January 11, 1996
The University of Washington Student Newspaper
Arts & Entertainment
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This is your assignment, angels A history of KCMU Alexis Odell Daily Staff
Way back in the summer of 1972 a little 10-watt radio station went on the air with the Board of Regents' approval at the UW campus. KCMU, 90.5 on the FM dial, had its radio tower on top of McMahon Hall. It was a completelystudent-run station funded as a lab for communication majors, and its broadcast range probably extended no farther than six miles. Not too many people listened for the first year.Their shows were many and as college radio should be, the programming was eclectic. With a show called "Student Sound," two jazz shows, news, "All Things Considered," "The Groove Session" (you can guess what they played on those airwaves), "Allegro Maestoso" (a classical show), and "Phantasmagoria," they only had enough shows to stay on the air until midnight.By 1974, 90.5 had a student celebrity. Peter Newman is reported to have given live interviews from a local Seattle brothel. He was noted for his on-air discussions with experts and callers about the ways to find, as well as the uses for, magic mushrooms. He even interviewed officials from the American Nazi Party. The Daily reported, "He was a student of perverted groups." In 1975, however, students and UW officials were distressed by the lack of listeners. They ordered new programming. More recognition was established in specific offices throughout campus. The shows were less controversial: five-minute shorts on backpacking and family planning extended to wider audiences. The wattage was increased to 182.Budget cuts worked their magic, and KCMU no longer existed as a student-run station. The School of Communications could no longer even provide a graduate student to help run the station. Since 1981, KUOW has sponsored KCMU as a public radio station with a contracted engineer and accountant. In 1981, they needed $28,000 to stay on the air and managed to raise the money through donations. The new UW president, William Gerberding, and vice-president, Jim Collier, had quite a bit to do with keeping KCMU alive. At the time, KUOW lacked the funds to take on the project of KCMU. Collier donated money from his own vice-president funding so that KCMU could hire a part-time manager for one year. This also allowed the transition to a merging of the KUOW and KCMU budgets. Largely listener-powered, they have continued to raise 80% of their funding from pledge drives, the rest from grant funding and underwriting. As of July1, 1995, KUOW and KCMU have had a communal budget.In 1986 KCMU boosted power from 182 to 404 watts and relocated transmission to the Capitol Hill Tower at 90.3 on the dial. This increased their listening public to a 15-mile radius. Feeling more financially secure, program director Faith Henschel opted for an alternative approach to programming. There didn't seem to be a need for focused shows for a substantial audience. The volunteer-based radio brought in people who were known and well-respected in the music community. These were the years Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden were in the DJ booth. The booming music scene in Seattle was made in part by KCMU radio and the wacky volunteers at the station.While Henschel moved on to bigger and better things at Capitol Records, Don Yates arrived at KCMU as a record reviewer. He worked his way up the ranks with a late-night show, then a Sunday afternoon show, and was hired as program director in 1988.The glory years of KCMU were not to last. In 1991, Chris Knab, who came to KCMU as station manager in 1985, pushed to hire a more professional staff. Yates hired Debbie Letterman, who now works at The End. Riz Rollins, who he had been on the air as a volunteer since 1982, was hired for a position. KCMU also introduced a radio show called "World Cafe." World Cafe was a mixture of rock, folk, blues, reggae, R&B;, and world music. The program managers at KCMU wanted a more viable audience and this seemed like a direct way to get one.This set off fireworks at the radio station and among the listeners. The opposition feared a lack of northwest regional radio. The opposition formed a group called CURSE (Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics) and accused Chris Knab of discarding the "democratic" structure agreement with DJs. They also claimed that 85% of the station's funding went to the salaries of Wayne Roth, Yates and Knab. Nine people on the staff were fired. CURSE asked KCMU supporters to donate their money to a trust account that would later be dispersed to KCMU when programs and DJs fired were re-instated. They filed suit in 1993.The outcome was a split decision. Six people were ordered to be re-hired. Five others were deemed to be justly terminated. (Ironically, none of the six staff that Judge Ziller stated could return did.) "World Cafe" was also nixed. KCMU was left to clean up financial, policy, public relations, and personal messes.They seem to have successfully done so. Their most recent pledge drive brought in the most money they have ever made: 38,000 listeners responded, up from the usual 33,000. But as with any public radio station, there always seem to be problems lurking around the corner. Eighty percent of KCMU's funding comes from pledge drives. It takes roughly $250,000 per year to run the station. In their best year, they raised $150,000. KUOW manager Wayne Roth is proposing changes at KCMU because of this lack of funds. It is not clear what those changes will entail. A merge with KPLU, KUOW, and KCMU is imminent, the theory being that the three radio stations should pool their resources. Interest in drawing a wider audience for KCMU has also been expressed. No one seems certain as to how this will be done.
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