A Radio is Born: The Founding of AURA

September 04, 2022 Christo Grozev
A Radio is Born: The Founding of AURA

This story originally appeared in the print edition of AUBG Today, Issue 47, in honor of the university’s 20th anniversary. 

Radio AURA was originally conceived by a bunch of hyperactive freshmen living in the Hilltop dorm just a couple of months after the first class had moved into the former Communist party training campus, what was then the Hilltop residence hall. It was probably October 1991 when the first dorm-keeper – Geoff Dean – suspiciously gave me permission to use the outdated “cable radio” room on the second floor. Radio AURA’s predecessor was thus launched around November 1991 as a dorm-only station, narrowcasting via the building’s single-channel cable radio called the “radiotochka”.

The station was first launched under the name rAUBGadio, a butchered pun in hindsight, but try telling that to the original “radio bunch:” Manol, Dimiter, Dora, Kate, Bistra, Peter & Petar, and a few others. rAUBGadio broadcast every evening a “quality mix” of rock, pop and ballads, mingled with public service announcements of the “computer lab will stay open all night tonight” type. As it could only be heard via the single-channel wall-mounted radios across the dorm rooms, its slogan was logically – and wittily – “Don’t even try to change the channel… it’s technically impossible.”

Just a few months after the micro-launch in Hilltop, the radio bunch – which had gradually expanded to include Emil, Stratsi, Maria, Ivan, and many others – decided they had earned their right to go on the airwaves, and started making preparations for a city-wide radio station to compete against the old-fashioned national and local public stations. For that we needed just three things: studio premises, equipment, and an FM frequency. Oh yes, and a real name, and that was brainstormed to be Radio AURA – as in “American University Radio.”

The first thing was easy. The university – namely the late Administrative Director Bill Porter – allocated an unused office right next to the original faculty room. In just one overnight shift, the radio bunch sound-proofed the “studio” walls with violet-colored, pressed-cardboard apple crates (yep, apples were sold in crates back then – can’t tell you how many apples we had to buy and eat to end up with enough crates to cover all four walls). The next morning the shocked building engineer Georgi Pregyov told us to immediately “tear down this wall,” as it violated all conceivable fire regulations. So off went the crates, up came a layer of fireproof carpet (which was indeed tested in action during a studio fire much later – it didn’t burn, but the white dust from the fire-extinguisher stayed in the carpet forever, causing quite a few bronchial issues).

The second item – equipment – was not a problem either. I arranged for a friend from the Netherlands – a former radio pirate – to ship to us the disused equipment from a former pirate radio ship (the prototype for “The Boat that Rocked,” for that matter). I remember I paid $350 for the whole studio. (A year or so later we were able to get a grant from the non-profit International Media Fund, which allowed us to buy the most state-of-the art equipment available – which included professional turntables and CD players.)

The third component – a frequency – was where we ran out of luck. It took months and months of applying, begging, lobbying, and threatening the Telecoms Agency in Sofia to even be considered for a frequency permit. What with us being just an unincorporated bunch of students, far away from Sofia, with nothing to offer for an expedited solution. I remember it took literally hours of repeated dialing from the rotary telephone in the President’s office (indeed, we didn’t have our own phone yet) before we could even get through to the Telecoms agency. Ultimately, we were told we would get the frequency of 98.9 FM, but needed to wait a few more weeks for final clearance.

On air at Radio AURA in the 90s Photo from the AUBG archives

Needless to say, the combination of ambition and peer pressure meant we went on air immediately, tuning our (appropriately pirate-vintage) transmitter to 98.9 FM. Thus we became the first semi-legal radio station in Bulgaria, broadcasting on FM. We left the luckiest among us to mix music on the air, and the rest of us somehow squeezed into Manol’s old Trabant and started driving around the city to see how far the signal could be heard. Sure enough, it could be heard – on 98.9 FM – well beyond the edge of the city. We drove nearly all the way to Dupnitsa, and we could still be heard. At one point someone decided to compare our signal to the other station’s sound – only to find out there were NO other stations – we broadcast on 98.9, but also on nearly every other frequency on the FM band.

We drove back to the studio frantically, conscious that we were conducting nothing short of radio terrorism. Within half an hour the problem was fixed, the transmitter fine-tuned, and we were comfortable we could only be heard on the designated frequency of 98.9 FM. Over the next few days AURA became a “real” station, with its own promos, sung jingles (courtesy of members of the AUBG choir), and its original slogan “Digital Dynamite. Dare to be Different.” Even with T-shirts with our logo and frequency.

A couple weeks later we got a letter from the Telecoms Agency. It was brief: “You will be issued a different frequency: 98.8 FM. This change is due to the discovery of a pre-existing signal – evidently from abroad – that is already broadcasting on 98.9 FM.”

Needless to say, Radio AURA immediately re-tuned its transmitter to 98.8 FM – but never told the listeners about the change. We just couldn’t bear the thought of changing all the on-air imaging – let alone the printed materials, business cards, T-shirts and all. Plus, at that time – early 90’s – most receivers had a “needle” analog dial, so no one would figure out the difference anyway. So for many years to follow, Radio AURA remained probably the only station in the world to insist it broad-casts on a different frequency than it actually did.

And the group of people who were responsible for this white lie grew larger and larger by the month, as the original radio bunch was joined by Irina (now Program Director of BG Radio), Kostadin (later a Radio AURA General Manager), Fai, Victoria, Maria, Dessi, Boriana, Svetoslav a.k.a. DJ Zorro, and dozens – and now hundreds – of other AUBG students.

P.S.  I wonder which of the subsequent General Managers took the responsible, adult decision to inform the listeners of Radio Aura’s actual broadcasting frequency…