On the Air

Two decades ago, WMSV asked, “Is there anybody out there?” Turns out, there was

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Put Steve Ellis and Anthony Craven in a room together, and one gets a pretty good idea of the synergy that has been flowing through the halls of WMSV 91.1 lo these many years. Just don’t plan to control the conversation if they’re on a roll.

On a mild Friday afternoon in December, Ellis stopped by the radio station he’s devoted the past 21 years of his life to, the place where he earned the handle “Papa Steve.” Six months earlier, he’d retired as guru and general manager of the non-commercial, student-run FM station nestled near the heart of Mississippi State University’s campus. After nurturing the baby since its debut broadcast of March 21, 1994, he passed the controls on to Craven in May 2015. The two-decade journey was a good one. Not only is the 14,000-watt station a respected conduit of music and information for communities within its 70-mile radius, it’s a viable incubator for MSU students in fields ranging from communications to meteorology.

More than 20 years ago, Ellis walked into an empty building and created a 24/7 station from the ground up. His background was in broadcasting, but “I didn’t know where to start,” he claimed. “There was nothing here but the light switches.”

Ellis, of course, actually did have a clue. At the top of his priority list: determining a format, getting hold of songs to play and putting a staff together.

The earliest play list was alternative music. (It would evolve into a triple-A or AAA — adult album alternative — format, with dedicated jazz, blues and new age programs, too.) Ellis hustled, sending letter after letter to record labels to get on their serving lists and courting local record stores for the loan of music to get started with.

“Trying to build relationships with record companies? It was hard from scratch,” he said.

He interviewed potential student staff, sometimes eight to 10 hours a day. And even though the station is noncommercial, he still had to find underwriters. Rick Welch of Rick’s Café was the very first, and remains one today.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Just before 6 a.m. that March morning in ’94, Ellis launched the inaugural broadcast. It began with his voice: “The next sound you hear will be one you’ve been waiting for … WMSV-Starkville.” A song clip followed — Pink Floyd asking the world, “Is there anybody out there?”

Craven’s life took an unforeseen turn toward the future when he walked through the station’s doors in the fall of 1999, a junior transfer from Hinds Community College.

“He was as raw as they come as a student, but he had so much enthusiasm,” Ellis said, flashing a wide grin at his successor.

“Yeah,” said Craven. “I was an alt-rock kid, 100 percent. I was one of those kids in high school, into the Seattle grunge scene.”

Craven came on board to work in sports; he later transitioned to a DJ spot. After graduation, he went into public education, but his bond with Ellis and his sports savvy kept him in the fold. In 2006, Ellis and Craven went on the air as cohosts of “Southeastern Drive Time,” a popular, one-hour sports program about the Southeastern Conference. It was broadcast in not only Mississippi, but also Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.

In 2007, Craven answered the call to join WMSV full-time as its news and public affairs director. Today, he is general manager, following in Ellis’ mentoring footsteps.

The two radio men took time to recall a few memorable moments in the station’s history. One is 9/11.

“That day, I’ll never forget it,” Ellis said. As the magnitude of events unfolding in New York hit him, he stopped the music and instead put a mic in front of a 24-hour TV news channel and left it there. “It was too important for everyone listening not to know what was going on.”

There are lighter memories, plenty of them. Road trips with students to broadcasting events and concerts, late-shift mischief, and staff meetings to address correct pronunciation of artists’ names. Bruce Cockburn (Coburn) and Edie Brickell (Brick-ell) are two of the most flubbed.

There are awards to remember as well — more than 50 state and national awards for news, sports and music programming from the National Association of College Broadcasters and the Mississippi Association of College Broadcasters.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Ellis estimates that about 250 student staffers have come through WMSV in its first two decades. For some, it changed the course of their lives. Many went on to work in broadcast media and creative arenas around the country.

One is Atlanta-based actor, writer and voiceover artist Suehyla El-Attar. An almost abnormal amount of talent seemed to converge in “that place” at the same time, the Starkville native said on the occasion of the station’s 20th anniversary. “There was a desire to be professional, to grow. So many that I worked with went on to stay in that field, in music or creative broadcasting … it was really kind of phenomenal.”

WMSV has served as a laboratory for MSU students wanting to learn about the industry and broadcasting, said Craven. “We continue to have very talented broadcast journalism and broadcast meteorology majors at MSU come through our doors each school year.”

Student staffer KayLeigh McCool graduated in December. She is putting her communication degree and her station experience to work on her new job with an ESPN affiliate in Madison, as executive producer of the “Out of Bounds Show,” among other responsibilities. From Ellis and Craven, she learned how to take constructive criticism. They helped her with her voice and sports knowledge, and were always on hand to make sure the students didn’t “burn the place down.” In other words, “they were awesome.”

“Steve says he’s over it (the station), but he’s really not,” McCool laughed, referencing Ellis’ retirement. “He likes to check in, just to see if it’s OK.”

Be that as it may, for the first three months after leaving, Ellis didn’t turn the radio on. Call it cold turkey, or call it giving the new guy some space.

Craven admitted it’s been a little odd not having Ellis around the past several months to bounce ideas off of. “But he taught me well, and the transition has gone smoother than even I expected,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today, with the opportunities I’ve been given, if not for Steve Ellis. The vast majority of what I’ve learned in terms of running a station and being a broadcaster, I learned from him.”

The new general manager remembers being that raw, enthusiastic student back in 1999, and how cool it was to come to work there. It still is.

And Ellis? He’ll continue to drop in from time to time, when he’s not entertaining grandchildren or exploring the country from the seat of a bicycle.

“It’s one of my children,” he said of the station he nurtured, “and it could not be in better hands.”