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).
“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.”
NWPB through the years
• May 15, 1922—President Ernest O. Holland asks the Board of Regents of the State College of Washington to approve “the installation of a radio broadcasting station, which would serve the people of the entire State and furnish market reports, lectures, and entertainments to the farmers and other citizens of the State of Washington.”
• June 21, 1922—US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover authorizes WSC to build a broadcasting station at 360 meters (866 kHz) with 500 watts. The station is assigned the call letters KFAE.
• November 24, 1922—A memo to faculty, signed by Holland, reads: “The College radio outfit is about ready for use. When it is completed this institution will have equipment capable of sending lectures, musical recitals, and informational programs on various subjects all over the Northwest. This presents a splendid opportunity for enlarging the use of the College and for improving its service in many ways.”
• December 10, 1922—KFAE begins broadcasting from the Mechanic Arts Building.
• December 22, 1922—KFAE signs on at 7:40 p.m. with an address from US Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace read by College of Mechanic Arts and Engineering Dean Hubert V. Carpenter, station manager.
• December 27, 1922—KFAE hits the airwaves with Carpenter reading another USDA script.
• December 31, 1922—Carpenter’s daughter Florence (1923 Music, 1924 Spanish) performs a solo on a grand piano that President Holland had transferred from his residence to the radio station.
• January 26, 1923—KFAE broadcasts its first basketball game, in which the Cougs defeat the University of Idaho Vandals 20 to 12. Carpenter handles the play-by-play.
• February 1923—C.R. Miller (1908 Elect. Eng.) wrote a “short note” to The Pow Wow alumni newsletter “to let you know that I got the broadcast detailing the plays of the WSC-Idaho basketball game. Glad to know that WSC was ahead. My, but how this did revive old scenes and quicken past memories. I could see the crowd in the gallery and familiar faces of the past. When I realized that, should I step up there now, what a change there would be. I now know that I am getting old, and feel as the poet felt, ‘Backward, turn backward, oh time in thy flight, and make me a boy again just for tonight.’”
• December 1923—A news brief in The Pow Wow alumni newsletter discusses Lucy Bridge (1928 Ed.). “There are only two women radio announcers in the United States, Miss Bridge has the distinction of being one of these and a Los Angeles woman the other. Miss Bridge was chosen for this position by Professor (Maynard Lee) Daggy at the beginning of this semester and has made many unseen friends of the radio fans with her pleasing voice. ‘I love the work because it is something different,’ said Miss Bridge when questioned as to whether she enjoyed the work or not. She is a graduate of the high school at Reardon and also of the state normal at Cheney. Last year she taught a little country school near The Dalles, Oregon.”
• 1925—Call letters change to KWSC.
• Mid 1925—The radio schedule features 4½ hours of programming a week. As a class B station, it’s prohibited from putting “mechanically produced” music on the air, so all programs are done live. The schedule features music from student and faculty groups, Agricultural Extension Service talks, and compulsory faculty contributions.
• 1926—Maynard Lee Daggy, head of the college’s newly established department of speech, starts what’s believed to be the country’s first college course in radio performance. The course description is: “Students in the course will prepare talks, skits, plays, and similar material for presentation on Radio KWSC.”
• 1928—Edward R. Murrow (’30) gets his start on air at KWSC.
• 1930— Murrow is a member of Daggy’s radio performance class during his last semester at WSC.
• 1936—The KWSC studios move into what is now Murrow Hall.
• 1937—KWSC begins year-round programming.
• 1943—A bomber crossing northern Idaho gets lost in a storm. KWSC urges its audience to go outside, listen, and help track the plane. Dozens of listeners respond, and the bomber makes a safe landing. KWSC is credited with saving the lives of the crew.
• 1945—Following World War II, Murrow’s reputation as a journalist attracts aspiring radio broadcasters to WSC.
• October 29, 1948—Eight Vandals from the University of Idaho enter the station, seize and bind the operator and news director, and play a home recording of the UI fight song as well as predictions of a Vandal football victory before heading out on their way. The employees quickly escape and resume normal programming.
• 1949—After student sports chief Edward “Bill” Denton (’50 Speech) predicts on-air that the UI Vandals would win their football game against the Cougs, members of the squad capture him and shave the hair on his head in the shape of an “I.”
• October 4, 1952—Keith Jackson (’54 Speech) is among the students who recreate each play of the Coug football game at Baylor University using Teletype reports in the studio.
• 1953—WSC gets a TV studio.
• 1962—KWSC-TV begins broadcasting from Pullman.
• 1969—KWSC becomes KWSU-AM. KWSC television becomes KWSU-TV.
• 1970—Robert A. Mott, founding chair of WSU’s Department of Communication, co-founds National Public Radio. KWSU is a charter member station.
• 1982—WSU gains an FM station on the WSU Tri-Cities campus.
• 1983—The WSU radio network begins broadcasting in Ellensburg, Goldendale/The Dalles, Yakima, Lewiston/Clarkston, Ephrata/Soap Lake, Wenatchee, Cashmere/Dryden, and Chelan/Waterville.
• 1984—WSU partners with the University of Idaho to bring new WSU programming to Moscow/Pullman on KFAE.
• 1986—The radio network becomes Northwest Public Radio.
• 1987—WSU television begins broadcasting from KTNW-TV in Tri-Cities.
• 1992—The network adds an FM station covering Ellensburg, Wenatchee, and Moses Lake.
• 1993—Burt Harrison’s book Washington State on the Air is published.
• 1994—The network adds a radio station in north central Idaho.
• 1995—The network adds a radio station in the Lewis Clark Valley.
• 1997—Bellingham’s independent radio station merges with the network, becoming its first radio station west of the Cascade Mountains. KWWS signs on, providing a second NWPR service to Walla Walla and Tri-Cities. KLWS signs on, serving Moses Lake, Ephrata, and Grant County.
• 1998—KNWP-FM goes on the air, serving Port Angeles and Sequim as well as Victoria, British Columbia, and much of lower Vancouver Island.
• 1999—KQWS-FM goes on the air, serving the Okanogan region of Washington and British Columbia.
• 2002—Northwest Public Radio acquires KMWS from Skagit Valley College. The “M” in KMWS honors Murrow, who grew up in Skagit County.
• 2010—Through a partnership agreement, the network adds KVTI, covering Centralia/Chehalis and Olympia. The radio station is owned by Clover Park Technical College.
• 2013—KJEM, “the jazz gem of the Palouse,” goes on the air in Pullman, thanks to 15-year startup funding from Bruce McCaw, son of J. Elroy McCaw (’34 Busi. Admin.), whose initials the call sign honors. The network partners with the Yakima School District to bring NPR news to KYVT and broadcast experience to Yakima Valley Tech Skills Center (YV-TECH) students.
• 2014—The network develops cell phone apps.
• 2015—A reading service for sight-impaired listeners is added. Volunteers read the news from local newspapers in the Richland studios. Sight-impaired listeners use special state-provided radio receivers to tune in.
• 2015—The network adds a Yakima-based reporter bilingual in English and Spanish. The position is funded by the Yakima Valley Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
• 2018—The network becomes Northwest Public Broadcasting.
• 2022—The network adds KOHO in Wenatchee, carrying the jazz service in partnership with station owner Icicle Broadcasting. Cara Williams Fry becomes the first woman to lead NWPB as general manager. NWPB celebrates 100 years of broadcasting at WSU.
Student-powered radio at WSU
Students not only can gain broadcast experience through the WSU public radio stations KWSU, KRFA, and KJEM (and statewide sister stations), but also with the student-run stations KZUU (90.7 FM/Internet) and KUGR Cougar College Radio (95.1 on cable/Internet) in Pullman, and KOUG (Internet) radio on the Vancouver campus. (Note: KOUG radio is currently on hiatus.)