WPKN’s first headquarters were in a large space on the top floor of Old Alumni Hall, a mansion-like wooden structure that had once belonged to J.P. Barnum. Some clever carpenters from the buildings and grounds organization built a studio designed for optimum acoustics. With the help of mentors from WNAB in Bridgeport, as well as UCONN’S student-run WHUS, in 1963 WPKN FM began broadcasting as a 100 Watt station on 88.1 MHz licensed to the University of Bridgeport. The station carried news from United Press International (UPI) and also had an AM signal that broadcast directly to the University.
A contest was held to determine the call letters of the new station. WPKN was chosen to represent the “Purple Knights”, the name of the UB sports teams, and the “Purple Knight Network” (WPKN) was born.
In 1965 the addition of a new wing to the Student Center was planned. WPKN’s students consulted with Jeff Tellis, who had started at WHUS at UCONN in Storrs and had worked at several commercial stations and the ABC Radio Network in New York City. Tellis contributed his expertise to the design of WPKN’s new studios and was subsequently hired as its first paid General Manager by the University.
Jeff Tellis’ tenure included a change in frequency to 89.5 and an increase to 700 Watts in 1967, 2400 Watts in 1972, and the application for 10,000 Watts. The new broadcast area encompassed most of CT except lower Fairfield County and New York City (to protect the antenna pattern of WSOU in New Jersey), as well as significant portions of Long Island.
Tellis was a man of strongly-held principles. He felt that college radio ought not to restrict itself to serving its campus population. He envisioned a station which would serve its larger community in a meaningful way. He fostered diversity in programming and he closely observed the FCC’s requirement that all stations serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity”.
In 1969, Bill Nolan became the first “non-student” to become a programmer, and he paved the way for increasing reliance on community members. Bill can still be heard broadcasting his show “Antique Blues” on Sunday nights. Subsequently the all-volunteer staff began to be populated by a mix of UB students and community members.
In 1976, WPKN suffered its first threat to existence as the University of Bridgeport threatened to sell WPKN’s license to a private corporation. The station, however, had already established a loyal and active following and a blue-ribbon panel was established to study the potential sale. It concluded that WPKN was a valuable community resource that ought to be left alone and the offer was withdrawn.
Soon after, in 1978, Jeff Tellis left his General Manager position in order to become the full-time President of Intercollegiate Broadcasting System. Harry Minot, who had a background in commercial radio and was then a producer at Compton Advertising in New York, was hired by UB as his successor.
WPKN produced UB’s radio commercials, prepared narration tracks for promotional videos, disseminated news feeds of significant on-campus events, recorded many concerts and lectures, and once again became well-regarded within the UB structure. However, in the mid-1980s the University of Bridgeport began to experience severe financial difficulties. It had failed to anticipate a decline in enrollment and embarked on an ambitious and expensive pair of construction projects. In July of 1989 Minot was informed that WPKN would have to become self-supporting.
WPKN, now having to become a self-funded entity, altered its structure to draw community people (“non-students”) into its governance. At the same time it resolved to adhere to funding principles which would preserve the freedoms that its programmers enjoyed and the resultant unequivocal nature of its programming. Accordingly it refused to accept underwriting, government funding, or “restricted” grants which might favor one program or genre over another.
It happened that WPKN was well-positioned to respond to the challenge. The station had already conducted capital campaigns to convert to stereo and augment the station’s production facilities. It had planned an on-air fundraiser for that October to raise the funds for a replacement antenna, and that effort was converted to the general support of the station.
In the fall of 1991, the Professors World Peace Academy, a creation of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, (nicknamed “Moonies”) proposed an alliance with UB. Although this offer was initially rejected the University was soon forced into bankruptcy and the PWPA gained control of its board.
In 1992, the WPKN staff, fearing loss of the station’s independent voice, hurried to effect a transfer of the station’s license from the University of Bridgeport, and a filing was made with the FCC. It included the transfer of the license and all of the physical assets to WPKN, Inc. a 501 c-3 non-profit corporation. It also included a rent-free lease for the station’s current studio space in the Student Center, for $10 a year.
WPKN continued in its evolution and listener support. It sought to add a satellite, full-facility transmitter at Montauk, NY, simulcasting at 88.7 FM. That effort, which took seven years, was fraught with complications and delays. WPKM/Montauk went on the air only one day before its Construction Permit would have expired. The facility subsequently proved unprofitable and was sold to the Hamptons Radio group.
Minot departed as General Manager as of June 2008, having served almost thirty years in that capacity. He was succeeded by interim GM Jeep Ward and then by Peter Bochan, who came from WBAI, a Pacifica Network station in NYC. In 2011 Steve DiCostanzo became GM after an intensive search process. His first action was to clear out over 40 years of accumulated junk at the station’s facilities.
Starting in 2010, a decision was made to renovate and update the studios. Much of our broadcast equipment was 30-40 years old, and technology was fast going digital. The middle studio was cleared out to create a dedicated performance space, and the production room was modernized. Computerized systems are still being installed and connected, but the main broadcast studio has yet to be renovated.
WPKN primarily funded itself through its traditional on-air drives. Even though our listenership was loyal and generous, as economic conditions in the 2000’s became increasingly unstable and other local stations relied on professionals to raise funds, our station realized that other sources of income streams were needed. In 2011, after intensive debate, the WPKN constitution was amended to allow underwriting, within guidelines that maintain the integrity of our commitment to freedom of expression, diversity of programming, and the mission to serve and educate our community.
WPKN persists in its mission to stand apart from convention and to serve diversity. Its volunteers and programmers have created an institution with depth, importance, and passion. Its listeners have made its continued existence possible. WPKN’s next fifty years are certain to be as exciting and provocative as those which have already occurred.