Memory Lane: Kick Out the Jams

By students, for students, WPGU plays the sounds of summer, all year long

By students, for students, WPGU plays the sounds of summer, all year long

WPGU group, circa 1970s

“I know everyone likes to say their era was the best, but when it comes to radio, I think for my generation that’s true,” says Lynne Stiefel, ’77 MEDIA. “WPGU influenced students, introduced them to new artists and didn’t talk down to them. It truly was the soundtrack of our lives.” Above: WPGU group, circa 1970s (Image courtesy of Illini Media)


When WPGU first hit the airwaves in 1953, it featured an hour of news, an hour of classical and an hour of jazz.

Over the next 70 years, its format would change several times, from progressive rock to alternative to indie, with other stops in between, but one thing would always remain the same: The music it plays caters to the current tastes of Illinois students.

Which makes sense—it is, after all, a student-run radio station.

For the thousands of Illinois alumni who’ve worked there, WPGU 107.1 was not just a job or a training ground for a career in broadcasting. It was a way of life. And for some, it was all-consuming. “I practically lived at the station,” says Jim Hattendorf, ’66 MEDIA. “I spent all my days and nights there!”

That’s a common refrain from many WPGU alums. Another is that working at the station made them into the people they are today. “It gave my life direction,” says Craig Beardsley, ’79 BUS, and helped him become an adult.

Like Beardsley, Jack Schmerer, ’76 MEDIA, and Kevin Sanji, ’17 MEDIA, remember learning more from working at the station than they did in their classes.

WPGU DJ at a radio control panel with headphones on speaking into a microphone.

WPGU DJ kicks out the jams. (Image courtesy of Illini Media)

Of course, says Rick Kaempfer, ’85 MEDIA, that wasn’t an indictment of their classes.

Rather, it was an endorsement of the rare and wondrous experience of working at a 24/7, independent, commercial radio station, where plans could and did change at a moment’s notice, and you had to think on your feet, live on the air.

“We learned by doing,” recalls Jim Grimes, ’71 FAA, MUP ’73, “including making mistakes.”

Sometimes, those mistakes turned into opportunities, as for Charlie Meyerson, ’77 MEDIA, MS ’78 MEDIA, who “always had a Pink Floyd cut ready, just in case!”

Other times, things went awry and stayed that way.

Rama Vallury, ’09 LAS, and I would invite drunks from Green Street into the studio and put them on mic every Saturday night,” says David Sitrick, ’08 LAS. “We learned that drunk college students will swear on-air, even when you tell them they can’t. I have no idea why anyone let us do this or how we didn’t incur any FCC violations.”

black and white ads

WPGU ads from The Daily Illini (Images courtesy of Illini Media)

While some DJs behaved as agents of chaos, others used their airtime as a platform for social awareness. Kim Love, ’75 FAA, hosted “Kim Love’s Soul Explosion,” one of the few radio shows in central Illinois that targeted a Black audience. “I incorporated a lot of community-focused information, including interviews with community leaders and artists,” he says. “My proudest moment was when I produced a live remote broadcast in [Champaign’s] Douglass Park, in the heart of the African American community.”

Remote broadcasts, in fact, would become one of WPGU’s hallmarks, with the station “hosting bar nights, tailgate events, concerts and festivals,” recalls JoAnne Pazderski, ’97 MEDIA.

“Our social lives were our work lives,” she adds, “and the station provided invaluable real-world experience.”

Decades later, Pazderski and many other WPGU alums who went on to careers in broadcasting give full credit to the station for acting as their launching pad.

“It’s the reason I spent about 50 years in the broadcast news business,” says John Paul, ’77 MEDIA, MS ’10 MEDIA, a retired U of I lecturer in journalism.

Susan Santoro, ’92 MEDIA, MS ’93 MEDIA, feels the same way. “It was the best learning laboratory that I ever could have asked for,” she says. “And to this day, my college friends forever regard me as ‘cool’ because of what I did at WPGU.”

DJ working from a table outside.

One of the station’s famous remote broadcasts. (Image courtesy of Illini Media)