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Rebel DJs reunite at WGBT, once-controversial GU station

By Deirdre Bannon

Current Correspondent

The Georgetown University radio station that Spiro Agnew once skewered as “the voice of third-world communism” celebrated its provocative history with a first-ever reunion of disc jockeys, station managers and fans during the university’s homecoming events this past weekend.

WGTB, which was founded in 1946, was once known as one of the most controversial college radio stations in the country, thanks to its progressive music and news programming, which in the 1970s covered topics such as anti-Vietnam War protests, the labor movement and gay and lesbian issues. The station also aired ads for contraceptives.

By 1979, conflicts between the university and the students and staff running the station climaxed, and the administration pulled the station off the air and sold the signal to the University of the District of Columbia for $1. In 1997, that school sold the signal to C-SPAN for $13 million.

Georgetown’s radio station was regenerated in the 1980s, and it went digital in 1996.

Caroline Klibanoff, who has been a DJ since her freshman year and is now the station’s general manager as a senior, organized the reunion after she stumbled across some of the station’s archives when cleaning out the broadcast space this summer.

“I heard that the alumni of the station had an active network, so their enthusiasm and the incredible history of the station combined with the archives I found -- I thought, ‘Wait, we have to do this,’” said Klibanoff. “We had something to show the alumni, we had people that wanted to come back and talk, and we have DJs that don’t know their history.”

On Saturday in a room next to station’s broadcast center, more than 75 people gathered for a two-hour open-mic session that was streamed live and included alumni, former staff and current students sharing stories about working at the station. For many alums, the station was the cornerstone of their undergraduate experience at Georgetown and impacted the careers they have today.

John Paige, one of the founders of the 9:30 Club, was a DJ in the 1970s while an undergraduate at Georgetown. He stayed on after graduating in 1973 until the station was shut down in 1979.

“Because of the relationships we were able to build with importers, we had the first and sometimes the only copies of certain records on the entire East Coast,” said Paige, including work by David Bowie, Tubular Bells and Bob Marley and the Wailers. “Some of the music was really underground stuff that you couldn’t hear anywhere else, and we became known as a progressive station.”

Paige added that when the university threatened to shut down the station in 1979, the petition to keep WGTB alive was the largest that had ever been presented to the Federal Communications Commission.

But it was the news coverage and the ads for contraception that truly tested the Catholic university’s patience.

In 1971, the university hired Ken Sleeman as a station manager to help “fire the troublemakers and hire squares,” according to Sleeman, who now lives in Rockville and attended the reunion. But he said the same kinds of students gravitated to the station, so its message remained the same.

Sleeman was fired at the end of 1975 and banned from campus. “They probably don’t know I’m here,” Sleeman said during the live broadcast. The final straw during his tenure came when the university opposed ads the station was running for a clinic in the District that offered referrals to abortion services.

Sleeman noted that to this day, Georgetown’s radio station is still not allowed to discuss contraception on air.

Today the station is completely student-run, and it airs exclusively online.

“I hope that we bring a diverse voice to campus,” said Klibanoff, who competes for an audience these days with iTunes and iPods. “We give 200 people a chance to talk every week, and we hope we fill a need in the campus community that they can’t get anywhere else.”

This article appears in the Oct. 26 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.