significant opportunities for improving and broadening WGUC's service… providing the highest quality classical music programming for the Greater Cincinnati community.
Many thanks to Bruce I. Petrie for permission to excerpt his history of WGUC, written for the Cincinnati Historical Bulletin, Summer 1981.