Old, But Still Tuned In 

Vanderbilt’s taste-making radio station WRVU celebrates 50 years on the air

Vanderbilt’s taste-making radio station WRVU celebrates 50 years on the air

When radio listeners in Music City want to hear the epicenter of underground youth culture, whether it’s micro rap, electronic dance or refurbished punk, the first place they turn is to a 50-year-old. On May 30, 1953, Vanderbilt’s college radio station WRVU-91.1 FM (also now known as 91 Rock), went live as WVU on an AM bandwidth with a one-mile radius. Today, the station’s FM signal extends all the way to Murfreesboro, as does its influence on the local club scene and record retailers. This weekend the station celebrates its first half-century with a free concert Friday on Vanderbilt’s Alumni Lawn.

The occasion speaks to WRVU’s longtime role as Vanderbilt’s bridge between the campus and the community. “We’re half a student station, half a community station,” says WRVU music director Dave Cash. Twenty years ago, 91 Rock was a key player in the city’s burgeoning rock scene, giving crucial early exposure to acts like Jason & The Nashville Scorchers, The Questionnaires, Webb Wilder and Bill Lloyd. Its 1985 compilation City Without a Subway remains a lasting time capsule of Nashville’s new-wave explosion.

Like the campus itself, WRVU’s loose, format-free framework has often housed radical and conservative impulses without contradiction. In 1951, a Memphis undergrad named Ken Berryhill poked an antenna out his dormitory window and set up a makeshift station using a tape recorder, a single microphone and an ancient turntable. This was the prototype for WRVU: a pirate-radio operation, albeit one playing Dinah Shore and Tommy Dorsey 78s. When Berryhill was drafted into the Korean War, his mission to start a student station was taken up by others.

“By the time I came back, in 1954, they had a carrier frequency set up in Neely Auditorium,” recalls Berryhill, 73, whose booming baritone can still be heard Thursday afternoons on 91 Rock. (It’s a measure of the station’s varied playlist that his “Old Record Shop” hour is bracketed by program blocks of Jewish music, funk and something called “Tertiary Syphilitic Love Songs.”) Over the years, 91’s many volunteer hosts have gone on to become judges, politicians and media personalities: Former jocks include CNN correspondent Richard Quest and current Metro Council member Adam Dread. In recent years, former 91 music director Eothen “Egon” Alapatt has made a name for himself producing CD compilations of 1970s funk rarities.

Today, college stations like WRVU form an oasis of commercial-free, diverse music in a radio wasteland dominated by hack consultants and consolidated programming. “The Clear Channels of the world will only help us by making us sound unique,” Cash says.

Friday’s concert lineup is a case in point, featuring the superb Austin band Spoon, Chapel Hill, N.C.’s Crooked Fingers and Athens, Ga.’s The Glands—all purveyors of the kind of smart, expertly crafted rock ’n’ roll routinely heard on college radio. Rounding out the bill are like-minded local bands The Features, The Northern Lights, Notes From the Underground and The Lone Official. The outdoor show is followed by an Audity Central after-party at The End featuring 91 electronic gurus Chek, Mindub and Jolby, along with Plural Z featuring folky R&B singer Ruby Amanfu. On Saturday at the Exit/In, the station hosts a throwback to its celebrated “Shapes of Rhythm” showcases of turntable wizardry, with Egon and Count Bass D on the wheels of steel. The weekend is a celebration of everything that makes 91 Rock so hard to pin down musically—and hence so easy to love.

—Jim Ridley

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