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A Tower Tale from Gannon Alum Jim Griffey '77: WERG, The Little Station That Could

Published: 07/07/2021

WERG in the 1970's: "new" transmitter being installed in the Nash Library

WERG in the 1970's: "new" transmitter being installed in the Nash Library

Many of you know that from as far back as I could remember, radio was where I wanted to be when I grew up. I also wanted a college education, so by the time I got to my junior year in high school, I started looking for colleges/universities with a degree in something related to broadcasting/communication.

At that point, no college in the Erie area offered anything like that, not even Edinboro College (it wasn’t University status by that point) even though they had a radio station. So I looked in adjacent states and found the closest option: Kent State University. They had a radio station and a four-year degree so I began the application process; I even took an additional Ohio Boards test.

Then, as I started my high school senior year, a curious thing happened. Gannon College put WERG-FM on the air. It was a 10-watt student-run radio station. Its signal covered mainly the center city area. Where I lived on the east side, I could only get it on my tuner in my bedroom that I had hooked up to an FM antenna.

I loved what I was hearing.

Students were playing all the album rock of the day and it was the only Erie outlet for that kind of music (at that point WMDI was still playing Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and other easy-listening faves).

I went to an open house, saw the radio station and met Father Tom McSweeney, the head of the department who proceeded to paint the sky every possible shade of blue. I then decided to put Kent State on the back-burner and give Gannon a shot. If it wasn’t to my liking, I could always transfer.

Well, ultimately that never happened.

In September of 1973, I entered as a freshman at Gannon, and on the 20th of that month, I did my first radio show. The record will show that Borstal Boys by Rod Stewart/Faces was the first song I played.  And as far as I was concerned, it was like I was on CKLW.

Of course, the WERG studio back then was anything BUT CKLW level.  It was in the basement of the Zurn Science center, occupying a very small corner. The studio was (estimating from my memory) maybe 12X15 feet.  The record library containing approximately 100 albums lined one wall. The 10-watt transmitter sat on a table in the back. Outside the door was a desk and file cabinet that served as the “office.”  And the staff was maybe 15-20 dedicated students.

Our broadcast day during weekdays went from 6 p.m - 2 a.m. and the format was whatever the jock on the air wanted to play. It was mainly variations on rock. But every jock leaned in their own musical direction. Some like myself played the album favorites of the day (Chicago, Traffic, Procol Harum, Led Zep, Deep Purple) while others played singer-songwriters like James Taylor or Joni Mitchell and there were those that liked the jazz fusion of Weather Report or Mahavishnu Orchestra. And since the album inventory was rather limited, we all brought in our own collection to augment our air shift.

On weekends, we signed on at noon. Sunday was mainly ethnic and classical music while Saturday was Super Soul Saturday, a fixture on WERG that started in 1974 and continues to this day.

Next to my time at K104, WERG was an invaluable learning experience for me. In 1975, AJ Miceli started his four-decade professorship at Gannon and was made WERG’s faculty advisor. I cannot say enough about AJ. This was a broadcast pro that did it all - from on-air work to sales to copywriting and production to management. From him, I learned so many of the basics that I utilized throughout the rest of my career, both at K104 and in my 30-year tenure as Production/Creative Director and Copywriter for 471 (Robison Road). AJ steered the station in a unified direction with the idea of making WERG as close to a real-world station as we could be. And it was a breeding ground for talent that went on to great careers in broadcasting. 

From my era, there were people like Tony Bonvini who recently retired after over four decades managing stations in South Florida. There was Harry Hairston who went on to WICU as a TV newscaster and reporter before eventually working in markets like Detroit and Philadelphia, racking up several awards along the way. My good friend Gary Loncki worked for several years as news director for K104 and as Editor of the Lake Shore Visitor.

That’s just a few. And as WERG and the Communication Arts department grew at Gannon, the list of successful grads just got bigger and bigger.

A few years after I graduated, the station upped their power to 3,000 watts from an antenna that sat atop the Gannon Library. Years later I would play for shows at the Gannon Schuster theatre and sometimes the guitar amps would “pick up” WERG.  We’d joke that the station would have to shut down while we did performances. That never happened, of course, and that first guitar chord would generally obliterate WERG.

A few years back I got to see the current WERG studio and office complex that now occupies a good part of the 2nd floor in the Com-Art Building at 7th and Peach. And today as the station under the guidance of my friend and former co-worker Chet Price continues to rack up recognition and national college radio station awards, I feel nothing but pride for how far WERG has progressed. I was proud to be there at the beginning and to be a part of the foundation of what is now a legendary college radio station.

"The Little Station That Could" - Shared with permission from Gannon alum Jim Griffey '77. 

Learn more about the history of WERG here, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram