Exploring DC's Go-Go and Punk Music Scenes Tour: WGTB 90.1 Radio Station (Georgetown University)
The left-wing radio station drew attention and ire to the university's administration.
Georgetown University might have been a Jesuit institution, but throughout the 1970s its university radio station was anything but. WGTB 90.1 became one of the area’s leading and only left-wing radio stations, consistently clashing with school administrators throughout its final decade. Established in the 1940s to broadcast mass for those that could not attend in-person, its transformation to progressive, leftist, and anti-establishment news broadcasting and music gave numerous alternative and countercultural communities a voice during this time.
As a student-run radio station, the DJs throughout this period were mainly enrolled students at Georgetown, but the station also hosted volunteers who didn’t attend the university. As the station’s political and ideological messaging moved further left, the music and news that DJs aired also followed suit. Because of this, WGTB also became one of DC’s first radio stations to play and embrace punk music. While other stations largely refused to or missed the opportunity to play punk music, WGTB opened its arms to American and European bands alike.
While many supported the station because of its political messaging and the music it played, university administration, alumni, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not agree. The station received numerous complaints from all three entities, and had to at least obey some of the warnings issued by the FCC, since the FCC held their frequency license. In 1971, the station shut down for eight months after the physics department complained that the station’s transmissions interfered with their equipment and experiments, as they were housed in the same building. At the same time, the station’s radio tower mysteriously blew down due to inclement weather, but DJs at the time believed that administrators tampered with the equipment to prevent them from broadcasting.
In order to keep the station alive, school administrators hired Ken Sleeman as the station manager in 1971 to bring order back to the broadcasts. While Sleeman did in fact bring the station back up to FCC standards and redirect some of the political messaging, he also felt that the DJs had the right to voice their opinions as long as they did so legitimately. The station again had to shut down for three months due to continued infractions from the FCC, but this did not stop the station from its leftist programming once it returned to the air.
Then, in 1974, the station gained even more publicity and attention when the station expanded its frequency capability by using American University’s radio tower, greatly increasing its coverage radius. Subsequently, the station gained thousands of new listeners outside of Georgetown and DC, which also increased the scrutiny that the station faced from administrators and the FCC.
The station’s political ideology did not just lean into anti-war and anti-capitalist programming, though. DJs often promoted events and protests by the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, LGBTQ organizations, and feminist groups. The station even featured Friends, the longest-running LGBTQ radio program at the time, and another program called Sophie’s Parlor, which featured music produced and performed by women. Many listeners found a sense of community through the station’s programming, with many social movements finding a voice within WGTB’s frequency.
In 1979, the school administration fired Sleeman, and then abruptly shut the station down in March of that year. In a flurry of commotion, campus security escorted station staff and volunteers out of the building immediately after an interview with school administrators, who had not informed them of the shutdown. In the following week, station DJs and listeners organized a petition to save the station, as well as a benefit concert to raise awareness and protest the shutdown. The Cramps, The Chumps, and Urban Verbs all performed at the concert, which was held at the Hall of Nations. Despite the widespread petitions and protesting, university officials and the FCC had already come up with a solution.
That same year, when the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) opened, Georgetown University gifted its new neighbor the frequency license that WGTB previously operated under for the low price of $1. The decision surprised and outraged listeners and radio staff alike, but could not be stopped. Until 2001, WGTB survived on a tiny frequency radius that only covered the university through hardwired buildings. Since then, the station has transformed into an exclusively online streaming platform, where it continues to broadcast to this day.
This site is a stop on the Exploring DC's Go-Go and Punk Music Scenes Tour.