WBRU was the first college radio station in the country when it began in 1936 as the Brown Network, when George Abraham ’40 and David Borst ’40 strung wires for an inter-dormitory connection to relay the messages and recorded music which Abraham had begun broadcasting to his fellow students on November 30. The next year Abraham fitted out a studio in his dormitory room, equipped with playback machines, microphones, and other equipment. Subscribers to the network were organized under section managers, who were the only ones allowed to talk on the lines, and 16,000 feet of wire stretched across the rooftops of the campus buildings. The University administration allowed the installation of the wires, but later forbade broadcasting. The network was reinstated after 400 students petitioned the committee on student activities. Student support also paid for the line charges to broadcast the Brown-Dartmouth football game from Hanover. After the damage caused to the wiring by the 1938 hurricane, the lines were connected to the dormitory radiators, which served as antennae. For the sake of better reception the wires were later brought through the heating tunnels. Within a few years twelve more colleges started stations, and in 1940 they formed the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System at an organizational meeting held at Brown on February 18, 1940.
The Network survived the World War II years with the help of Pembroke students and students in the Army and Navy units. The station identification of the Brown Network was B.U.B.C (for Brown University Broadcasting Company) until 1945, when, upon the prompting of Stephen Plimpton ’48, who hung felt banners with “WBRU” on the microphones, the network elected these call letters. The station celebrated its tenth anniversary on November 30, 1946, with a half-hour program broadcast from Alumnae Hall throughout New England by the Yankee network. In 1951 WBRU broke the long-distance record for collegiate broadcasting – from the Ice Palace in Colorado Springs, covering Brown’s appearance in the NCAA hockey tournament and sharing its coverage with Providence station WFCI for the benefit of Southern New England fans. WBRU was represented in Colorado by Barry Cohen ’52 and Jordan Kaplan ’52, while network president Dick Walton ’51 remained behind to raise the $1,100 needed for the enterprise. WBRU joined the Ivy Network in 1952, gaining the advantages of shared advertising and exchange of dramatic programs and sporting events.
WBRU continued to broadcast on closed circuit to the campus community until February 21, 1966, when WBRU-FM, with a new FCC license, reached outside with its first broadcast, a panel show on the Peace Corps. Operating at a frequency of 95.5 WBRU-FM was able to reach southern New England areas within a radius of forty miles and provided fourteen hours a day of lectures, music, sports, and public affairs. The station, licensed as Brown Broadcasting Systems, Inc., operated on a non-profit basis, applying revenue from commercials to operations. WBRU-FM soon increased its local listening audience by offering progressive rock music and was included in Billboard magazine’s list of the best progressive rock stations in the country. Required as an FCC-licensed station to carry a certain amount of news coverage, WBRU was fortunate in being named an ABC radio news affiliate in 1968, after the other Providence FM stations declined. In 1971, after WBRU-FM increased its power to 50,000 watts and moved its transmitting equipment to the roof of the Sciences Library, some interference was created with electronic equipment in the Barus-Holley Building and Prince Engineering Laboratory, but the most unusual development was that monkeys who had electrodes implanted for reading their brain waves were tuned into WBRU. The station voluntarily reduced its power to 20,000 watts. In 1976 the station gained attention for its documentary, “Brutality at the Children’s Center,” which brought about investigations of the state-run O’Rourke Children’s Center in Providence. The documentary received three awards, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award; a first prize in the news media awards, radio division of the Eastern Regional Division of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America; and the Radio and Television News Directors Association’s regional award for investigative reporting. In 1980, when WHJY switched from “beautiful music” to rock/heavy metal, WBRU lost its audience, ratings dropped, and the station was saved from backruptcy in 1981 by a $230,000 Brown-backed bank loan. The ratings soon rose as WBRU adopted a format to appeal to the more sophisticated members of its 18 to 34-year-old target group and won back its audience. In 1988 WBRU changed its format from rock ’n’ roll to “cutting edge” rock, “somewhere between the presentable side of punk rock and the dangerous side of more traditional rock radio fare.” In 1990 WBRU placed fourth in the Best Radio Station (medium market) category in the national readers’ poll conducted by Rolling Stone magazine.