On September 5, 1979, which happened to be my thirty-fifth birthday, WHIL-FM signed on the air as a listener-supported (“public”) radio station providing primarily classical music. It was a début that had been eagerly awaited by music lovers in Mobile (who had previously had to be satisfied with a couple of hours of classical music a week, broadcast by a commercial station), so there was considerable consternation when Hurricane Frederic knocked the station off the air just one week later. But power was soon restored, antenna and transmitter damage repaired, and the station back on the air.
Over the years, more public affairs programs (including NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition and their weekend counterparts) were added, and there were some unsuccessful experiments with jazz and New Age and other diversions, but classical music, with a judicious blend of local programming, public affairs, and favorites such as Prairie Home Companion, remained the staples.
It was always a tough sell, and in recent years, as the economy worsened, finding underwriters and recruiting new “members” became increasingly difficult. Spring Hill College (where the station had originated as a low-power student outlet) provided studio and office space and paid some support costs, but ultimately the college’s Board of Trustees threw in the towel, saying they were in the business of education, not broadcasting, and that the money they were losing on the station would be better spent on scholarships. When the University of Alabama came courting, the college welcomed its advances.
UA bought the station from SHC for $1.1 million. Listeners were promised that, although WHIL would join WUAL’s small Alabama Public Radio network, the WHIL call letters would be retained, programming would remain much the same, and more “local” (i.e., Mobile) news and content would be added (that is, more than APR had had before, not more than WHIL had broadcast). Listeners were understandably skeptical (it didn’t help that the transaction occurred during the station’s semiannual fund drive), though at least one wrote that the real WHIL had been gone for a long time already.
As announced in this morning’s paper, today was the day the changeover was to occur. It was scheduled for 3 p.m. At 2:55, my husband and I were parked outside a store where we intended to shop, but we waited in the car, radio on, to see what would happen. What happened was that about 2:58, at the end of a piece of music from NPR’s network stream, the air went dead, cutting off the NPR announcer.
There was a long, painful pause. Just before 3, an unfamiliar voice came on with a station ID, giving the familiar call letters, broadcast from the same transmitter a few miles up the road, but originating from a studio in Tuscaloosa.
It was the end of an era, and it seemed appropriate that there should be a moment of dead air to mark the station’s demise.