The original KPBX staff.
It was Jan. 20, 1980. Dozens of people turned the knob of their radios to the left, like they had for months previous. This time, they heard something: "You're listening to FM 91.1 KPBX." The station was a little behind schedule, but worth the wait.
"To be able to turn on my radio and hear classical music with the composer's name, the title of the piece, and the conductor's name correctly pronounced is pleasant to the ear, and the music even more so. The news programs are also excellent," listener Pauline Boury wrote to the editor of the Spokane Chronicle. "This radio station makes Spokane an even more pleasant city in which to live." "I now mow the lawn and jog with a tiny radio and ear phones," Dave Broom, a former board president, told Spokane Magazine.
Margaret May Ott, a piano professor who has come to the KPBX studios many times, said she was excited for Spokane's children. "Many have little opportunity to hear great music, and so when you try to teach this, they have no idea what it means, It's not in their experience. Now we have the whole history of music here! It's one of the most musical events in the city," she said.
Over 25 years later, many of the voices are different (some are the same!), programs have come and gone, and technology has dramatically changed. But much about KPBX remains the same. Before going on the air, KPBX developers promised a cultural service to Spokane-area radio listeners, playing classical, jazz, and other music that reflected world traditions. Public radio for Spokane would also offer national and international news programs, developing background on the news of the day. Local reporters would bring the same kind of perspective to issues important to the "Inland Empire."
Most listeners would say KPBX lives up to that promise. Keeping a variety of programming has never been easy. In 1980, board member Ron Miller said the biggest myth KPBX had to confront was that most people thought public radio should be a classical station. "They don't expect variety," he said. Today, some listeners continue to bolster their favorite aspect of KPBX, asking for perhaps more classical, less talk. Public radio stations throughout the country are bowing to niche programming, narrowing their focus, becoming all-classical, or just news and jazz services. Yet most KPBX listeners include a wide variety when listing off their "favorite programs."
"The station believes in offering a balance of programs," says Dick Kunkel, general manager from 1988-2011. "We broadcast the major arts that are not serviced by commercial radio. Both the national and local programming are professionally done, produced by people of high artistic reputation. And we have not seen or heard anything that would compel us to move away from that mission."
National Public Radio began in 1970 precisely to provide that kind of variety. Commercial radio has always appealed to the broadest audience possible, leaving special interests off the air. As KPBX's first general manager, Marvin Granger, explained, NPR is committed to cultural integrity. "We can play music which is 'culturally important but commercially weak' in nature, such as chamber music and contemporary experimental music. It's one of the few places creative people gain exposure," he told Spokane Magazine. But even so, Granger admitted then what all public radio stations today know. "There's always some financial pressure, even with listener-supported radio. There are the inevitable situations where people say, 'Play what I like or I'll withdraw my support.' This variety is the exact opposite of commercial radio, where success depends on being absolutely predictable...the same sound-the same time. That is why there can be 14 different types of rock stations. Nobody wants to be surprised. Research shows that teenagers expect absolute consistency in their music and will simply change stations if you do anything different. In many ways, adults do the same thing, and public radio is a direct challenge to that."
"People need to learn how to listen to public radio," then-board member Shelly Kuney said in 1980. "We have to look through the program guide and decide what meets our needs and remember that Radio Reader or San Francisco Opera is on at a certain time." Back when KPBX broadcast 18 hours a day, the mix consisted of 43 percent classical music, 24 percent news and public affairs, 16 percent jazz. The other 17 percent included folk music, drama, and literature performances (such as Dick Estell's Radio Reader), art and information and children's programming.
As of January 2000, the mix is the same, although the percentages had changed. KPBX currently airs 24 hours a day, with the BBC World Service taking the overnight hours. Taking the same 18 hours a day that KPBX broadcast at the beginning, today's numbers work out to news at 36 percent, classical at 30 percent, 14 percent jazz and blues, and 20 percent folk, arts, and world music. "That is a conscious thing," Kunkel says. "We do encourage suggestions, and we do make individual changes. The balance has changed because there are so many good programs now that weren't available at the beginning. But if we could reinvent this station from scratch, it would sound just the same. At program meetings, we consider the validity of what we're doing, and we come to the conclusion that yes, this is the right thing."
Proud beginnings in a basement
The wide variety of programming is really a tribute to KPBX's earliest days, in the early 1970s on the South Hill. Make that "in" the South Hill, in the basement of George and Susie Cole's home. In the backyard, an electrical pole--donated quietly by someone with the power company--held the basketball-hoop styled antenna for the 10-watt transmitter, the size of a two-drawer file cabinet. From 5 p.m.-1 a.m. each night, radios seven miles around could catch the sounds of classical, jazz, folk, soul, big band, and whatever else a volunteer felt like playing.
The Coles moved in 1974, and they put the station in the hands of David Schoengold. He had moved to Spokane from New York and stumbled across this "fuzzy station asking for volunteers." When Schoengold took the reigns, he expanded the station to 24 hours a day. "Imagine stumbling into the bathroom in the middle of the night, with people coming and going at all hours," Schoengold laughs. "During Expo, we started doing live remotes. We also invited several of the artists to come on the air. Imagine Hari Krishnas, international groups all hanging out in the living room waiting to go on the air."
Schoengold rattles off people who put together programs in the basement - Charlie Schlessinger (Jazz with Chas) and his wife; Larry Weizer (of Chutzpah, the Klezmer orchestra); Mike Thompson's soul program. "Anytime we had an open slot, he'd be down there, playing a request show until 3 or 4 in the morning. I'd go to sleep listening to his foot tapping and the phones ringing to request something." "Sight and Sound" was a program for the Lilac Association of the Blind. Several women's groups held "poignant and pointed discussions" about the ERA and feminist movement. And National Public Radio sent their news magazine All Things Considered via the mail. "We'd go to the post office on the South Hill to get the tapes. We'd also play Longhorn Network shows. During dinnertime of when someone didn't have a shift, we'd put on Longhorn Network or a long classical piece,"Schoengold remembers. In the mid-1970s, Schoengold told The Falls newspaper that KPBX was an "open learning experience" of jazz, classical music, and almost anything else that someone wanted to put on the air. If someone came to Schoengold with a request for a certain type of music or topic, he would usually answer, "Great idea. Why don't you come up to the station and do a program about it?"
Today, great ideas usually get the same response, although finding a slot can be more difficult. "I'm happy to talk to anybody about a program idea," says Program Director Verne Windham. "We usually ask them for a demonstration, a sample of what the program would be like. We often do it as a one-time special to see how it feels on the air." Some of those ideas have resulted in John Johnson's Improbable History of Pop and Big Band Era Jazz with Bruce Davis.
Moving up (downtown)...
Schoengold wanted KPBX to be more than just a small basement operation. He says he pulled together a new management group calling itself the Spokane Public Broadcasting Association, and the station moved downtown to a consortium of businesses called Second City. "It was difficult to keep it going there, because it was still broadcasting 24 hours and someone had to be physically there at the station to supervise. You couldn't go out without knowing that someone was going to be there. And the engineering was difficult--we sometimes held the tape recorders together with rubber bands."
Schoengold, who was also attending Gonzaga Law School and managing a record store, got help from Portland's John Budrow. Budrow wrote grants to get the money to organize SPBA and got the Junior League of Spokane involved with funding a bigger and better station. To make that dream happen, Shoengold says, KPBX had to go off the air. The SPBA held onto its license. "Budrow suggested that it would be better for KPBX to physically be off the air so we could work on gaining the funding for what we had in mind," he says. "The station as it was looked funky. It's hard to sell a dream when you have an old beater, and you tell them, 'Don't worry, we'll have a Cadillac.'"
The fund-raising began, pulling large grants from the government, smaller grants from local charitable organizations, and donations from local supporters. Many of the board members were from other cities which already had public radio. With tales of All Things Considered and classical programming, they sparked interest in more and more people. By early 1978, some media and arts people doubted KPBX would return to the airwaves. A Spokane Magazine article quoted one
observer, "It's not impossible. But that's an awful lot of money. A hell of a lot." It was more money than KSPS Public Television raises from listeners in a year. Most amazingly, most of the KPBX board wanted to remain a community licensee, without the protection of a large public institution. A community service would ideally mean free reign in program content, since no one hand holds the purse strings. "We wanted to maintain independence, keep it a true community station," Schoengold says. "Spokane was, and is, very white-bread. People still aren't exposed to other cultures very often. KPBX was to be a home for the people, not for the intelligence. We were trying to build a radio station that was a resource to the community."
The Spokane Public Broadcasting Association members of the board struggled with the grants, technical details about equipment, smoothing out challenges. Major gifts were given by the Junior League, Comstock Foundation, the Greater Spokane Community Foundation, ONB Corporation, Seafirst National Bank, George Frederick Jewett Foundation, Pacific Northwest Bell, Leuthold Foundation, KHQ AM-FM-TV and Georgia Roffler Lackman. The plans took solid form when the board hired Marvin Granger as the general manager and program director in early 1979. Granger in turn hired a starting staff, with nine full-time and four part-time staff members. A couple of volunteers were also utilized. "Our classical music staff is above average…the two full-time (music) staff members have degrees from conservatories," he told the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
Although the staff was ready to go, more red tape and installation delays kept the station off the air. FAA concerns pushed the start-up date was pushed back from early fall to December to January. 'All [these problems] will be forgotten when we're on the air and two months down the line," he told Tom Sowa, reporter for the Spokesman-Review in December 1979. "All we have to try to do is show people there is one place on the dial where the content rules the medium, not vice versa." Kunkel and the rest of the Spokane Public Radio staff are more dedicated than ever to keeping that ideal. "The people who started KPBX had a vision of a station that would serve the artistic and information needs of the public. We have a commitment to share that vision," Kunkel says.