Tom DuVal: Offering a unique perspective

By: Matt Rucker


Last year, before Halloween, JMU’s student radio station WXJM was setting up for a pumpkin carving event where new members and WXJM veterans could socialize and celebrate. However, when Patrick McCracken went to buy the pumpkins, the organization’s credit card wouldn’t work. McCracken recalls the station’s advisor, Tom DuVal, going to Walmart to buy them himself.

“You can definitely tell he cares about the station,” McCracken said. 

DuVal first became interested in radio in 1971, with the first airing of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” After that, Tom moved from Michigan, where he went to college, to his first job working in public radio at the University of Oregon.

“They gave me 15 minutes of training and turned me loose … I got some part time work there and then full time … eventually I was the station director,” DuVal said.

From there it was off to North Dakota, back to Oregon, and back to North Dakota again where he became the general manager. It was at this second job in North Dakota where DuVal met and subsequently trained Brenda Barnes, a classical clarinetist that had no experience in radio (now the head of KUSC for University of California). After a few years, Barnes moved on to be the manager of WMRA, Harrisonburg’s NPR member station, and when she left to go for another position out-of-state, she recommended DuVal for the WMRA job.

DuVal worked at WMRA for the better part of the last two decades. Although he retired in 2013, he has stayed on as the advisor for WXJM.

“Being the general manager [at WMRA], part of the job was being the advisor to WXJM, and so I thought ‘what am I going to do with that, I don’t have time for that,’” DuVal said. “I didn’t get involved with WXJM the way I am now until I retired.”

It’s been a huge change for DuVal, going from a minimum 60 hour week at WMRA to a now 10 hour week at WXJM. Tom enjoys being able to work with the students more and makes sure that at the beginning of every semester he invites any student that is interested to come to him and learn about radio production, reporting and career opportunities.

The 2015-2016 Program Director, Chandler Dang, said about Tom “I want to work in radio at some point in my life. Tom will talk about things to look into and what to look up, give connections…”

However, although Tom has years of experience to offer, it is infrequent that a student comes in to talk about the future of radio.

“And so at the beginning of the semester I make my pitch and say ‘if you want to learn production, programming concepts, if you want to talk about careers and how to get somewhere. If you just want to sit around and talk about the history of radio.’ But you know, once a year someone might come or once every two years,” DuVal said.

This dwindling number of people interested in radio is alarming to DuVal. Although he recognizes that corporations like iHeart radio and Cumulus are consolidating commercial radio, public radio is still scrambling to fill positions.

“They [public radio stations] struggle to find people, that’s a big concern with public radio,” DuVal said. “Where is the next generation of reporters and producers coming from? When I retired (from WMRA) that’s why the Dean asked me to stay on and do this.”

It’s an uphill battle for DuVal, who sees WXJM students as primarily interested in the music and not so much interested in radio. But it is a battle he is determined to fight at least through the next year.

“I’ll probably give it at least another year,” DuVal said, hesitantly. “The Dean is retiring, the Dean of Arts and Letters, that this all comes under, and I shouldn’t bail just when he’s leaving … I’ll stay around for another year until a new person comes in.”

After all, WXJM has been going through turbulent times these last few semesters. In the Fall of 2015, the students briefly tried to switch over to an automatic radio database that played contemporary music; however, the music was not sufficiently screened and it had too many expletives. DuVal was called to the Dean’s office, where he learned the Dean felt that the station should be taken off the air until the students could build a database of clean songs.

“I said ‘I don’t like that idea, give me a little more time … we’ll go the spring semester and we’ll be vigilant about it, during that time we’ll get the music screened and get it ready for the automation and then next fall we’ll just be going off the automation system.’”

The Dean agreed.

It wouldn’t be the first time DuVal had helped put together a clean database. The Possum, the bluegrass station that plays on 88.7 whenever students are not broadcasting, was an idea by WMRA’s engineer, Bill Fawcett, and carried out by DuVal.

The purpose of The Possum was to combat a Virginia Tech station that did very similar programming to WMRA and came into WMRA’s territory.

DuVal realized that the Tech station would be broadcasting on the same frequency as WXJM, so as long as WXJM’s station was broadcasting the two signals would conflict with each other and this would prevent the Tech station from broadcasting past Staunton. Therefore WMRA’s competition in the area was eliminated if WXJM continuously broadcast, so DuVal concluded that WXJM must always be on the air.

However, while this system was built by Fawcett from a collection of bluegrass records he had, the WXJM members haven’t been as successful in creating such a database. In fact, after DuVal spoke to the Big Three about his talk with the Dean, WXJM received zero submissions of clean songs, and the station was forced to be online only as of last fall.
WXJM members have been hard at work building this database, and DuVal will be helping them for at least the next year. In the meantime, Tom DuVal offers a unique perspective on radio broadcasting and programming.

Any student interested in a career in commercial or public radio would be wise to stop by his office.