The college radio station that most JMU students know and adore today originates from a simpler time: 1984. That year, a ballot for a student radio station received too many votes to ignore. There was no station in the Shenandoah Valley that played cool, new, punk/rock/jazz/fun music, so that led to students forming JMU’s first student-run radio. What was originally WJMU later became WJMR because a WJMU already existed in Illinois. In 1990 there was a final name change to WXJM and the rest is history.
Just kidding. There is a lot more to know.
At a time when the radio station was just a daydream, you could find students holding radio club meetings in the basement of Warren Hall in a custodial closet that was converted into a studio. In the very beginning, it was planned that the station would begin as an AM station because FM was more costly. Thankfully for the students, funds were given by the Student Government Association. The station received $555 to use $400 for a feasibility study and the rest for office supplies and advertisements to hire a business manager.
The first antenna was placed on top of Burruss Hall and after searching for a frequency that worked, the WXJM team selected 88.7 in 1987. In 1988, the Federal Communications Commission application was submitted, but was not approved until November of 1989. During the waiting process, the students broadcasted to Warren and PC Dukes only by using carrier currents. They used that year to practice FCC rules and allow students to get experience.
After years of prep work, WXJM debuted on October 1st, 1990. The SGA allocated funds to the station ($49,000 to be exact) to officially start up. A lot of the equipment the station requested was denied, including a Mac computer, Apple LaserWriter, a remote mixer, two remote microphones and two microphone booms. Students wanted these items because they are station necessities, but the SGA didn’t think they were needed for startup. The students held fundraisers so they could purchase these necessities on their own.
The first host was John Pezzulla, who also served as the first General Manager and one of the original founders of WXJM . He was brought back to host the first hour of airtime, where he played Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner to give the station the ignition that it deserved. In addition to bringing back original WXJM creators, the president of JMU, Dr. Ronald Carrier, also made an appearance. Dr. Carrier and the Board of Visitors worked on the funding, equipment and space to establish the station. Additionally, they agreed to allow it to be completely student-managed.
Approximately 120 people, including 60 DJs, worked in the station and they decided to air classic rock, progressive, blues, and jazz, along with news broadcasts twice a day. Additionally, Ebony Progressive, a group of students working with WMRA, also aired a rap and house music program three times a week. The station did not have much of a sense of how dayparts worked at the time, and according to one of the station’s early members, “they did not know, nor did they care.” They played whatever they wanted to play; from two hours of loud rock to the next two hours being jazz. To this day WXJM still airs that same style plus new genres so it does not lose its originality, yet stays up-to-date with music trends.
In the spring of that school year, Jess Frye, a student at the time, established WXJM Live. Little did they know that Live would become the longest running show at WXJM. The students started out in a gutted and rebuilt room in Anthony-Seeger Hall and it was difficult to host Live due to limited space. The music department would have concerts just down the hall and would get angry if the station was being too loud, so there was some creativity being stifled in that small location.
It was apparent that more space was needed, so it was decided that WXJM would relocate once again. Fifteen years after moving into Anthony-Seeger, the station moved to a larger space for more people, more professionalism, and the capability to hold more music and host live music in a garage-style studio. This station is the one where WXJM resides, off Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Reservoir Street.
The transition caused difficulties with the 24-hour broadcast since the station could no longer be manned around the clock due to safety purposes and traveling at odd hours of the night. Nevertheless, the show continued with automation to keep music running throughout the night.
A yearly event that WXJM proudly puts on is Kool-Aid. This is a concert that is put on once every school year to raise money for a charity of WXJM’s choice. Some of the charities benefitting from this concert include Mercy House, First Step and the Virginia Anti-Violence Project. This series began on March 20th, 1992, in what is now the Madison Union Ballroom. Acts included Cicada, SUCCOtash, The Dance Crashers, Johnnies Heritage, and Dave Matthews Band. A donation of two canned food items and $5 was required for entry.
When WXJM got their FCC papers approved in 1989, it was fair game what could be played over the air. However, in 1990, the FCC started to become more conservative when they got a new chairman. With that conservatism came the rule that no foul language or drug-related content could be heard over the student-run radio, or else the station would get in trouble and could risk losing its license to be over the air. After WXJM had violated numerous FCC rules in (year), the station made a conscious decision to pull itself off the air for the 2016-2017 school year. Rather than being played on station 88.7 for commuters to hear or people to listen to on their stereo, you could only hear the station by getting onto WXJM.org. Fast forward to the 2017-2018 school year and the station is back on the air for all to hear. The station used to allow the DJs to create their own playlists, but now the station uses a program that requires the students to listen to the songs before they can be entered into the program and played on air. While the station was off the airwaves, Possum Radio was played. This was a broadcast system created by the WXJM adviser that only played bluegrass music.
WXJM takes a lot of pride in being the station that does not play mainstream music. The station has stood by this since the beginning and nothing has ever made the station even begin to consider changing. “Over the Line,” was a show where people could call in and have loose debates about subjects. Back in 1995, there seemed to be conflict between the station and the outside community. A Breeze article from March 20th, 1995 stated, “WXJM is prepared to confront its love/hate relationship with the JMU community…” People were forming very strong opinions about the still-fairly-new station. A student had stated in a previous Breeze article, “You don't need to go to a concert to hear bad music played badly. Just listen to WXJM.” The host of the show that night was looking for non-WXJM listeners to call in to discuss the positives and negatives of the station. The goal was not to have confrontation, but to have engaging dialogue with the public.
Another way that WXJM communicated with students was through its newsletter. Back in the 90s, WXJM had a student-run newsletter that was originally titled “Back to the Basement” in honor of the station’s humble beginnings in Warren Hall. They were jam packed with WXJM related content: music reviews written about the latest releases, student poetry, interviews with bands that performed around town and at house shows, unique ads, hand drawn pictures to animate the pages, weekly show schedules, and fun satire by the writers. The newsletter only existed for a few years before it became too political and caught JMU administration's attention. “It started out as a program guide but later lost touch and no longer served the station’s purposes,” said a WXJM alumni. There are only five copies of this newsletter to be found in Carrier Library on JMU’s campus. Taking a glance at one gives the reader great insight as to what WXJM was all about.
Part of the charm of WXJM is that the DJs have crafted shows and discussion topics the DJs themselves want to talk about. These shows may be continued on year after year, but a lot of shows created for the station do not last after its creators graduate. An example of a show that beat the test of time is “Dame Theory,” which is also WXJM’s longest running talk show. It started in 2006 under the name “Girl Talk,” but got its current name to be more inclusive since anyone of any identity can be featured on the show.
Another topic that got its start early on is sports. It was started by Jim Acosta, formerly known as Jim Chainsaw, who is now the CNN Senior White House Correspondent. He noticed that people were doing music shows, but he wanted to talk about something different, and so that is what he did. To this day, the station still has sports shows to discuss the latest in college and professional athletics.
WXJM has been nominated for two awards since it began. One time in 2014 for Station of the Year by College Music Journal and another time for an MTVU Woodie Award for college radio. It is clear that WXJM is a successful station but that is all thanks to the students that have kept it alive and well for decades. All thanks to those JMU kids that started out with a radio club back in the 80’s, Harrisonburg now has a station full of culture and meaning and nothing can ever replace that.
Long live college radio.
History by Logan Chaudoin
About this Website
This website was built using WordPress. WXJM uses Spinitron for song charting and playlists. This website is managed and maintained by a group of WXJM student volunteers and this site's superior content and design is a result of their hard work.