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WUWF at 40: The Early Years

Photo illustration by Mayra Heitman
WUWF Public Media

WUWF’s 40th anniversary Fall Membership Campaign is underway. Ahead of the live portion of our pledge drive, starting Wednesday, we’re taking a little time to highlight some of the early days of the radio station, which went on air in 1981.

It was the morning of Jan. 15 of 1981. Then UWF President James Robinson and founding General Manager Tom Perry, gathered in the University Commons before a small audience for the official launch of WUWF, 88.1FM.

“They had (what) was almost like a wooden plaque that had sort of a faux switch on it,” began WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford.

“And, at the precise moment, they “flipped the switch,” so to speak and that’s when we went live on the air.”

Crawford says it was the beginning of the region’s first public radio station.

“We were, at that time, largely a classical music station. We were just doing a bit of NPR News, “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” So, classical music was really our bread and butter, he said.

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“So, they picked that Pachelbel Canon in D, a very well-known classical piece and decided that was going to be the first thing people were going to hear.”

Pat Crawford has been a fixture at WUWF, almost from the start.

He arrived in 1982, taking over as station manager, after Perry lured him from the public radio station at Wake Forest.

“When I got down here, my job was just to continue it and also work, particularly on fundraising. Their first efforts were successful, considering it was a first in the community,” he recalled.

In those early years, the pledge drive lasted at least 10 days, and staff and volunteers made it happen from station’s first small studio in Building 77.

“There were like two offices in the entire facility and the rest had to be used for studios and our record library; because this was the pre-digital age and so all our classical music was on albums. So that took up quite a bit of space.”

Pat Crawford talks to Sandra Averhart about WUWF's 40th anniversary
Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Pat Crawford talks to Sandra Averhart about WUWF's 40th anniversary

The only current staff members who worked in the old building, are Pat and two of his first hires, including John Macdonell - host of “Acoustic Interlude” - who started as a part-timer back in 1983.

John just kind of showed up and he had that voice, that radio voice, that we wish we all had,” Crawford said of Macdonell’s sound.

“I have some friends here from the Jazz Society of Pensacola to help us welcome our very special musical guest in Studio A... Marcus Roberts,” starts Macdonell in this 1999 studio interview.

“So, John was doing a great job for us, but it wasn’t until October of 84 that we were able to hire him full-time and he has done multiple jobs and still has remnants of all of them, because he’s still producing, still doing music, and still doing a lot of other things, but he’s also our primary IT person,” said Crawford with pride of the common practice of employee development beyond their original job duties.

Also proven to be a man of many talents is WUWF’s Technical Director Dale Riegle, Pat’s second full-time hire in 1983, right out of college.

“He had a tremendous background in music, and very knowledgeable, so we hired him as a full-time classical music announcer,” Crawford said of Riegle.

“We didn’t realize when we hired him that he also had a great interest and was a jazz musician. And, all these that we’ve gotten involved with, and then ‘RadioLive,’ he kind of migrated to being the production guru.”

In addition to his technical duties, Dale is host and producer of “Big Bands and Jazz,” as well as weeknight programs on Wednesday and Thursday.

It was also in the early days that Pat laid the groundwork for WUWF’s community outreach and its strong relationship with the arts, beginning in with the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival.

“It was great,” Crawford remembered. “But, it didn’t have much of a stage, and it was around ‘83 that we sort of debuted doing the mainstage there. And, we’ve done it every year since 1983, and it’s been a great.”

It was also in ’83 that WUWF partnered with “Dr. Jazz,” Norm Vickers, and the Northwest Florida Arts Council to establish the Pensacola Jazz Festival.

Additionally, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and Pensacola Opera were often highlighted on-air.

In 1988, the WUWF transmitter was relocated from Pace to Midway, which broadened the station’s listenership to Okaloosa County.

Also in ’88, “RadioLive” was born.

“Yes, it was; my baby,” Crawford declared in reference to the show he created and has continued to host and produce.

The first show was on the UWF campus; it was as part of festivities celebrating the inauguration of incoming President Morris Marx. Inspired by “A Prairie Home Companion,” it included satire aimed at Dr. Marx.

“It was great, and, he loved it, thank goodness,” said Crawford, recalling the fun and relief that the university’s new boss had a sense of humor.

“So, that was the beginning and it was going to be like a “one off.” But, we said, ‘this is pretty cool, let’s keep going.’ So, we did.”

Plans for the return of“RadioLive,” now at the Museum of Commerce, are on hold, pending the pandemic.

Joe Crookston at the February 2020 RadioLive
Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Joe Crookston at the February 2020 RadioLive

WUWF’s second decade began with a new building, dedicated in 1992. Appropriately, it’s building number is 88.

And, sculptural ceramist Peter King, the man who proudly proclaims to be our very first listener, created the station’s signature art piece, the Radio Torii.

“Wonderful,” is how Crawford described the torii, which was one of King’s first such creations. Since, he’s created numerous others, including one in downtown Pensacola that was built and displayed in New York in honor of 9/11.

“He (King) said the torii is a road-marker in Japan that let’s you know that you’re approaching a temple,” Crawford explained. “And, he said, ‘And, to me, public radio is like my temple.’”

Rounding out the ‘90s, “Acoustic Interlude” premiered in ’95. In ’97, WUWF launched its first web site and opened Gallery 88. Our archaeology segment, which is now “Unearthing Florida,” began.

And, in ’99, our holiday concert “Tidings of Comfort & Joy” debuted. Stay tuned for information about the 2021 program.

Follow our timeline and learn more about WUWF’s 40th anniversary at wuwf.org/40.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.