The Start-Up of WDIY
Cheryl Haughney returned to the Lehigh Valley in the late 1970s after graduating from college in Worcester, Massachusetts. While attending Clark University, she worked as a volunteer programmer at community radio station WCUW-FM. Haughney hoped to continue in community broadcasting after graduation, but could not find any volunteer opportunities close to home. Then, in 1981, she contacted Neil Hever, student program director for Muhlenberg College's FM radio station, WMUH.
The conversation between Haughney and Hever led to the idea of providing coverage during the college’s summer vacation, when the station traditionally shut down. With approval from the administration, the two recruited a handful of community and student volunteers to run WMUH that summer. The success of their programming enabled the volunteers to broadcast during all of the college’s subsequent breaks, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring. Eventually, coverage was extended to include overnights, keeping WMUH on the air 24 hours a day year round.
WMUH's community programming attracted a loyal listenership and with it, an influx of volunteers. To coordinate the growing grassroots effort, a board of directors was formed, and in August 1984, the Lehigh Valley Community Broadcasters Association was incorporated as a nonprofit membership-based organization. The association's mission was to offer listeners alternatives to the music and news carried on other stations while giving community members the opportunity to gain experience in radio.
By 1989, the organization had over 150 members, most of whom served as programmers on WMUH. Meanwhile, the LVCBA became active in the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB). Through the NFCB, board member Charles James learned of a broadcast engineer who thought it might be possible to obtain an FCC license to start a public radio station in the Lehigh Valley. The idea had been explored in the late 1970s by other groups, who found a frequency could not be added between 88.1 and 92.9, the portion of the FM band reserved for public broadcasting.
However, advances in engineering design technologies in the ensuing decade made it possible to fine tune signals to minimize possible interference with other stations. Charlie Loughery, the engineer referred by the NFCB, worked for the New Jersey Network of public television and radio stations. Over the years he had used his technical knowledge to start his own network of non-commercial Christian stations.
The LVCBA board commissioned Loughery to conduct an engineering study, which determined a signal could be squeezed in at 89.3 FM. On October 19, 1989, the association filed a license application with the FCC for a 100-watt station. While the wattage was low, the engineering plan called for locating an antenna on WFMZ-TV's tower on South Mountain. From this vantage point, the station's signal could reach most of the Lehigh Valley.
Just before the close of the one-year waiting period, two groups filed competing applications. After an extensive review, on February 5, 1993, the FCC awarded 89.3 to both the LVCBA and one of the other applicants. However, the ruling was “mutually exclusive,” meaning both parties had equal rights to the frequency, and the commission turned over the case to an administrative law judge.
To resolve the situation, Loughery suggested an alternative: find another frequency. At the direction of the association's board, he undertook a new study and devised an even more elaborate antenna system to enable the use of 88.1 FM. The LVCBA then asked the FCC to award 89.3 to the other applicant in exchange for 88.1. The FCC agreed and after a favorable review of the new engineering study, granted construction permits to the two organizations on August 24, 1993.
One of the LVCBA board’s first actions was to run a contest seeking suggestions for the station's call sign. From the 30 or so submissions received, the board selected WDIY, which stands for Do It Yourself. Inspired by the Peter Gabriel song “D.I.Y.,” the letters reflected the group's grassroots origins. Unfortunately, WDIY already was assigned to a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Good Tidings. At the FCC's suggestion, the LVCBA wrote to the admiral in charge of the Coast Guard to ask if it would relinquish the letters. The request was granted.
Around the same time, the LVCBA decided to seek affiliation with National Public Radio. While Lehigh Valley listeners could receive NPR programming from Philadelphia and Scranton, reception was spotty. Affiliation with NPR would enable the LVCBA to carry what were widely regarded as the finest news programs in radio, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. In combining NPR with volunteer-based programming, the LVCBA created a format that had few parallels nationwide, a hybrid it referred to as “community public radio.”
The LVCBA board also began the search for a location. After looking at properties in center city Allentown and Bethlehem, members of the board journeyed to Bethlehem during a nighttime snowstorm in January 1994 to tour the third floor of a historic five-story flatiron building on the city's South Side. The building, at Broadway and South Fourth Street, had housed banks for nearly a century. The facility met all of the association's specifications in terms of space, location and technical requirements.
The next month, the board authorized its executive committee to negotiate a lease for 301 Broadway. With the lease secured, construction of the station's offices and studios began. Meanwhile, a microwave transmitter connecting the station with the tower on South Mountain was mounted on a 40-foot pole on top of the building, and a satellite dish was installed for receiving programming from NPR.
The LVCBA hired its first employee in late 1993, Ira Faro, who as development director oversaw the initial fund-raising. As expected, the association received a $120,000 equipment grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. In addition, Faro requested a $50,000 legislative initiative grant from a state senator for construction of the station's offices and studios. The association also received start-up grants from Lehigh and Northampton counties, the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem Musikfest Association.
In 1994, nationwide searches were conducted for hiring a manager and program director to oversee the station. From the dozens of candidates who applied, two finalists were selected, both from the staff of WNYC-FM in New York, one of the nation's largest public radio stations. Mark Maben was hired as station manager in July and Christine Dempsey as program director in October.
After several months of additional planning, training and fund-raising under its new staff, WDIY went on the air on the morning of Sunday, January 8, 1995 with a ceremony and celebration at its South Bethlehem studios. Appropriately, the first sounds listeners heard during WDIY's inaugural broadcast were the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah and Peter Gabriel's “D.I.Y.”