In the fall of 1947, three Duke roommates had an idea to launch a campus radio station. Using a turntable and microphone balanced on a desk in their Kilgo Hall dorm room, Ethelbert “Sonny” Elmore Jr. ’50, Archie Mathis Jr. ’51, and Edgar Hillman Jr. ’49 played records and broadcast news to their classmates. Naming their station WCDC (“We Cover Duke Campus”), they pitched it to the Duke administration, hoping for financial backing.
On October 28, 1947, a committee of Duke deans and faculty members approved the students’ proposal. The station was renamed WDBS, which stood for Duke Broadcasting System, and became an official student organization. After a lengthy search for funding and on-campus space, the station went live on May 15, 1950, broadcasting on 560 AM from a basement room in the divinity school.
Programming during the station’s early years included campus news, classical and popular music, a student-faculty quiz show, and a regular panel on campus issues called “Three Dolls and a Guy.” A daily morning segment known as “Flying Saucers” featured the latest rock ’n’ roll hits.
In 1971, WDBS purchased an FM license to allow transmission to the Triangle, while the AM station remained the “campus station.” WDBS-FM became known for its eclectic mix of music, comedy sketches, and interviews. Beginning in 1973, the station published a monthly program guide, which itself became an important avenue for student expression. The guide featured countercultural essays and original news stories on Durham politics.
In 1980, after a series of administrative changes, the station changed its focus to jazz and classical programming. Three years later, WDBS-FM was sold to Classic Ventures Inc. The Duke AM station moved to FM and became WXDU, which offers a mix of electronic music, world music, jazz, and local bands. Early recordings from WDBS are preserved in the University Archives, ensuring that the early sounds of Duke radio won’t fade away.
—Jessica Wood Ph.D. ’10,