This article was published in the March 21, 1997 edition of The Phoenix.
It was written by Elizabeth Weber.

How WSRN began

"We called it the 'Swarthmore Network', or 'SN'," said Howard Tompkins '42. "Our first studio was up in the dome of Parrish, right next to the math department office. That's where we first plugged our plug into the wall and didn't get electrocuted."

In it's early days, WSRN was not a licensed radio station. It had no antenna on top of Parrish. Instead, in early 1940, Tompkins, Donald Stix '41 and Eugene Ackerman '41 built their own AM radio equipment and plugged their signal into the college power supply. As The Phoenix wrote nearly 10 years later, in March of 1948, "The net result is that promptly every lampcord, desk lamp, lightbulb, razor, and, for all we know, pants presser, becomes part of SN's antenna. Wherever there's electricity, there's SN."

The network first existed only in Parrish, but it was soon extended to Wharton, to Bond, and by Tompkins' senior year, to PPR (then known as "The Preps"). Adding more dorms to the network was a matter of working around the shielding in the power transformers in each building, not of stringing cable, he said.

Joe Rutledge '50 explained that after Swarthmore purchased the Mary Lyon buildings, "The idea was to have a transmitter down there. I don't remember if we ever did...I lived in ML and got the signal directly off the feed as audio".

Since SN's actual broadcasting power was extremely weak, it wasn't subject to FCC regulations. However, Tompkins explained, "There was a small problem in that when we plugged the signal into the 110 volt line it would sometimes go out through the town of Swarthmore as well. You see, we got our power from the Philadelphia Electric Company part of the time, and the campus generated its own power some of the time, as an economy measure, and they would switch back and forth... that made a difference as to where the signal went. I don't think it was a problem at that time. It's quite possible we weren't always totally legal, but nobody called us on it." He said that the station probably switched to FM broadcasting with an antenna sometime in the 1950's, at the same time that many other college radio stations made the same switch.

Of the three station founders, Tompkins recalled, he was the one most responsible for the actual broadcasts. SN operated for a few hours in the evenings, "to provide a background for study," mostly playing music from the college collection of Classical music records. However, the station did broadcast some campus news and commentary, and "we inveigled a few professors to talk about themselves, interview style", he said.

By the time Dot Swerdlove '48 became involved with the station, it also broadcast radio plays. "We did one original one, 'The Week of Augustus Grunch', and I was an actress in 'No Exit'", she said. "We had scripts and read before the microphone. 'Radio Workshop' was what we called the drama part of the station."

"We broadcast from all over campus," Rutledge said. The station broadcast campus speakers, chorus performances, home games, occasional concerts in Philadelphia, and more. "We went even further than Philadelphia," he said. We followed the football team wherever it went: Johns Hopkins, wherever. We'd do it over a telephone line into the studio...that was standard radio broadcast practice at the time. A couple of people with a remote box would drive out with the cable."

Rutledge said that the WSRN commentary at home football games also went over the PA system into the football stands. "Not everything was put on the field that was on the air, but the same announcer would do both....[the announcer] learned to control his language; he'd been a marine in the island campaign in the Pacific!"

The 1943 Halcyon noted that SN "saw the opening of its new and much-needed Trotter studio" that year. "It was on the first floor, in the southwest corner, " Rutledge remembered. "There was a music department room with a grand piano. We had a booth in the northwest corner of the room. That was Studio A. There was also a sound insulated control room for the announcer, or the disk jockey, or whomever."

I asked Rutledge if he'd ever heard the legends about the FCC shutting WSRN down after the station used the railroad tracks as a giant, powerful antenna. He said he'd never heard the story, and doubted it was true. "The railroad tracks are pretty thoroughly grounded," he said. "I don't know how feasible that would be. It was enough trouble to get the signal through to all of the dorms."

Notes: There's a good overview what WSRN did and how in the 2/21/51 issue of The Phoenix. There was some discussion of spending the money to switch to FM in the Spring of 1950, many arguments pro and con can be found in Phoenix issues. WSRN went off the air in 1960, when Trotter underwent a serious renovation; by 1964, WSRN was back on the airwaves, in new studios atop Parish Hall.

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