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A Look into WKSU History

WKSU Celebrates 70 Years of Radio Excellence

It started with one antenna – its signal barely reached the edge of Kent State University’s campus. Seventy years later, it is an award-winning, NPR affiliated radio station, with the largest public radio service in Ohio. WKSU has continued growing in support, radio production, technology and staff since breaking ground on October 2, 1950.

1950 Groundbreaking Photograph
Credit https://kent.campuslabs.com/engage/organization/KentStater

When it first began, the on-air staff consisted solely of university students, so the station only aired during the school year, with 5 hours of air time on the weekdays. Now, WKSU can be listened to 24/7 with a full-time, professional on-air staff. But, with all the advancements made in becoming a cutting-edge operation, some things never change.

WKSU-FM 88.1 was the original channel, until its permit to be an educational station was approved by the Federal Communication Commission years later. It was in September of 1962 that WKSU’s channel 89.7-FM was born, and it still remains as the channel number for listeners throughout Northeast Ohio. 89.7 has been the place on the dial for the WKSU community for almost 60 years, and without its loyal audience, WKSU never would have progressed from its undersized, student-led staff to a distinguished, non-profit news station.

“As a public radio station,” news director Andrew Meyer says, “WKSU is not driven solely by the quest for high ratings,” and, instead, it looks to share valuable community pieces.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re pursuing the stories that are important to our audience,” Meyer says, “and we want to be engaged and connected with the communities we serve to make sure we are aware of what they need.”

WKSU was not originally news-focused. For most of the station’s history, even with its student produced line-up, the station featured classical music. The switch slowly came to life starting in 1974, when WKSU became an NPR affiliate. This change resulted in the addition of many NPR news programs throughout the years, such as Morning Edition, Fresh Air and All Things Considered.

WKSU officially changed its format to news and information in August of 2013 to better serve the region and provide quality journalism. 

The WKSU news team is driven to improve the future of its reporting and is open to endless amounts of training, learning new skills and enhancing production day-by-day.

“I have always been a strong proponent for continuing training,” Meyer says. “We make sure that we are taking part in ongoing training that refreshes our abilities and training that helps us to learn new and better ways of doing our jobs.”

The desire for professional development hearkens back to the station’s early days. WKSU was built on the values of broadcast education. In 1948, Walton D. Clarke was hired to teach radio courses, beginning Kent State’s broadcasting program. A year later, WKSU-AM went on the air with its student staff.  

The technology the staff utilizes today is a far cry from what the student staff used.

WKSU Students Installing The First Antenna
Credit https://kent.campuslabs.com/engage/organization/KentStater

The station began its digital chapter in 1994, when WKSU.org was brought to life, and all those 26 years ago Chuck Poulton, the current senior network administrator at WKSU, was the one who built it.

“At that time, we were one of the first dozen or so NPR stations to have a website,” Poulton says. “In early 1995, we were the first non-commercial station to use RealAudio technology to stream audio on a website, and we were the second radio station in the world to do so.”

WKSU started its first online radio stations in 2005, allowing listeners to tune-in on the web and access HD channels. Today, most listeners use their mobile devices with the WKSU app or website to hear their favorite on-air personalities, rather than moving the dial on their car radios.

Poulton says, “Now we have so many ways to stay in touch, in multiple streams and formats, on a variety of platforms and devices, on-demand and in real time, with sound, images and video, and with direct input and interaction from the audience.”

Tech advances constantly contribute to innovations to better fit the audience’s wants and needs. In March of 2018, WKSU released its “Pledge-Free Stream.” When WKSU hosts on-air fundraising, a separate audio stream is available without fundraising messages, which is a huge benefit for its sustaining members – donors who contribute monthly to WKSU.

Lindsay Kuntzman Hilewick, the director of fundraising and communications at WKSU, says a number of tactics have been put in place to engage members in recent years.

“We’ve focused our efforts on community engagement and digital communications,” she says. “We put an emphasis on taking part in events happening in our listening area as well as hosting our own events. In terms of digital communications, as technology has evolved, our ability to quickly and more efficiently reach new and current supporters has, too.”

The idea of increasing reach to new supporters and listeners is echoed by WKSU’s general manager and executive director, Wendy Turner.

“Expanding public service is our vision,” Turner says. “WKSU aspires to grow the reporting staff, deepen strategic journalism partnerships and widen our use and expertise with emerging digital tools and platforms.”

This year, in efforts to increase its impact, WKSU began a new project, “Informed Communities: Evictions and Infant Mortality.”

The station partnered with several foundations to pursue collaborative projects, helping underserved communities by fulfilling their basic information needs. The station was awarded a grant to work with The Plain Dealer and Spectrum News1 Ohio to produce content concerning the topics of evictions and infant mortality.

As WKSU strives to better serve its listening audience and strengthen its relationships with other organizations, it has one partnership it especially seeks to reinforce.

The students at Kent State helped shape and mold the station 70 years ago. And as WKSU looks to the future, fueling the journalistic passion in incoming students and graduates will remain a priority.

Turner says, “We look to strengthen our partnership with Kent State’s College of Communication and Information to identify, support and train the next generation of public service journalists.”

After breaking ground in 1950, a ripple effect of success began, and its growth continues today.

Here is to another 70 years of loyal listeners, outstanding reporting, superior technological advances and a passionate staff to continue the legacy.

Get the WKSU app to listen to the 24/7 radio stream.

By Anna Garvin

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