The University of Pennsylvania began a "carrier current" station on 730 AM for $500 in 1944. This was not technically a "broadcasting" station at the time, because the signal was designed to only be available on campus and was not transmitted from a traditioanl antenna tower. Known as WXPN-AM, the studios were located on the third floor of Houston Hall with popular records of the time played from turntables. Most of the station's equipment was either hand-built or World War two surplus.
In 1957, the station was granted a license to operate at 10 watts on 88.9 FM. (The carrier current station continues to this day as WQHS) Through the 1960s, the station was a typical student run university station, although it was known for some unique programming. Micheal Tearson, who went on to local radio fame at stations such as WMMR, got his start at WXPN with an early progressive format. In 1970, the studios were moved to a large, red mansion at 3905 Spruce Street, designed by Frank Furness.
In 1974, a live call in show called the "Vegetable Report" and other programs contained obscene language that caused the FCC to suspend the station's license and impose a $2000 fine. (For more details of the incident, see the Citypaper article referenced below)
For the next 20 years, WXPN was particulary cautious about the use of obscenity on air, even to the point of editing explicit lyrics or avoiding certain songs altogether. In order to get their license back, WXPN agreed to remove students from on-air positions and use semi/professional volunteer staff. Some WXPN purists consider this period of the late 70s and early 80s the golden years of the station, with a very eclectic mix of folk, rock, jazz, and ethnic music.
In 1986, station Manager Mark Fuerst arrived at WXPN and was charged by the University with making the station financially self-sufficient. Out went many of the volunteers and other special interests along with many longtime programs. In came professional hosts and more successful fund-raising. In 1990, the station tripled its strength, expanding its reach out to the suburbs and adding affiliates in nearby markets. The frequency moved from 88.9 to 88.5 MHz. Some of the other achievements during this period included: increasing listenership over five times, growing listener contributions about ten times, developing the popular World Cafe program now distributed by NPR, and the production of Kids Corner, a daily interactive radio show for kids.
In 2004, WXPN moved to new facilities at 3025 Walnut Street, where the station shares space with World Cafe Live.
Joe Logan, "WXPN-FM marks its 50th", The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/21/1996, E6
Margit Detweiler, "Lawyers, Guns and Lyrics", Philadelphia Citypaper, 8/1/1996
Alan Sheckter, "WXPN Takes A First-Hand Look Back At The Early Days On The Air", The Xpress, February, 1996