It was Sunday, Feb. 24, 1974, when the East Tennessee State University student-run station led by local radio personality Dick Ellis went on the air for the first time, broadcasting from a two-story house on the ETSU campus.
Through its first year, the station was on the air from 10 a.m. until midnight daily, broadcasting classical music, public affairs programs and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” evening news.
By mid-1975, WETS was on the air 18 hours a day, and within a few years its format had been expanded to include jazz, folk, blues and bluegrass music. Round-the-clock broadcasting began in the 1990s.
In 1988, some two years after state health inspectors deemed the old house on West Maple Street inadequate for the station’s electrical demands and weighty library of vinyl records, the current WETS building was built on land purchased by the university.
The new building’s construction was paid for with $200,000 in listener contributions and another $12,000 contributed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In 1980 NPR, and WETS with it, became the first radio network to broadcast via satellite. Winkler said connection to a digital signal came “gradually through the 1990s and changed a lot of what we did.”
Ellis remained on as station’s manager until 1991. In 1993, just two weeks short of his death, the WETS building was designated “Richard F. Ellis Hall” in his honor.
Looking around the building today, Station Director Wayne Winkler says very little of the equipment even existed in 1974. And with the exception of the boards and microphones, none of original staff would have known how to use it.
In 2011, WETS became the region’s first HD radio station, with three digital signals that allow the station to simultaneously broadcast three entirely different program streams.
“Now we’re kind of waiting for HD to catch up a little bit. When we started, FM was a relatively new thing to have in cars and we expect HD capability will increase as well,” Winkler said.
“With HD, we could add another program stream. And with more people formatting with HD radios, we could add up to eight different program streams for people to chose from.
“It’s kind of hard to predict the future but in the next 40 years, we expect there will be more of the same kind of technology advances we’ve seen in the last 40 years. It’s going to get pretty exciting.”