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December 1973 WTBS schedule of programsDecember 1973 WTBS schedule of programs

Cambridge’s Biggest Party

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In 1972, one of the radio programs on MIT’s WTBS broadcast a concert that could be heard all over the streets of Cambridge.

Contributed by Florencia Pierri, Assistant Curator, Science and Technology, MIT Museum

On November 25, 1946, MIT’s first student radio station came on the air. WMIT, as it was called, was broadcast out of the Senior House dormitory and could only be picked up on campus. In the mid 1950s, hoping to extend their reach into the fraternities across the Charles River, the radio station went on the hunt for an FCC license for an FM station. After a name change to WTBS (for “Technology Broadcast Service”), they jumped when a license became available and started broadcasting as non-commercial 88.1

Working at WTBS was possible for anyone, whether or not they were a student at MIT. The station was popular with community members, many of whom served as station engineers and on-the-air personalities. As a result, it gained a large following among Cambridge residents. And because WTBS was a non-commercial station prohibited from selling ads and instead supported by listener donations and a sometimes reluctant MIT, it didn’t have to worry about ratings or advertisers. Station members could take more musical risks and appeal to dozens of different audiences with a variety of shows that ran the musical gamut from classical to calypso and everything in between.

One of these programs was The Ghetto. Named after the Donny Hathaway song of the same name, the program was started in 1969 by Waayl Ahmad Salih (Class of 1972, SM/EAA ‘73) and James “JC” Clark (class of 1974, SM ‘81) in 1969. Sponsored by MIT’s Black Student Union, it provided Black students and community members with the opportunity to be on the radio (either as on-air personalities or technical personnel), and it filled a need for late-night radio options for the Black community.


Listen to a promo for The Ghetto, courtesy of the MIT Black History Project:

The Ghetto was immensely popular, prompting the station to offer it seven nights a week, with different DJs taking different slots. Dozens of people served as DJs for the program over the years, many of whom went on to influential careers in broadcasting. Magnus Johnstone, for example, the head of the pioneering show Lecco’s Lemma, got his start at The Ghetto, where he was a fill-in DJ and would play rap and electronic music—some of the first of this genre to hit the airwaves. In the decade of its existence, the show featured music from a variety of genres, occasional lectures, and a nightly news show. When celebrities like War, Stevie Wonder, Richard Pryor, Donnie Hathaway, and Aretha Franklin were in Boston, they always crossed the river to Cambridge to do interviews and promos with the program.

December 1973 WTBS schedule of programs
This December 1973 WTBS schedule shows the regular midnight to 3am timeslot for "The Ghetto." Each night was run by a different DJ.

In 1972, DJs for The Ghetto decided to throw a party. Not just any party, though—they wanted to throw the biggest party that Cambridge had ever seen. They invited the band War to play a set on campus and arranged for satellite party locations organized with other Black Student Unions on the campuses of Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, Harvard, Tufts, Wellesley, and Simmons. What really made it a party, though, was that it was broadcast on WTBR.

As former Ghetto DJ Waayl Ahmad Salih described it, "everybody in their homes and cars were urged to turn on The Ghetto — and to play it loud! We would rotate the broadcast from different satellite locations and have everybody ‘check in’. You could stand outside almost anywhere in the Boston metro area and hear the party. People were dancin’ in the streets!"

Archival image of W. Ahmed Salih deejaying
W. Ahmed Salih deejaying in Lobby 10, 1972

Very few physical traces of this concert have survived. It was not covered in The Tech, The Boston Globe, or The Bay Street Banner. It may have been advertised primarily on the air and by word of mouth. If there were flyers for the show, there are no copies at the MIT Museum or MIT’s Distinctive Collections. That’s not surprising—ephemera like flyers for live musical performances are rarely saved. There are some exceptions, like the Cornell University Library’s collection of punk flyers or the online Rave Preservation Project, but by and large, these impermanent items are usually discarded soon after the show is over. The Ghetto’s War concert seems to be no exception to this rule.

What remains of the concert, however, are memories. Did you attend Cambridge’s biggest party? Or do you remember listening to The Ghetto? Leave us your recollections below.

Explore material in the collection from the MIT student radio station

photograph from Student Activities -- WMBR (WTBS) Radio Station file

GCP-00057718

FURTHER READING

  • Learn more about The Ghetto and Black students’ involvement in MIT’s community radio at the MIT Black History Project
  • Read Waayl Ahmad Salih’s article in the BAMIT Review about his time as a Ghetto DJ

Did you attend Cambridge’s biggest party? Do you remember listening to The Ghetto or WTBS? Share your recollections.

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