Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York  

Radio Days

By Robert France, FCRH ’49

Robert France's 1949 Maroon yearbook photo
It came like a thunderbolt—the announcement 61 years ago that Fordham would establish a Department of Communication Arts beginning with the 1947-1948 academic year, to teach journalism, theater and radio broadcasting (the latter complete with a real, on-the-air radio station).

In that fall of 1946 I was in my sophomore year at Rose Hill, wrestling with the question of what my major would be the following year. Enamored of radio broadcasting since earliest childhood, I had given thought to transferring to a school with broadcasting classes, and the answer was suddenly dropped into my lap. So I went on to major in radio at Fordham and became one of the early student announcers at WFUV, 90.7 FM. (Moreover, had I gone elsewhere, I would have missed out on two years of scholastic philosophy, a system of thought that would provide me with the intellectual basis for a lifetime of evolving viewpoints.)

However, my thoughts as I write today relate not to philosophy but to WFUV in the season of its 60th anniversary. 

FM! What in the world was that? Any radio technician in the 1940s knew what it was, but the general public? No way. Radio meant amplitude modulation … AM. You could probably count the number of FM radio receivers in all of New York City on the fingers of one hand.

But never mind that! The fall of 1947 came, and WFUV took to the airwaves with sparkling new studios, state-of-the-art equipment and an antenna proudly sprouting from the top of Keating Hall for all to see, even if virtually no one seeing it had an FM radio.

One exception was Fordham’s president, Father Robert Gannon, S.J. His habit of tuning into the station almost got me kicked off the staff on the very day I was put on the air.

All through the 1947-1948 school year, I longed to be put on the announcing staff. After all, I was one of the handful of students majoring in the new academic discipline. But I was rebuffed until the very end of the year, when, with most of the student staff evanescing into the summer mists, the station found itself in sudden need of replacements.

Hanging about one afternoon outside the station office there on the third floor of Keating, I was buttonholed by none other than the chairman of the communication arts department, Father Richard Grady, S.J., a diminutive Jesuit whose visage was more like actor Boris Karloff's than Karloff himself … and who, himself enamored of radio broadcasting, kept his office at WFUV.

“France,” came his fearsome voice, “are you at loose ends?” I had never heard that expression before, but I gathered its meaning and replied in the affirmative, whereupon he thrust a mangled sheaf of newswire copy into my hands and told me to put it on the air, exactly 35 seconds before airtime. Although both stupefied and terrified, I was not about to pass up the opportunity I'd been hankering for all year long.

Breathless, heart-pounding a mile a minute, I proceeded to air the worst newscast in the station’s short history. No matter, for as I have already mentioned, the station had hardly any listeners—except, of course, for Father Gannon, who forthwith called Father Grady and instructed him to get rid of that awful announcer without delay.

Fortunately, for all his fearsome visage and voice, the good Father Grady explained the situation to Father Gannon, who relented, and I went on to spend my days that summer on the air at WFUV, gaining a regular slot during my subsequent senior year.

What a difference between then and now! Then, although the station was on the air seven days a week, it was with a split schedule … a few hours in the morning, another few in the late afternoon and evening; a paid staff of four people (two engineers, one program director and one secretary—for the entire Department of Communication Arts), plus an announcing staff that numbered probably no more than eight or 10 students. But giant oaks from little acorns grow. Now, via FORDHAM magazine, I have learned that WFUV boasts a huge listening audience as one of New York City’s most important and sophisticated broadcast voices, and as a National Public Radio station.

Having split most of my adult life between Latin America and California, I am far from the reach of the station's signal, but happy to have been one of those little acorns that paved the way for today’s WFUV.

—Robert France, FCRH ’49, lives in Southern California, where he works as an independent Spanish-English translator.

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