The first microphone was an old telephone mouthpiece amplified by coils encased in a soup can.
The can had been painted black for a more “professional” appearance, according to Burt Harrison’s 1993 book Washington State on the Air detailing the history of broadcasting at Washington State University.
And, in 1922, it wasn’t the only reused, recycled, or jerry-rigged component of the institution’s new radio station. Most of the equipment was, in fact, second-hand, scrounged from the dismantling of the school’s wireless unit or borrowed from the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering’s laboratory supplies.
What was once a scrappy college station that broadcasted three nights per week has evolved into a public radio and TV network with 24-hour programming, smartphone apps, Internet streaming services, and more. While technologies, call letters, frequencies, and approaches to providing content have all changed since the station first began broadcasting, WSU has remained on the air.
This year marks a century of broadcasting at WSU.
“It’s amazing to work at a station that’s 100 years old. There’s only a handful of stations celebrating their centennial across the country,” says Cara Williams Fry, the new general manager of what’s now Northwest Public Broadcasting (NWPB).
She was attracted to Pullman, in part, by the namesake and reputation of WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, home to NWPB.
“The quality and ethics of journalism that Murrow set for the world is even more important than ever because it’s such a divisive world right now,” Williams Fry says. “If we stay the course—and Murrow helped set the course—stick to the facts, remain unbiased, and tell the stories of people in their own words, we will remain relevant and resonate with our audiences.”
The famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (’30 Speech) got his start in radio when the station was known by the call letters KWSC. Legendary Hollywood voice-over artist Art Gilmore (x’35 Speech) got his start here, too. So did sportscaster Keith Jackson (’54 Speech), radio and cable broadcasting magnate J. Elroy McCaw (’34 Busi. Admin.), distinguished CBS and ABC reporter Barry Serafin (’64 Gen. Stu.), and CBS executives Charlotte Friel (’51 Speech) and Kay Wight (’63 Comm.).
Throughout the decades, NWPB embraced ever-changing technologies in order to modernize and expand. One of the country’s first college radio stations, it has survived numerous advancements—from LP records and magnetic tape to FM radio, microwave and satellite transmission, and, more recently, digital media. Video didn’t kill WSU’s radio star. In fact, NWPB now encompasses 20 radio and two TV stations. Fourteen radio and four TV translators help boost coverage, reaching some 3.6 million people in 44 counties throughout Washington as well as parts of Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.
“How many times has the death of radio been predicted?” asks NWPB’s major gifts officer Sandi Billings. “And we have a larger audience than ever.”
WSC and the Pullman community raised $2,000 to establish the station, built by Homer J. Dana (1915, 1916 MS Elec. Eng., 1921 Mech. Eng.), sole employee of the Engineering Experiment Station.
When it went on air in 1922, it broadcasted Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. The first formal program—an address from US Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace read by College of Engineering Dean Hubert V. Carpenter—aired on a Friday. The following Monday, Christmas Day, saw no broadcast. But the station was back on air Wednesday with Carpenter reading another USDA script.
In those early radio days, programming, Billings says, “was all live. The studio had a baby grand piano, and students and faculty would come in to play. There were lectures and musical performances and just a variety of things. But it was always informational and educational.”
It was also one of the most powerful stations in the country. Its signal was more than twice that of any of Seattle’s six stations, according to Washington State on the Air. Fan mail arrived from California to New York.
When the federal government reshuffled frequencies, which happened more than once, the signal didn’t reach as far. There were times when the station shared airtime with other stations, including one in Spokane and another run by Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church.
Considerable expansion took place under the leadership of Dennis Haarsager, who created a cross-state network of translators and radio stations carrying NPR news and classical music, expanding in largely rural and underserved communities.
Today, NWPB TV programming—available in Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Moscow/Pullman—is available through five channels: KWSU, KTNW, KWSU-CREATE, KTNW-CREATE, and KTNW-WORLD.
NWPB radio programming features three services: NPR news and talk, jazz, and classical music curated by staff in Pullman and Tacoma. NWPB also employs two reporters in Tri-Cities as well as one in Spokane and another in Yakima. Two more reporters cover the Palouse and Lewis Clark Valley.
The network employs about 70 people and continues to serve as a training ground for the next generation of journalists—some of whom end up working for NWPB full time. Program director Sueann Ramella (’00 Comm.) got her start here as a Murrow student in 1997. Tri-Cities correspondent Anna King (’00 Comm.) came to NWPB from newspapers in 2007 and, in 2016, was named WSU Woman of the Year for distinguished public service.
While the centennial provides a milestone upon which to reflect, “we are looking to the future,” Fry says. “A hundred years of continual broadcasting is almost unbelievable. We’re here at this moment, celebrating a century and the Murrow legacy. It’s a legacy to be proud of. And we’re going to continue to create content and engage with our communities going forward.”
100 Years of NWPB
Meet Cara Williams Fry (general manager of NWPB)
Radio Days: WSU alumni look back at their time with KWSU radio and NWPB
Wonders of wireless: The genesis of radio at Washington State College
On the web
The Mott Squad (Spring 2016)
Broadcaster Anna King ’00 (Spring 2017)
Video: “Keith Jackson: Life and Legacy,” an ode by KOMO-TV’s Eric Johnson (’84 Comm.)
The history of radio at WSU, 1931 (Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections)
KWSC’s recreation of the WSC-Baylor football game, November 1952 alumni magazine
How working at NWPB as a Murrow student helped one alum in his career path (NWPB)
Saying Goodbye: Gillian Coldsnow Reminisces About 28 Years With NWPB (by Sueann Ramella ’00 Comm., NWPB)
KWSU history (HistoryLink)
Radio-related photos from WSU Libraries Digital Collections, sorted chronologically