WMSV 91.1 FM celebrates 20 years of ‘World Class Radio’

 

“I love this place; I really do,” said manager Steve Ellis of Mississippi State’s noncommercial, community radio station, WMSV 91.1.

For 20 years, the 14,000-watt FM station in the university’s Henry F. Meyer Student Media Center has broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout a 70-mile radius.

WMSV is not, however, the first FM station on campus. That distinction is held by the late WMSB, a 10-watt station once housed in cramped spaces on the top floor of Lee Hall. WMSB, with a tiny signal didn’t reach much beyond the campus grounds, went silent in 1986.

Explaining how the “new” station came about, Ellis said “a group of students wanted to have a college radio station again, so they started a petition, and were able to get it on a referendum that ultimately passed.” The enterprising students “then approached David Hutto, who was director of the University Television Center at that time, and asked him to apply for a license that, in time, was granted by the Federal Communications Commission.”

Together, Hutto and Joe Farris, then-head of the University Relations office, approached Ellis about developing the new station. Ellis, broadcast coordinator for the university at the time and a radio veteran since age 16, accepted the task.

“Sometime in late 1993, I came over here and found absolutely nothing in these offices except light switches and lights,” the Columbus resident recalled. “I’d say it took us close to six months to get the station ready to go on the air.”

At precisely 6 a.m. on March 21, 1994, music began flowing over the airways from the Tracy Drive location to ears of listeners across the Golden Triangle region and beyond. Ellis said the original WMSV slogan, “Radio with a Vision,” was changed to the current “World Class Radio” around 2,000 as the musical format evolved.

“We had five student directors when we first went on the air,” Ellis said. “They worked long hours and very hard. One weekend, they even came out to my house to help build shelves for the station, and those shelves, in fact, still hold the CDs in our music library.”

Ellis is one of the station’s two full-time university employees. News and public affairs director Anthony Craven is the other.

A Clinton native, Craven is an MSU communication/broadcasting graduate who went on to complete a master’s degree in secondary education. He began working at WMSV in 1999, shortly after transferring from Hinds Community College.

“I started out as a volunteer doing a short sports segment as part of the morning news, and that was when I realized that I really enjoy working in radio,” Craven said.

With demonstration tapes from his two-and-a-half-year stint at WMSV, Craven successfully landed some sports-related radio gigs in Jackson following graduation. Eventually, though, he became a middle school teacher in the Lowndes County Public Schools.

“Even when I was teaching fulltime, I was doing something in radio or broadcasting,” Craven said of the ongoing love for broadcasting that brought him back to work fulltime at WMSV in 2007.
Craven said work at WMSV as an undergraduate student was “a fantastic experience and one of the highlights of my time here at Mississippi State.”

Of Craven’s early days, Ellis recalled, “He had the same enthusiasm all of them do: ‘You’re going to give me a microphone with an on-and-off switch?!’”

“Whether I knew how to use it or not!” Craven quickly retorted, admitting that “at first, I didn’t.”
As with so many students at the station, Craven said he enjoyed the range of musical selections that filled the offices and hallways. He said the things he learned from Ellis helped him develop a professional voice and become a better overall communicator.

Ellis said Craven “was one of those, like so many students we’ve had, who realized what an opportunity it can be to work at WMSV.” While “World Class Radio” may be the primary motto, the station also proudly describes itself as being “professionally-run and student-staffed,” he noted.

“We’ve had so many talented students come through here,” Ellis said. “Since we’re not tied to any academic department, we have gotten, and continue to get, student employees from all kinds of backgrounds. I feel like we get the most creative from all over campus. We have kids who come in here to work who may not know the majority of the music we play, but within a week are singing along with half the songs.”

As Craven pointed out, “We want this to be a good experience for the students because these are their college years, but we also want to teach and train them and broaden their horizons.”
Ellis and Craven said students interested in working at WMSV are encouraged to try out. Prior radio experience is not required.

Following a two-week training session and on-air auditions, those selected have the opportunity to earn an on-air spot. Unlike in the early days when all announcers and news staff were volunteers, students now are paid employees—a change Ellis and Craven agree to be among the biggest evolutions the station has gone through over its two decades of existence.

While most college stations often “look in”—cater to students as their primary audience—Ellis and Craven have worked to maintain a “look-out” approach when it comes to programming.

“We’re on campus, but because we broadcast up to a 70-mile radius, we also try to reach out to the community and tell people what’s going on here at Mississippi State,” Ellis said.
As for the music formats, Ellis said that in the beginning, “We were looking for something that wasn’t in the market and decided on an alternative format.”

Around 1999, after noticing other area stations copying much of WMSV’s musical playlist to one degree or another, a change took place. Wanting to stay a step ahead of the game, Ellis said the decision was made to switch to Triple A, or the adult album alternative format.

While very close to the alternative sound, Triple A is a bit more adult-oriented, a format that remains very popular with college-aged and younger students, as well as middle-aged adults.
Craven said, “Even though there’s been some movement in the alternative music field to conform to more of a Triple A format, WMSV is still the only station in our listening area that has this format.”

As for news programming, Craven said “most radio stations will give listeners, at the most, two to five minutes of news at the top of the hour.” WMSV, on the other hand, employs “a 30-minute, comprehensive daily newscast called “Observations from MSU.”

As home to the “Largest Music Library in the Golden Triangle”—another station moniker—WMSV works to give listeners “a whole lot more than just the same dozen or so ‘hits’ played over and over,” said Ellis.

“If you hear a song on our station, you’re going to be real lucky if you hear it a second time in the same 24-hour period,” he said. “Plus, we have a two-hour rule; we don’t want you to even hear the same artist within two hours.”

While artists such as Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers may be heard on other area stations, Ellis proudly noted that “you never heard them in this market until you heard them on our station. We also go so much deeper into their catalogs than commercial stations do.”

Ellis said one especially popular specialty show is “The Juke,” a blues program running since 1994 each Sunday from 6 p.m.-midnight.

In 2007, WMSV took its broadcast worldwide with the addition of a live stream to the station website, www.wmsv.msstate.edu.

“We get emails all the time from long-distance listeners telling us that they are listening on the Internet, and that’s really special,” Ellis said. “We have a lot of MSU alumni who listen because it gives them a little touch of home, and some say they love listening to us because it makes them feel like they’re in college again.”

Craven said the station’s website also features an app that listeners may download free of charge. To do so, access the link on the front page of the university’s mobile site, search for WMSV 91.1 and begin listening. Also free and as a courtesy to non-profit organizations on campus and in the community, WMSV announcers make daily public-service announcements—usually, about two each hour.

Over the years, the station has received numerous professional awards, but Ellis said the best mark of appreciation is “to walk into a local business to have lunch and know that everybody in that restaurant is listening.”

Broadcasts also may be heard throughout the Colvard Student Union. “It’s so gratifying to go sit in the Union with a cup of coffee and know that everybody sitting in there is listening to our station; that is a cool feeling,” Craven said.

The two radio veterans said they consider themselves very fortunate to be making a living while fulfilling their passions for the broadcast medium. It wouldn’t be possible, both emphasize, without the strong and continued support of the station’s diverse listeners and sponsors.

“There are people and businesses that have been financial supporters as well as just fans of what we do,” said Ellis. “Not only did they see the value in our station from very early on, but they’ve been with us the whole time, and that’s so important to us.”

By Sasha Steinberg, Photography by Beth Wynn

 

Benjamin Price Hart

Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Current city: Jackson, Miss.
Education: Bachelor’s in communication with an emphasis in broadcasting
Work Experience at WMSV:
I was an on-air jock in 1997-98 for the short-lived, Friday night hip-hop show, “Weekend Warmup.”

What do you do for a living?
I am the news director at WAPT, the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Miss.

What do you miss about attending Mississippi State and working at WMSV? How has what you learned while at MSU and WMSV helped you or prepared you for your career and life in general?
MSU/WMSV is where I got my first chance to find my voice. At WMSV, Steve Ellis let me and my crew experience what it took to be a professional, but he gave us plenty of lessons about what you can’t do, too.

The experience was instrumental in getting me an on-air job with Cumulus Broadcasting in Columbus, Miss., where I became a prime-time DJ and eventually program director for Power 92.

All of that radio background set me up for my 14-year career in television news. As a leader of a newsroom, I have had the pleasure of watching dozens of young people chase their dreams to be broadcasters.

What would you say to encourage current students to consider working at WMSV?
My recommendation for every student is to grab every opportunity. The time you spend in a real professional place like WMSV will make you 10 times more prepared when you hit the broadcast world outside.

 

Teresa Lowther Mason

Hometown: Houston, Texas
Current city: Los Angeles, Calif.
Education: Bachelor’s in communication with an emphasis in broadcasting and minor in public relations. Graduated cum laude with honors in 2005.
Work Experience at WMSV:
I was an on-air DJ radio personality for three years every morning from 10 a.m. to noon during my sophomore, junior and senior years of college.

What do you do for a living?
I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dreams in the field of broadcasting/television the summer after graduation. I am a television casting director/producer. My job is discovering talent and casting a variety of projects, pilots and TV shows for major network television. I also have casting credits for several national commercials, such as MasterCard, Walmart, Justin Timberlake’s Grammy Commercial, Sony, Vitamin Water and Converse national ad campaigns, to name a few.

What do you miss about attending Mississippi State and working at WMSV? How has what you learned while at MSU and WMSV helped you or prepared you for your career and life in general?
I loved everything about working at WMSV. It was my first official job in the world of broadcasting that opened doors leading me to where I am today!

I gained so much knowledge and experience at WMSV. Being on-air and behind the scenes of WMSV is what truly played a vital role in my life and my career.

I had amazing mentors—Steve Ellis and Krista Vowell. Their encouragement, wisdom, guidance and willingness to give me an opportunity to learn, build my résumé and gain experience helped me follow my dreams of a career on the West Coast. Looking back, I know my life and career wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for WMSV.

What would you say to encourage current students to consider working at WMSV?
I would absolutely 100 percent encourage every student who is studying the field of broadcasting to interview with WMSV, whether it be as an on-air DJ, assistant or intern. If you are truly interested in pursuing a career in broadcasting, working at WMSV is a foot in the door leading to so many possibilities. If you don’t work hard to follow your dreams and take opportunities in front of you, someone else will!