The Story of WHIL-FM in Mobile, Alabama

Part One

WHIL-FM started broadcasting on a regular basis on Thursday, August 29th, 1974, from the basement of Murray Hall at Spring Hill College in Mobile. In the beginning the station was broadcasting from a transmitter with 10 watts of power, which limited its broadcast area to Spring Hill College and the immediate area, and its operators were students of the college.

In December 1975, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting chose Spring Hill College to be a recipient of a Phase I, Radio Coverage Expansion Project grant worth $25,000 to help them in their plan to transform WHIL-FM into a station offering full service supported by financial contributions from radio listeners rather than revenue from advertisers. In September 1978, William Kaufman, the president of Gulf Coast Public Broadcasting Incorporated, the operators of the station, announced the choice of Joseph A. Martin, Jr. for the position of general manager of the station (Joseph A. Martin, Jr. was the general manager of WSCI-FM in Charleston, South Carolina before WHIL-FM).

In March 1979, new transmission equipment for WHIL-FM was being unloaded as part of a plan to increase the broadcast area for the station. The unloading was supervised by Ferrell Blank, the director of maintenance at Spring Hill College. By then, Hiram Taylor Morrissette, Jr., the president of North American Sugar Industries, Incorporated, a division of Borden Industries, had accepted the position of general chairman for the public funding campaign of the station.

On Tuesday, June 26th, the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) granted an application filed on behalf of Spring Hill College requesting permission to change the location for the station's transmitter to 4307 Old Shell Road, the location of Spring Hill College, to change the type of transmitter and antenna for the station, and to change the power output for the transmitter. On Thursday, August 30th, the FCC granted an application requesting the construction permit for the station be extended to Saturday, September 15th.

On Wednesday, September 5th, a ceremony was held at Spring Hill College around 10:00 a.m. for WHIL-FM to begin broadcasting with 100,000 watts from its new transmitter, which would make station's programming available to more residents in southwest Alabama along with residents in southeast Mississippi, northwest Florida, and southeast Louisiana. The new transmitter started functioning upon the flip of a switch by both William Kaufman and Paul S. Tipton, the president of Spring Hill College.

Some of the guests who attended the ceremony include Joseph A. Martin, Jr., Dale Outz, a senior vice president for National Public Radio (NPR), Bob Thomas, the manager of radio programming for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Bettie Hudgens, the chairman of the communications arts department at Spring Hill College. Bettie Hudgens was honored at the ceremony for her role as the director of the WHIL-FM project.

According to a news article the Mobile Press-Register published on the day after the ceremony, Paul S. Tipton called the day of the ceremony "historic" and said the station would bring Mobile and other areas along the coast by the Gulf of Mexico something they never had before. The article also quoted him as saying the development of the station was the vision of Bettie Hudgens and said the day of the ceremony was "her day to celebrate".

By the day of the ceremony, WHIL-FM was set to broadcast on a regular basis from 6:00 AM to 12:00 AM with plans to broadcast music performed by orchestras and opera companies from lands outside the United States, jazz and contemporary music, dramas, local news and weather, public affairs, and “All Things Considered”, a news program from National Public Radio. The staff for programming WHIL-FM by this time included Martin J. Schneider, the director of programming (before Martin J. Schneider joined WHIL-FM, he worked for WQED-FM in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and Robert Calver, Jonathan Lebeau, and David McCray, all of whom served as the station's producers and announcers.

By Wednesday, September 12th, WHIL-FM stopped broadcasting after a tropical cyclone named “Frederic” twisted its broadcast tower. A short time later, the station started broadcasting again with less power in its transmitter after a section of the broadcast tower about 70 feet in length was savaged, according to Joseph A. Martin, Jr. Six weeks later, the station was broadcasting with 100,000 watts of power again after the broadcast tower was restored to its original height of 200 feet.

Part Two

In 1989, WHIL-FM started the WHIL Radio Reading Service for radio listeners who were blind, visually impaired, or physically unable to access the contents of newspapers, books, and magazines. Volunteers of the reading service usually read newspapers, books, and magazines with their voices broadcast over a radio sub-frequency for special radio receivers.

The receivers for the reading service were loaned by the station and their users were allowed to keep them for as long as they needed them. Donations for the reading service were provided by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, local foundations, businesses, private contributors, and grants. The volunteers for the reading service were auditioned to ensure listeners hear quality reading and to assure them the readers were not paid for their services.

By June 1997, the WHIL Radio Reading Service was serving about 300 local radio users with about 50 regular volunteers, according to a news article published by the Mobile Press-Register (about 60 radio users were being served when the reading service began in 1989). By then, Jonathan Adler, the director of the reading service at the time, was looking for new readers to audition between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on a weekly basis. By then, WHIL-FM was set to broadcast radio programs from the 1940s on Sundays between 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. According to Jonathan Adler in the news article, the reason for the alternate programming on Sundays was because they suited many listeners who probably grew up listening to those radio programs (he said the median age of listeners of the reading service was about 65).

By October 2007, the WHIL Radio Reading Service was serving about 450 local radio users with 80 volunteers, By this time, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services had decided to withdraw an annual donation of $42,000 to the reading service and reduce spending by 20% until September 2008 for the Alabama Radio Reading Service at WBHM-FM in Birmingham, Alabama (the decision was made two months after a new contract between WHIL-FM and the government of the state of Alabama was signed). According to a news article published by the Mobile Press-Register, the department decided to use the money withdrawn to pay for employment counselors and equipment to help residents in the Mobile area who were blind or visually impaired find employment or stay employed. A clause in the contract for WHIL-FM allowed the department to do this by posting a notice 30 days in advance. The article quoted Jim Carden, the department's assistant commissioner for services helping blind and deaf persons, as saying WHIL-FM’s program was a valuable service and saying the primary service of his department was finding employment for people who are blind by using every available dollar to support the effort. The article quoted Mario Mazza, the general manager of WHIL-FM at the time, as saying his station was very concerned because $42,000 was "really the entire budget" for the WHIL Radio Reading Service, including the salaries of two paid employees such as the reading service’s director Brad Martin, who could not predict a complete cessation of funding, according to the article. WHIL-FM appealed for help from state legislators such as Chad Fincher, the state representative from Semmes, Alabama who asked the Department of Rehabilitation Services to extend funding beyond the 30-day notice, as he felt it was important to give WHIL-FM an opportunity to have a little more time to seek other sources of funding. Even though state funding for the WHIL Radio Reading Service was extended to March 2008 afterwards, Mario Mazza was quoted by the Mobile Press-Register as saying the program could not continue beyond that month without other funding. So the station planned to mention the reading service and their need for grant applications during their fundraising effort, which took place on Saturday, October 13th, 2007, under the name "Overture". The news article quoted Brad Martin as saying the reading service was not mentioned very much during past fundraising efforts for WHIL-FM. He was also quoted as saying he was certain “Overture” was going to make the service the focus in how he and other employees would appeal to listeners for funding.

By Friday, July 1st, 2011, the WHIL Radio Reading Service had ceased to exist due to Spring Hill College selling WHIL-FM to the University of Alabama, which made the radio station an affiliate of the Alabama Radio Network on this day.

Part Three

In 1990, WHIL-FM started "The Harbinger Hour", a local radio program dedicated to Gothic music, ambient music, electronic music, trance music, and space music. The idea for the program was the result of a meeting between Charlie Smoke, the director of music for WHIL-FM, and David B. Spalding, a writer of music reviews for a local periodical called the Harbinger and a trained musician whose specialty was Celtic percussion. Charlie Smoke set up the meeting with David B. Spalding after being inspired by his music reviews for the Harbinger. By then, David B. Spalding he had just begun studying radio, television, and film communication at USA in 1990 and had been stationed in Mobile with the Coast Guard of the United States since 1988 after leaving his birthplace of San Francisco, California. David B. Spalding would eventually become the host of "The Harbinger Hour".

When “The Harbinger Hour” began, it featured contemporary progressive music from performers such as Phillip Glass, Dead Can Dance, and the Deep Listening Bands, and it was scheduled to be broadcast every other Friday at 11:00 p.m. after a syndicated radio program called “Music from the Hearts of Space,” which included contemporary mood music and space music. According to the Harbinger, David B. Spalding described "The Harbinger Hour" as "somber and contemplative hour of radio" and said it was "never brash or noisy as a whole". David B. Spalding did research for each show from his apartment (with one bed) listening to record company promotions, reading magazines, and searching Compu-Serve on the World Wide Web for recommendations.

Even though David B. Spalding worked in a radio room for the Coast Guard of the United
States, he realized his program required a different speaking style in order for him not to not sound amateurish (he would later describe his early experimental shows as amateurish, according to the Mobile Press-Register). He remembered getting a few responses from the audience in the beginning and thought it was good for Mobile, even though he thought the audience was small and "amazingly unresponsive" compared to an audience in California. He thought this type of audience was why WZEW-FM (licensed to Fairhope, Alabama) cancelled their progressive music program “On the Edge.” According to David B. Spalding, the audience for “The Harbinger Hour" consisted of radio listeners who read the Harbinger and were in search of alternatives in Mobile, which he thought was a good market for new music due to the area having large colleges and universities.

By December 1993, David B. Spalding said he enjoyed the experience of hosting "The Harbinger Hour", along with his many listeners, according to the Mobile Press-Register, and said it helped him appreciate the music he reviewed much more such the music produced by a group of musicians called the Black Tape for a Blue Girl (he disliked their music in a review from 1991, but by December 1993 he liked them). David B. Spalding had hoped to syndicate the program, but said competition was tough because there were 200 to 300 good programs on the air while excluding small stations like WHIL-FM.

By 1994, WABB-AM in Mobile was broadcasting "The Harbinger Hour" on a regular basis instead of WHIL-FM. By October, the program was no longer being produced for WABB-AM.

Part Four

By 1992, WHIL-FM was broadcasting local radio programs on Saturdays between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m titled “Panorama” with reviews of books and staged productions such as plays and musicals, information about special festivals, radio versions of bulletin boards, and “Eugene at Large”, a regular segment used to end the program (the segments were usually about ten minutes in length) in which Eugene Ferdinand Walter shared news, memories, local history, recipes, gardening, information about special cultural events, and topics considered obscure such as a former barbershop at the Battle House Hotel in downtown Mobile, books published in Alabama, ice men, and recipes from a church publication made between 1800 and 1900. According to the Mobile Press-Register, Eugene Ferdinand Walter once told his radio listeners about a catalog based in Iowa listing nurseries where old-fashioned flowers were available for purchase and about a store in Mobile where the management stopped stocking capers with the idea that no one ever used them like him.

According to the Mobile Press-Register, Charlie Smoke, the producer of “Panorama” and the director of programming at WHIL-FM, once said he felt angry when he heard people say there was nothing to do in Mobile. He believed in the opposite about Mobile and said “Panorama” was all about promoting local activities. As for his feelings about the “Eugene at Large” segments, he described them as freewheeling, since its host viewed himself as part recluse and his programs as part market-square gossip and weekly columns (the host originally wanted to name the segments “Eugene Let Loose” before thinking it was too frivolous).

According to the Mobile Press-Register, Eugene Ferdinand Walter once described himself as a person interested in everything, since his zodiac sign was Sagittarius (or “the Archer). He liked to talk about events in a conversational fashioned and was not told what to do for his segment, even though he said Charlie Smoke may suggest some things he wanted to spotlighted (the host and the producer were friends since the 1980s).

Before Eugene Ferdinand Walter starting working for WHIL-FM in 1992, he wrote for the weekly newspaper titled Azalea City News & Review after returning to Mobile in 1979 after living in New York, New York since shortly after the Second World War, in which he served as a cryptographer in Alaska for the Army of the United States for three years, followed by his moves to Paris, France in 1951 and Rome, Italy in 1956. He also wrote for Metro Mobile until both of his publications in Mobile ceased production and exhibited artwork such as his drawings and designs. He wrote the novels “The Untidy Pilgrim” (1954) and “Love You Good” (1963, reprinted as “Love You Good, See You Later” in 1964), the cookbooks “American Cooking: Southern Style” (1971) and “Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall”, (1984) and the poetic books “Monkey Poems” (1953) and “Lizard Fever: Poems Lyric, Satiric, Sardonic, Elegiac” (1994).

After Eugene Ferdinand Walter died on Sunday, March 29th, 1998 at 76 years of age, WHIL-FM was set to broadcast a compilation of past editions of “Eugene at Large” on the first Friday of each month at 5:30 p.m. and on the following Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Charlie Smoke later released a compact disc (CD) with recordings of Eugene Ferdinand Walter singing his songs, reciting his poems, and reading his story “The Byzantine Riddle” (1985), which was originally released on audio tape in 1991. He also wanted to ensure some of his friend’s other material, including past editions of "Eugene at Large", recordings of his reading his short stories and “Monkey Poems”, and interviews from the WHIL-FM program “Playing Favorites” were made available to the public on CDs for libraries and archives, since he believed audio tape did not last long in Mobile’s climate (he just needed the grant money for the project). Segments of “Eugene at Large” were eventually released on CDs.

Part Five

On Tuesday, February 26th, 1991, the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) accepted WHIL-FM's application for a construction permit to move the station’s transmitter 5.1 miles east of the junction of Highway 31 and Highway 90 near Spanish Fort, Alabama (east of Mobile Bay), before granting it on Wednesday, October 30th. On Tuesday, October 13th, 1992, the FCC accepted an application to modify the previous application to have the transmitter located 2.5 kilometers northeast of Alabama State Route 181 and United States Road 31 near Spanish Fort before granting it on Tuesday, January 12th, 1993.

On Tuesday, March 31st, 1993, Exxon Company USA donated $5200 to WHIL-FM in advance of a corporate fundraising campaign led by 30 leaders of local businesses beginning on Thursday, April 8th, 1993, including a luncheon at the International Trade Club to honor participants. Representatives of the station had hoped to raise $15,000 in corporate donations, more so than the previous year for a total of $105,000, as the extra money was needed to complete the goal of moving the transmission facilities for the station. The total price for the move was $250,000, excluding rental fees of $22,000 per year for the tower.

In August 1995, the FCC granted WHIL-FM permission (“program test authority”) to broadcast from the former broadcast tower for WKRG-TV in Spanish Fort after the transmitter and antenna were moved from the campus of Spring Hill College. The location of the new transmitter improved reception of WHIL-FM's in Baldwin County, Alabama (where reception used to be inconsistent), Pensacola, Florida, and other counties in south Alabama counties where programming supported by public donations was not easy to receive (Pensacola was all ready served by a station supported by public donations: WUWF-FM). The change was also made to avoid interference from other stations nearby. According to the Mobile Press-Register, Jeffrey R. Stoll, the general manager of WHIL-FM, gave credit to strong financial support from his station’s listeners, including the folks who responded to a mail solicitation campaign in 1992, and grants from the Public Telecommunications Facilities, the Joseph Linyer Bedsole Foundation, the Alabama Power Foundation, the Mobile County Foundation, and the family of Alfred F. Delchamps, Sr., the founder of the Delchamps chain of grocery stores.

On Wednesday, July 22nd, 1998, WHIL-FM’s transmitter stopped broadcasting due to a piece of equipment failing; a replacement for the equipment was ordered by the station and shipped to the transmitter around 11:00 a.m. on the next day.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 31st, 2005, WHIL-FM stopped broadcasting due to breaks in the station’s air dielectric coaxial cable transmission line, which was nearly 1100 feet long and wide by three inches. According to an interview with the Mobile Press-Register, Dennis Brown, a development director for WHIL-FM, said the damages came as a result of transmission line clamps breaking in the winds of a tropical cyclone named “Ivan” on Thursday, September 16th, 2004, followed by more clamps breaking over the course of several months, thus allowing the line to move and take more damage as there were fewer clamps securing it every few feet. Jeffrey R. Stoll said his station was exceedingly fortunate that workers from Doty-Moore Tower Services in Cedar Hill, Texas were all ready at the transmitter site after several weeks of installing transmission equipment to improve WKRG-TV’s digital broadcast signal. Work on WKRG-TV’s transmitter was delayed to allow the workers to help WHIL-FM.

On Friday, June 14th, 2005, Ray Kenney and Walt Coleman of Doty-Moore Tower Services, along with Terry Hammond, an assistant to the chief engineer for WKRG-TV, unraveled 1100 feet of transmission line to restore WHIL-FM's broadcast signal at 6:05 p.m. The installation of the line was scheduled for the weekend of (Saturday) June 11th, 2005, originally until a tropical cyclone named "Arlene" delayed it. According the Mobile Press-Register, Jeffrey R. Stoll told one of their interviewers the cost of the labor and equipment need to restore the signal was around $60,000, and by the time the station was broadcasting again, all of the telephone calls and electronic mail WHIL-FM received from members of the general public over the course of two weeks were all positive, including calls from persons who said they did not realize how much they enjoyed WHIL-FM's programming until it was no longer available.

Part Six

In 1996, WHIL-FM began a weekly radio program titled “Sacred Sounds” after a member of the evangelism committee at the Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile suggested sponsoring a program dedicated to sacred music. In the beginning the program was usually broadcast on Sundays and prepared over the course of several hours each calendar week by Sally Pearsall, who also served as host of the program (her broadcasts were usually live rather than recordings unless she had to travel on days the program was scheduled for broadcast). Before Sally Pearsall joined the program, she worked part time at the church and volunteered in the offices of WHIL-FM and read for the WHIL Radio Reading Service.

The music chosen for “Sacred Sounds” included classical sacred standards from composers such as Wolfgang Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, modern compositions by John Rutter, and jazz by Dave Brubeck. According to the Mobile Press-Register, Sally Pearsall had a rule for not playing any music she did not like. All though she was very fond of gospel music, she played many pieces of spiritual music and liked for them to be done in a reverent style, since she was of aware of people using “Sacred Sounds” for inspirational purposes. In the beginning she typed a script of everything she would say on the program based on her experience as an actor and singer in local theatrical productions by the Mobile Theater Guild and the Mobile Opera. She decided later she could host the program without a script and improvise.

On Tuesday, September 11th, 2007, Sally Pearsall recorded the final edition of “Sacred Sounds” for WHIL-FM to broadcast on the following Sunday (between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.) after the Government Street Presbyterian Church decided to stop sponsoring the program and use their money for other purposes. The church had plans to honor Sally Pearsall with a "punch and cookies reception" immediately after their 11:00 a.m. worship service on Sunday, September 23rh. Sally Pearsall had planned on retiring from broadcasting and traveling more with her husband David due to the plan to end "Sacred Sounds". She had just retired from directing the Jubilee Voices, a chorus sponsored by the Junior League of Mobile, in 2006 after 21 years of service since earning the job with the experience of teaching pre-school choirs at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Mobile in a career that lasted 15 years.

Shortly after the final edition of "Sacred Sounds" was produced, WHIL-FM had planned on replacing it with "Sacred Classics", a national radio program from National Public Radio with Stephanie Wendt presenting choral music accompanied by instrumental compositions. According to the Mobile Press-Register, Mario Mazza, the general manager of WHIL-FM, believed “Sacred Classics” with its "spiritually engaging and uplifting classical music from all eras" would appeal to radio listeners were loyal to “Sacred Sounds”.

Part Seven

On Friday, March 25th, 2011, the Federal Communications Commission accepted an application filed on behalf of Spring Hill College to have their broadcast license for WHIL-FM assigned to the Board of Trustees for the University of Alabama in accordance with a deal made between the college and the university earlier that week that would lead to the university becoming the new owners of WHIL-FM in exchange of $1,100,000 to the college (a document about the deal dated Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011, was accepted with the application). 

WHIL-FM would still be a non-commercial radio station after the deal was completed later that year on Friday, July 1st (it started broadcasting for the university with a new edition of “All Things Considered” from National Public Radio at 3:00 p. m. that day); with some of the same types of programs it had when it was owned by Spring Hill College, but it would just be part of a network of radio stations owned and operated by the university with the same programming and the same broadcast studio (it would still have some unique programming occasionally: mainly audio messages from the National Weather Service in Mobile and a message identifying itself and its city of license). 

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