Campus radio station celebrates 50 years with an unwavering mission and a passionate leaderFor someone involved in a medium that historically depends on being heard and not seen, John Ramsey, general manager of the University of Hartford’s public alternative radio station, WWUH, has the kind of background that is full of episodes ideal for visual capture. In fact, if a film student at the University of Hartford ever decides to make a docudrama of Ramsey’s life and career in radio, there’s plenty of material ripe for audience appeal. Indispensable, you might say.
- The timeless scene where 14-year-old John is taken by his father to see the WWUH studio for the first time, where his eyes open wider than a 12-inch long-playing album and his face takes on a wistful gaze;
- Or the frenzied scene where 15-year-old John, now a volunteer at the station, is unexpectedly asked by the program director on Dec. 24 to stick around and host a Christmas show because he can’t find anyone else to do it;
- Or the madcap scene where 60-year-old John receives a phone call informing him he’s to be inducted into the Connecticut Broadcasters Hall of Fame, only to realize it’s April Fool’s Day and that the call could possibly be a practical joke. (It wasn’t.)
The benefits of college radio cannot be overstated, nor can Ramsey’s contribution to WWUH, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a series of special events throughout this academic year.
“I love the University’s vision for WWUH and the station’s vision for what it does on behalf of the community. It’s my vision, too,” says Ramsey, who became its first general manager in 1986. “Why do people listen to radio? For companionship, and because they want to know what’s happening in their neighborhood. WWUH is live and local. We tell you what’s happening on campus, at Bushnell Park, in New Haven, and all around the state.”
With a tower atop Avon Mountain, the station has a potential audience of a million listeners from New Haven, Conn., to Springfield, Mass., and the range of its programming would be difficult for any other broadcast outlet to top. From Morning Jazz and Polka Time to rock ’n’ roll and gospel, from Social & Cultural Change and Gay Spirit to programs geared toward Hispanic, Lithuanian, Polish, and Indian communities, the list is simply too long for a single discussion.
Adding to the station’s place of distinction is its extensive music library of close to 140,000 LPs and CDs—one of the largest collections in the country. And it may not have happened without Ramsey’s insistence. Over the years, there had been suggestions to purge the library, but Ramsey resisted, asserting both the practicality and historical significance of keeping one copy of everything the station receives. His victory is the station’s reward.
Currently, Ramsey supervises approximately 80 student, faculty, and community volunteers. WWUH, which is rebroadcast elsewhere in Connecticut on WWEB in Wallingford, WAPJ in Torrington, and WDJW in Somers, is officially called “a non-commercial radio station operated as a community service of the University of Hartford.” Leave it to Ramsey to encapsulate that in a less officious, more evocative way: “We fill a need that isn’t filled anywhere else.”
Commercial stations, he explains, are business enterprises that have to perform financially for their owners or shareholders. “For them, there are marketplace pressures that dictate what they put on the air. We don’t have those pressures. We can put on programming not because it sells, but because our listeners think it’s worthwhile. That’s what I love about it.”
A lifelong resident of West Hartford, Ramsey, who comes from a musical family and has a considerable love for music himself, was attracted to the technical side of things early on. That’s why his father felt compelled to take him to the local university radio station when he was a boy. He began volunteering there in 1970 as a technician, was asked to sub for on-air personalities, and had his own rock ’n’ roll show. But he took time off from radio to work the sound boards for rock bands for a while, only to return to his first passion in 1977, which is also when he received his FCC first-class license. Ramsey then embarked on a series of chief engineer positions for Hartford-area stations such as WCCC, WDRC, WKSS and WJMJ. He became volunteer chief engineer at WWUH in 1978 and was offered the general manager’s spot eight years later. He’s never wanted to do anything else.
Yet, he does! Ramsey works tirelessly to promote and preserve the history and heritage of radio in Connecticut. Toward, that end he authored a book called Hartford Radio, released in 2012 by Arcadia, one of the nation’s premier independent publishers of books on iconic cities, events, and institutions.
It is a front-row seat into the history of the region’s radio stations, the people who helped build them, and the forward thinkers who provided the ides and voices behind all the diverse programming.
Ramsey also built and oversees the comprehensive website on the history of Hartford radio—packed with information and archival audio—and he facilitated the creation of a 10-part documentary called “Connecticut Radio Memories” that aired on WWUH and is archived on its website, wwuh.org. Because of his tenure and extensive contacts, Ramsey was able to connect the documentarians with dozens of current and former volunteers who gave—and continue to give—WWUH its heart and soul.
Ramsey, a married father of two and grandfather of three, devoted his entire career to radio. Would he advise others to do so? “In truth,” he explains, “there are fewer jobs in radio today because so much of it is automated. Plus, the corporate consolidations that have taken place have resulted in four or five radio stations being run by a single group of people. However,” he is quick to add, “many of the things we need to know to run this station translate enormously well into dozens of other professions, such as multimedia production capabilities, knowledge of music history, social media marketing and promotion, sound engineering, recording skills, fundraising, and nonprofit organization management.” In short, WWUH is still an enormously valuable training ground, which is another reason why its 50th anniversary is of such great consequence to the University.
WWUH was also the first radio station in Connecticut to broadcast on the Internet. For millions of people, the Internet provides all the information and entertainment they used to get on the radio. That’s why some students may initially fail to see the value of radio today as a community resource. But once again, Ramsey has the knowledge, confidence, and passion to put a positive and rational spin on such criticism. “Having the Internet available simply makes us work that much harder to do what we do best,” he says. “If you go back 20 or 30 years, we were one of the only stations in the region that had a bluegrass show, a Native American show, and a gay and lesbian show. Sure, through the Internet today anyone can find those kinds of programs no matter where they are or no matter what time of day. So what do we do? We make sure our programming is even better, even more relevant.”
That’s why WWUH, through Ramsey’s efforts, remains such a valuable asset to the greater Hartford region. It’s also why he was tapped by the Connecticut Broadcasters Hall of Fame for induction.
At the ceremony in October 2015, Ramsey was part of the inaugural group of a dozen honorees, which included local luminaries from radio, television, and broadcast management such as Denise D’Ascenzo, Gerry Brooks, Brad Davis, and Al Terzi. Quite impressive company for a kid from West Hartford who was left alone one Christmas Eve.
Despite the conglomerations and automation of radio today, the importance of the medium remains strong. Thanks to his lifelong devotion to the art and science of radio broadcasting, the value that John Ramsey brings to one of the best college radio stations around is equally undiminished. In short, Ramsey is to WWUH what WWUH is to the Connecticut radio landscape. In a word, indispensable. If that sounds like a tagline to some future docudrama, so be it. That’s what happens when your passion and your job have been one and the same for more than 30 years.
“For [commercial stations], there are marketplace pressures that dictate what they put on the air. We don’t have those pressures. We can put on programming not because it sells, but because our listeners think it’s worthwhile. That’s what I love about it.”