In celebration of 100 years of broadcasting at Washington State University, Northwest Public Broadcasting staffers discuss their work, its impact, and more.
Becoming a fully forged broadcaster
By Sueann Ramella ’00 Comm.
Reflecting back, the most defining moments of my education came from my time at Northwest Public Radio, now Northwest Public Broadcasting.
In the late 1990s, radio was live 24/7. New recruits were asked to staff the overnight shifts. I’d leave my Bookie Café job at 7:45 pm to start my overnight at NWPB. The Morning Edition host would relieve me at 4 am. Then, as now, students coursework and education came first. Gillian Coldsnow started me on one overnight a week to prove I could handle the job and my coursework. As time went on, I got more shifts and moved to weekends.
At that age, I didn’t fully understand all the politics and cultural events. Because overnights were repeats of the daily shows, like Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation, I was able to catch up and understand our society and our country more. The overnight shifts were very educational and the programs kept me awake. And, during breaks, there was always new music to listen to or time to do homework. It was a good job.
Then, automation came. It saved money operating the station because it replaced all those hours that someone had to be running everything. It was our first automation system and, like many firsts, there were issues.
One day, it died. The motherboard completely failed. Operations folks were on vacation so it was up to me, the general manager, and WSU IT to solve the problem. I was the only person with live on-air experience. When you are in between technologies or any change, your past experience helps you get it done. In two hours, we were back on the air. I scheduled students to take shifts, playing everything manually from a live board, and training them how to breathe through the nerves of being live. That was a formative day when capabilities were solidified and I was a fully forged broadcaster.
When I hosted All Things Considered and Morning Edition, it was my job to give people news they didn’t want to hear, such as 9/11, the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, and the BP oil spill. People can take a lot of news if you talk about it factually and with empathy. We all need to know what’s happening around us to make decisions about our lives and communities. If you don’t tell people what’s happening they feel alone in their suffering or ignored because no one cares. And being alone and ignored are two of the worst things you can do to a human.
I was recently asked why I’ve worked at NWPB for so long. I’m dedicated to the public media mission to educate, enlighten, and entertain citizens. That gives me hope that we can create a better life and society with knowledge, wisdom, and empathy. And I have learned a lot about myself. My mentors Mike Rathke and Gillian Coldsnow as well as coworkers and friends Robin Rilette, Sue Sheppard, Marie Glynn, Roger Johnson, and Sarah McDaniel helped shape and support my career.
Looking to the future, there will always be more learning, more things to understand, more stories to explore, and I believe NWPB’s mission is more important now than ever.
Chasing rural voices in the remote corners of the Pacific Northwest
By Anna King ’00 Comm.
Tri-Cities bureau chief and correspondent
I’m on a motor boat in remote Idaho, blasting across a serene summer morning lake, and I’m on the trail of a modern-day cattle rustler.
My latest work for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network has featured dogged coverage of the saga of the cattle rancher who swindled Tyson Fresh Meats and another company out of more than $244 million dollars’ worth of beef cattle. Rancher Cody Easterday invented a ghost herd, feeding them on paper. The result? A major federal bankruptcy and federal wire fraud charge. I have been pursuing this complex story for more than a year.
This investigation has required all the knowledge and skills I’ve learned in my 15 years with public radio. I’ve stomped the backroads of the Pacific Northwest, developed deep rural sourcing across Washington and Oregon, and covered big messes like the Hanford cleanup site, Oso landslide and megafires. It’s all led me to a deeper understanding of diverse rural people, and the dramatic and delicate landscape we live in.
One of my greatest joys of working for NWPB is mentoring journalists who are less experienced in radio. It’s so wonderful to see them develop and take on big stories of their own. Often, the learning goes both ways.
Years ago, I taught one mentee the importance of checking the recorder over and over to make sure you’re rolling tape, after we missed a great quote that day. But she blew my mind when she tapped out her notes in the field on the “notes” program of her iPhone. What? No steno pad and Sharpie pen?
When NWPB first began transmitting, radio news was a medium in its infancy. But a century later, it’s an essential source of information from across the country and around the world. My piece: telling stories close to home here in the Pacific Northwest that matter in our region and even across the world.
As part of the Northwest News Network, NWPB is dedicated to covering the rural Pacific Northwest for listeners from the Californian border, north to British Columbia. Some of the stories I’ve covered throughout the years as part of the Northwest News Network include the Hanford site’s tunnel collapse and leaking tanks of radioactive waste not far from the Columbia River, the US Supreme Court case involving Arlene’s wedding flowers in Richland, how COVID-19 devastated the health and economies of rural Washingtonians and Oregonians, and epic droughts and fires across the region. My next big adventure is reporting and hosting a podcast for NWPB and KUOW in Seattle about the Easterday cattle saga.
On days like the one I spent on that boat in remote Idaho, plying the glass-calm summer waters of a lake that borders a major Easterday ranch property, I can’t believe this is my job. I am working, sure, but I am also pursuing my passion for finding compelling stories about people in the remote backcountry.
On this vast Western landscape, there’s plenty of room for adventure, new thoughts, and fresh stories—glad I’ve got the microphone, pickup truck, and dusty boots to chase them. In this 100th year of NWPB, I am so proud to carry on the legacy of all the great reporters and news people that have come before me on our air.
Working in progress
By Tom Hungate ’78 Comm. and Busi. Admin.
I went to school at Washington State University, graduating with degrees in communication and business. Senior year, I interned in Seattle at KISW. They wanted me to stay, but I had one more semester to complete back in Pullman. After finishing college, work took me to all of the broadcasting centers of eastern Washington. It turned out to be a great way to learn about a lot of the communities Northwest Public Broadcasting serves.
One of the stops in my career was working at KSKN in Spokane. It was an independent station and operated on a shoestring. When its owner died on a tennis court in Florida, it wasn’t long until it was in bankruptcy. After a period working at a production company, I went to work at another shoestring operation in Wenatchee. KCWT, too, went bankrupt. I was beginning to wonder if I was a curse. When I saw the position open at WSU’s television station in Pullman, I thought if the state goes bankrupt, we have bigger problems than just finding a job. I remembered that thought when there was the budget crisis in 2008.
Starting work at NWPB thirty years ago, it was (and wasn’t) a much different place. Like many of the stations I had worked at before, KWSU operated on a shoestring. Still does. Like other public broadcasters, instead of relying on commercial advertising it relies on viewer contributions and federal support. That was a change for me.
Back in those days, our group had a different name. To the WSU campus, we were known as KWSU Radio and Television Services. Later, when we also included the Washington Higher Education Telecommunications System (WHETS) for remote classrooms across the state, we were called Educational Telecommunications and Technology. We moved from under the outreach branch of IT to become part of the Murrow College of Communication. In 2018, we became Northwest Public Broadcasting and unified all broadcast and online content under one brand.
In 1992, computers had 5-inch floppy discs for data storage and computer usage was limited to machine-loaded software applications. I was there as data ports were added to the walls and people created their first email address.
Initially, I was hired to handle station promotions for the television service. Our master control operation center was located in our studio while a new master control center was constructed on the first floor of what is now Jackson Hall. We used both 1-inch, 2-inch and ¾-inch video tapes. The two-inch tape machines used compressed air to spin the video heads fast enough. Now, we do all recordings on solid state cards. When I went into the production suite to create the station TV promotions, I used what looked like 8-track carts for audio—a long way from the digital files and desktop editing systems used today.
When I started, there were two TV stations: KWSU in Pullman and KTNW in Tri-Cities. Nothing has changed in that area except they both made the conversion from analog to digital in the late 2000s and now KWSU has two channels and KTNW has three. Our master control? We had several conversions as broadcast formats changed. And then, as a cost-saving measure, we partnered with KSPS ; the Spokane station acted as our broadcast technical center for TV.
Improvements in fiber connections meant we could do away with our antiquated system of microwave radios to link up our TV stations. Now, TV has a contract to have our master control in Syracuse, New York. It’s handled by a company called CentralCast which performs master control operations for twenty-six PBS stations from New York City to Hawaii.
Meanwhile, radio also experienced massive change. It went from two stations—KWSU AM in Pullman and KFAE in Tri-Cities—to eighteen stations across Washington and north Idaho ,still using its studios on the third floor of Murrow Hall and adding satellite studios from KVTI in Tacoma.
With the radio station centennial being celebrated, and KWSU-TV reaching 60 years, I realize with all the environmental changes and technical evolutions, there has been one constant: the wonderful people to work with at the station and the wonderful people to work for—our audience. Here’s to a great past, present and future.
A lifetime of listening
Sarah Frame English ’94 Comm., ’95 Ed., ’96 ME
Sustainer program manager
Northwest Public Radio was the soundtrack of my youth in the ’80s. Dad chauffeured my younger sister and I and our neighbor, John, to school accompanied by Morning Edition, and volleyball in autumn and drama in winter and spring let out just before the final “na na na na na na na” of All Things Considered.
A few short years later it was Weekend Edition and Car Talk while Dad navigated Highway 26 and my growing independence at Washington State University. In Washtucna, the markable mid-point, the dial would be moved from Tri-Cities’ KFAE to Pullman’s KRFA, but the Northwest Public Radio programming would remain the same. Dad didn’t wear many brand names, but he loved his Lake Wobegon Whippets hat, which he received for supporting the station as an underwriter and frequently wore on those Pullman trips.
As a student in the early ’90s I naturally found my way to the station to meet the people behind the voices and see the studios for myself. Dad didn’t even have to ask me to do it. By that time I was star-struck and wanted to be part of this exciting world—up-to-the-minute newscasts, heart-breaking symphonies, and the guffaws of Car Talk hosts Click and Clack. When extra credit for Comm 101 was offered in exchange for helping to answer phones during the fall pledge drive, I felt like I had made it to the big time, being in the same room as Dale Harrison and Kathleen Trotter and Bill Morelock. It was a thrill to not only be thanked on the air as a pledge drive volunteer, but to come home that night to my room in Wilmer Davis to a message on my answering machine from my dad at home in Richland. He was so excited to have heard his daughter’s name mentioned on the air in the Pullman.
I was hooked. I continued to volunteer for the fall and spring radio pledge drives, and added the winter and summer TV pledge drives. I was promoted to pledge captain and given the task of reviewing the paper pledges for legibility before they were submitted to the membership department for processing. Soon I was hired as a time-slip employee—my first real job!—completing data entry and assisting with the mailing of the tote bags and coffee mugs and, yes, the Lake Wobegon Whippets hats, which were as much a part of public radio and television as they were a part of me.
Some good life lessons were instilled in me. (We were, after all, in Fred Rogers’ house.) Share the spotlight with others (don’t be a camera hog); doublecheck your information (a one that looks like a seven means a pledge can’t be collected); and never take the last brownie on the volunteer food table (the camera won’t like it).
I was a double major, and soon practicum and student teaching took me out of the newsroom. I got a teaching job in Washtucna (scene of the great radio dial switch). And eventually this Washington girl moved to the Midwest metropolis of Omaha. But I never lost touch with the staff. That’s the thing about public media people. They’re with you in your home, in your car, and even streaming on the internet in Omaha.
When my heart was broken in the big city I found myself wanting to come back to where I had been happiest, to where magic and good work were being performed every day. Twenty-five years after I left Pullman as a timeslip student employee, I got to come home, as the sustainer program manager at Northwest Public Broadcasting. A cardboard cutout of Butch in my office wears my dad’s Lake Wobegon Whippets hat. And it’s always a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Read and watch more
Video: 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