Celebrating 70 years of WKSU: How a 50-Foot Antenna Grew to 22 Counties
WKSU began broadcasting on this date in 1950. Listener Lee Peters from Ashland wrote to "OH Really?" to ask what the programming was like 70 years ago.
The station was founded by Walton D. Clarke and John Weiser, the first station manager, at 88.1-FM with an antenna attached to a 50-foot pole. Unfortunately, most programs from WKSU's first decade were not archived. But it was essentially a student laboratory.
Weiser’s successor was John Perry, station manager from 1972 until 1998. He says of those first decades, "if students didn't show up, you just kind of shut the station down or found somebody in the hallway who could run something."
Still, WKSU provided news and music several hours a day for Northeast Ohio, billed at-first as "The Community Voice of Kent and Ravenna." Some of the material in the archive is included here, celebrating 70 years of public radio.
"Swing Session" presented folk and classical, two genres that are still on WKSU today.
In 1963, student News Director Bob Woods filed a report from President John F. Kennedy's funeral. "Women wept. Men wept. On this day of national sadness, nowhere was it felt more intensely than here in Washington," he said.
In 1965, English professor Robert Ehrlich was interviewed about attending the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. "Looking at those billy clubs [and] the hate and the general disgust in the eyes of these men was a very frightening experience."
The turbulence of the era hit home on May 4, 1970. After days of protests and simmering tensions over the Vietnam War, the National Guard opened fire on students, killing four and wounding nine more. WKSU reporters covered the protests and their aftermath. In 2000, WKSU's Joe Gunderman and Mark Urycki produced the award-winning documentary, "Remembering Kent State 1970."
A year after the shootings, NBC News Anchor/Commentator David Brinkley appeared on campus for a symposium about journalism. "In this [adversarial] relationship between press and politician, it might be said in passing that the contest is highly unequal. The press has no power to force anyone to do anything; the politicians do. There are numerous countries in the world where the politicians have seized absolute power and muzzled the press. There is no country in the world where the press has seized power and muzzled the politicians."
As the station grew significantly in the '70s, Perry recalls that several days a week at 10 a.m., Weiser would deliver "History of Broadcasting" lectures for his Kent State class over WKSU. At night, "Fresh Air" presented progressive music — such as Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and Tangerine Dream — from 1971-81.
The station's news staff quickly grew after that as the 1980s brought challenges to Northeast Ohio, such as the death of Akron native Judith Resnik aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger and the attempted takeover of the Goodyear Tire Company in 1986.
Rita Dove (Buchtel High School, Class of 1970) returned to her hometown to speak at the Akron Roundtable in 1987, the same year she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. That speech was broadcast over WKSU, and we still air Akron Roundtable addresses today.
As the 20th century ended, music continued to be an important part of WKSU's programming with broadcasts from Apollo's Fire and folk music on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights hosted by Jim Blum. In 1997, he welcomed Roger McGuinn of The Byrds for an entire show. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee offered his thoughts on what the next "fad" would be. "I think the internet is going to be big as a delivery system, once they get the speed worked out. [People can] maybe click on something and [download] a whole CD in an hour."
The 21st century has seen WKSU expand its mission by embracing digital media to bring listeners news (coverage of the 2012 Chardon High School shooting), sports (Amanda Rabinowitz's "The View From Pluto"), and entertainment (commentaries from writer Harvey Pekar) throughout 22 counties in Ohio.
In looking ahead to the next 70 years, former station manager John Perry wonders, "I don't know whether we'll have FM broadcasting then. Social media is having its impact. Or we may be hardwired on our bodies to receive certain frequencies and information. Who knows? We're only using about 40 percent of our brains right now. And I hope we're still serving the public, in some respect, 70 years from now."
Perry's successor, Al Bartholet, also recently offered his views on the future of WKSU.
"Local news reporting will always be a critical, and if WKSU can provide that service, it should remain relevant for the foreseeable future. Radio will offer that immediacy that other mediums can’t offer. Credibility is essential to compete with social media," he said.
Wendy Turner, station manager since 2016, has a clear vision for the next 70 years.
"When you ask me to predict the future - I get a little... lofty.
Over the next seventy years, media will continue to fracture and AI will make it almost impossible to distinguish real from fake. Institutions like WKSU will be a lifeline for people to understand the region and the world.
On-demand and asynchronous content consumption will continue to expand for a time and even audio might go out of fashion for a bit when autonomous vehicles become the norm. But then people will begin to long for shared experience IRT (in real-time). WKSU will be that oasis for shared experience and human connection promising spontaneity and serendipity. WKSU will provide relief from the algorithms that feed us only what is already familiar.
Culture in Northeast Ohio will thrive as climate migrants move in to take advantage of the lush landscape, vibrant arts scene, and marvel at the stewardship of land and people. WKSU will continue to be among the most treasured of these assets. It is a campfire in the wilderness around which we can gather, share stories, and build community."
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