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The fight for UW radio
GM Dave Black recalls the long, hard battle on WSUM's fifth anniversary

Black (left): 'It's important that we succeed on a high level.'
Black (left): 'It's important that we succeed on a high level.'
Credit:Timothy Hughes
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WSUM celebrates five years of broadcasting at 91.7 FM this week, but for Dave Black, the station has been a 14-year labor of love.

Being the general manager of UW-Madison's campus radio station isn't the career he was planning on. Still, Black was all smiles last week when he recounted the unlikely event in 1993 that changed the course of his life.

Four UW students increased the power of the unlicensed Lakeshore halls radio station, WLHA, thereby triggering a complaint from the Federal Communications Commission.

'WLHA had jacked up their signal to the point where it interfered with another station,' recalls Black.

'The FCC called them. Stephen Thompson [former Onion arts editor] was the music director at the time and took the call. The FCC asked them to shut down, so they did.'

For the Lakeshore radio faithful, a core group that included Thompson, Scooter Pegram, Brian Machart and Mark Halstead, the event commenced their mission to bring legitimate college radio to UW-Madison.

Their first two allies: Dave Black and professor James Hoyt.

'I was a T.A. for the radio news class taught by Dr. Hoyt,' says Black. 'The Lakeshore students approached us to ask if we would help get a station back on the air.'

'We said yes, but we set some conditions. The station had to be licensed, the UW had to endorse it, and it had to be run in a way where there could be continuity.'

At the time, Black could not have predicted how this offer to help would eventually change his plans to become a professor of communications.

By 1994, he had taken charge of planning and researching how a new station would get on the air. His work turned into a project assistantship in 1995 and a full-time job soon after.

The irony was this: Black had intentionally turned away from radio after spending the 1980s reporting, editing and directing news and sports for three West Coast commercial stations.

He began in 1981 as a sports reporter for KXL-AM in Portland, Ore. In 1984 he was hired to direct news and sports for KTDO-AM and KCEL-FM in the small community of Toledo, near the Oregon coast.

In 1987 Black moved to San Francisco to pursue a master's degree in radio and TV. He spent his weekends as the news editor for KSRO-AM in Santa Rosa. By the time he arrived in Madison in 1991 with his eye on a doctoral degree, his interests had changed.

'As far as I was concerned, I was through with radio,' says Black. 'What I wanted to do was produce pro-social, documentary-style music videos.'

That all changed when he took up the cause of bringing student radio to UW-Madison.

'About that time the athletic department decided it was not going to accept segregated fees anymore. ASM [Associated Students of Madison] was looking for a one-time way to invest the funds left in their budget. We got them to put a referendum on the ballot, which passed, and in their 1995-96 budget, ASM granted us an amount sufficient to build a tower.'

Getting the tower built almost proved to be a career project of its own for Black. The FCC directed that the tower be built in the rural town of Montrose. But the town board chair objected, saying the tower was an eyesore.

'There was a whole process that I hadn't anticipated,' says Black. 'The zoning approval from the county ended up taking four years to get.'

WSUM began netcasting in 1998. On Feb. 22, 2002, at 2:22 p.m., the station began broadcasting on the radio dial at 91.7 FM.

Today WSUM broadcasts more than 100 different shows each week featuring a wide variety of music, sports and talk.

With each new semester, student DJs come and go, but it's Black who provides the continuity essential to their success. After all, some of today's DJs were grade-schoolers when he and the Lakeshore gang first made their plan.

'I do love the station, and I feel responsible for it,' he says.

Black motivates his current staff to make the station the best it can be, in part by recalling the long fight others endured to make Madison student radio a reality.

'We had two generations of students who worked on this without ever getting the chance to be on the air, so it's important now that we succeed at a high level.'

WSUM's fifth anniversary party is Saturday, Feb. 24, 9 p.m., at the UW Memorial Union Rathskeller. It features Houses in Motion, a Talking Heads cover band.

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