There are big doings at WGLT this year. Illinois State’s National Public Radio-affiliated station at 89.1 and 103.5 FM bid adieu to longtime general manager Bruce Bergethon in December and marked its 50th anniversary in February.
Bergethon provided stability in the station’s top post for 25 years. He was a link between the station’s founding—GLT’s first professional general manager, Ben Paxton, hired Bergethon—and its emergence as an award-winning news and music operation that generates about $700,000 in annual community support.
“It’s a good time for some new ideas to come in,” Bergethon said. “I didn’t intend to stay this long.”
Bergethon led the station through two format changes, two potentially devastating funding rows, and into the digital age where people worldwide can listen to the station over the Internet.
Aesthetically and in substance, the erudite, music-loving Bergethon has epitomized public radio in the Twin Cities. He hosted two shows from the station’s Old Union studios: the folk music-centric Acousticity, which has continued since his retirement, and Poetry Radio, which has not.
“Probably better than anybody else, Bruce understands the educational role a station that’s located on a university campus can play,” Don Munson said. A GLT jazz show host, Munson spent 35 years at Bloomington-Normal radio station WJBC.
“You can’t but listen to GLT for a reasonable period of time and learn something, whether it’s from NPR or Sound Ideas—the locally produced news and ideas show—or whether it’s the music,” Munson said. “There is a constant learning experience, and people who enjoy that gravitate to GLT.”
The station has established itself over the past six decades as a valued member of Illinois State and Central Illinois through its unique and noncommercial blend of 24/7 news, cultural programming, and eclectic music offerings.
The University has been involved with radio since the 1930s, when WJBC gave ISU a half hour per weekday for educational programming. By the 1950s, that had been cut to 15 minutes on Sunday mornings and featured interviews with professors and campus speakers.
“I sensed the 15 minutes was even a grudging gift on the part of WJBC,” said Professor Emeritus Ralph Smith. He was hired into the Speech Department in 1959 to set up a TV educational system and went on to play a major role in establishing ISU’s radio station.
When the University dropped the WJBC program, Smith worked with an ISU technician to install closed-circuit radio in the dormitories. Starting in 1962, students could tune in from their rooms to 540 AM in the evenings for educational programming and popular music shows with names like Music From the Bottom of the Barrel, according to a Vidette article from the time.
The new station held a contest to come up with its call letters. The entry chosen was submitted by freshman Bob Birge ’65, M.S. ’69. His suggestion of WGLT was an abbreviation of “We gladly learn and teach,” which reflected the University’s motto.
“The public station, the locally owned station, the station that is owned by the people who listen to it, has the ability to give the community whatever quality or quantity of news programming that people want, providing they are willing to pay for it.”—Don Munson
“I thought that student was pretty clever,” Smith said. “I think they are very good call letters.”
Smith and Paxton worked to expand the station’s reach by bringing a low-power FM station to GLT’s studio in Cook Hall in the mid-60s. The station’s first broadcast over a 10-watt transmitter was on February 6, 1966.
The University had hired Paxton in 1965 to oversee the FM station, allowing Smith to focus on TV.
For the next couple of years, the closed-circuit station and the FM station broadcast the same content. They gradually diverged, with student programming for the former and public programming for the latter.
In the 1970s, GLT upgraded to a 2,500-watt transmitter and joined the nascent National Public Radio network. The new transmitter expanded GLT’s coverage area from Bloomington-Normal to most of McLean County. The affiliation with NPR opened up federal funding. This led the station to expand its hours of operation and hire a professional staff that now totals 16 with about a dozen students.
GLT maintained a mix of content—call-in talk shows, news, Illinois State Athletics, popular and jazz music—but increasingly played classical music. “It was pretty much what public radio was about at that time,” Paxton said.
University of Illinois and Bradley University stations were already playing classical music. A public station in Springfield eventually joined the market. By the 1980s, GLT was still honing its brand by trying to be a less elitist version of its neighbors.
“The idea was that WGLT would be the friendly classical station, which is a great idea,” Bergethon said. “But I was hosting classical music the first couple of years I was here and honestly, I think every week I had the experience of someone calling me to ask what piece we were playing and they were listening to a different station because all three of the stations were clustered one after another pretty close on the dial.”
Bergethon arrived in 1988 from New Mexico State University’s station. He was hired as program director with the idea he would succeed Paxton, whose tenure was marked by funding fights as he attempted to establish GLT amid drastic state cuts.
“My 25 years were a constant battle to maintain the University’s support,” Paxton said. “I felt that the station had become one of the better voices of contact with the community for the University. And it was a good public service that the University was offering. By the time Bruce came, we were pretty solidly situated at ISU. But he had to pick it up with the funding that became more and more difficult.”
Named general manager in 1990, Bergethon ushered in two major changes to grow the station’s listenership. GLT upgraded to a 25,000-watt transmitter, which expanded the station’s reach to a large swath of Central Illinois, and the format changed from classical music to “news, blues, and all that jazz.”
Bergethon also had to fight for the station’s survival.
“For the first eight years, we had two, full-scale ‘We are going out of business’ type crises,” he said.
The first was related to GLT’s status as part of the College of Continuing Education. The college was shut down during President Thomas Wallace’s tenure, with GLT the only unit to survive. A few years later under the University Advancement unit, the station failed to become a cash cow as some administrators hoped, Bergethon recalled. An internal budget battle jeopardized GLT’s future until public outcry saved the station, which moved to the School of Communication.
GLT has steadied itself in the school. The station has retained some financial support from the University and about 20,000 weekly listeners from an audience base that is between the ages of 35 and 64, which is older than commercial radio’s target demographic. Bergethon’s aggressive fundraising strategy for support through events and on-air drives has pushed annual fundraising from under $10,000 when he arrived to well past $500,000.
“From a survival point of view, it has worked out really well for us,” Bergethon said. “We have to do program reviews, which is the self-study process that every academic or quasi-academic unit does on campus. But we haven’t had to justify our existence or compete for our funding since we came into the School of Communication.”
In the last 20 years, GLT has become a strong news source as WJBC and The Pantagraph have cut their news staffs and local ownership of commercial media has evaporated in Bloomington-Normal. Much of the station’s music programming moved online in 2013 and was replaced with more “news and ideas” segments. These included national shows such as the TED Radio Hour, Here & Now, and On Point With Tom Ashbrook. The station also hired another reporter and debuted GLT’s Sound Ideas, a twice daily, hourlong news magazine focused on local topics.
Bergethon said it hasn’t been difficult for the station to maintain its journalistic integrity despite operating as a part of Illinois State: “We have done a good job of walking that middle ground of being perceived as a legitimate news organization but also, in an appropriate way, of being a booster of the good things that are going on at ISU, which are legion really. I would also say that ISU administrators—and (Chief of Staff) Jay Groves has a lot to do with this—have been really understanding of the importance of us being an independent news source.”
The format shift has paid off for the news department. The station won two national Edward R. Murrow awards for journalistic excellence in 2015, the first time in the station’s history it has received the prestigious award twice in the same year. The change has been accompanied by a downturn in GLT’s bottom line, however, due to the added expenses related to local and national news programming and a dip in corporate support.
“It feels like we are back on track to eliminate that deficit,” Bergethon said.
The station’s website has brought in listeners from around the world. When the live streams went down one weekend this past January, the first call the station received was from a blues listener in Australia. Like almost all media entities, GLT is trying to figure how to pay for the free products it provides online.
“Are they listening to us on the air? No. Can that affect our ratings? It could,” Program Director Mike McCurdy said. “They are still using us. As long as they feel loyal to the station using any of our technology platforms, we are likely to get an individual contribution through that listener. That’s part of the equation of how we are funded here.”
Former WJBC program director R.C. McBride ’99 has taken over as interim general manager. An assistant director of ISU’s Marketing and Communications, he has the job of steering the public radio station as it continues to acquaint listeners to the “news & ideas” format change, increase community backing to supplement the University’s support, and offset eroding federal and state funding for public broadcasting.
Such struggles raise the question of what the future holds for WGLT. The answer lies as much with the listener as those who remain committed to keeping the tradition of a campus station on the air.
“We’ve really come to a fork in the road, and GLT hopes to take it,” Munson said. “The public station, the locally owned station, the station that is owned by the people who listen to it, has the ability to give the community whatever quality or quantity of news programming that people want, providing they are willing to pay for it.”
Editor’s note: This article was completed prior to the death of
Ben Paxton on March 5.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.