Photo: K-State Alumni Association Archives
Feb. 24.

The History of Kansas State University’s Radio Station

Photo: K-State Alumni Association Archives

Photo: K-State Alumni Association Archives

Earlier today, on Twitter, the K-State Alumni Association asked if any of their followers knew of someone who had worked for K-State’s radio station.  A number of people started to ask about the station’s history.  To appease that demand, we present “The History of Kansas State University’s Radio Station” written by our own John Forsee.

            The Wildcat 91.9 KSDB, the student radio station of K-State University, began in March of 1949 in Nichols Gymnasium.  In three months’ time, it became a non-commercial radio station approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but transmitted no more than a few hundred feet. 


                        “Practically the only way to hear the station was to sit on the steps of Nichols gym with a portable radio” (K-State Collegian, 3-7-50). 


            The K-State radio station began with only one hour of music per weekday.  Within the year, it covered significantly more broadcast area and time on air, as well as offering more programs (K-State Collegian, 11-2-49 and 11-20-49).  By the spring of 1950, FM broadcasts were common, with the equipment which enabled broadcasting donated by Senator Arthur Capper and others (Royal Purple, 1970).  Wendall Wilson became the first on-air student personality in 1950, which set a trend for the present student-run radio station (Update Magazine, Fall 2000). 


            The radio station FM 88.1 continued running until December 13, 1968, when Nichols Gymnasium burned due to arson, according to the 2005 Winter K-Stater.  Among the departments damaged or destroyed were the radio station and the music department. The only surviving piece was “The Wabash Cannonball,” now K-State’s main fight song.  The radio station lost all its equipment including recently-purchased transmitter, turntables, tape recorders, and consoles (K-Stater, Winter, 2005).  The station manager at KMAN assisted KSDB by raising funds from local businesses and by procuring old equipment from other nearby radio stations.  KSDB then moved to the then Farrell Library, now Hale Library.  Due to the library rule against noise and talking, which hampered a normally noisy radio station, KSDB moved to McCain Auditorium in 1976 (K-State Collegian, 1988). 


            The year 1987 marked significant change at KSDB because of transmitter donated by KAKE-TV located in Wichita.  The new transmitter produced up to 1400 watts and is presently the same transmitter utilized by the campus station (Update Magazine Fall 2000).


            KSDB started broadcasting 24 hours a day in 1997 due to new equipment purchased by the university.  Two years later, the station went from faculty-run to student-run.  The station moved again to the K-State Student Union in 2002 with the equipment now being digital for the 21st century.  KSDB has received numerous KAB awards, for example for best DJ for various genres, sports, etc… and is ranked #1 in student radio stations in Kansas.


            Professor Steve Smethers, associate director of undergraduate studies for JMC, was the faculty advisor for the radio station for five years (2006-2011), and before that he was a student on staff, 73-75(program director).


            After Nichols burned down in 1968 the radio station moved to Farrell Library, and at that time the station only had 10 watts. When he started for the radio station in 1973, the station was still in Farrell. They had a sound booth put in for the radio station, so that they would not bother anyone in the library. He said at the time the radio station was a top 40 radio station, which means that they play the top 40 hits in the country.  Although the station did not move to McCain until the year after he left he said that he knew of some of the plans.


            “We knew they were going to build McCain to take care of the space lost when Nichols burned” Smethers said. “We knew we would have a really nice studio.”


            Smethers said that when he came back in 2006, a flood of memories came back about the station from his days as a student, and it had a familiar feel despite the fact that the station had moved to the K-State student union. The technology was vastly different from when he had been there, but there seemed to be one constant.


            “How the station is run is practically the same,” Smethers said.


His job as a faculty adviser entailed that the station managers report to him for an hour every week, so that he could explain to them FCC law, and answer any of their questions. Some of the things he had to worry about with the FCC were license renewal, higher level things, and making sure everything was run according to FCC regulations. Smethers is no longer faculty adviser but still serves an active role at K-State as an associate director for jmc, and a jmc professor.

Drew Bartlett, current program director and music director of Z96.3 and B104.7, did a number of things for KSDB the Wildcat 91.9. He was the program director for a year, the writing director for a year, and the music director for a year at KSDB the Wildcat 91.9 and started in 2003. He said that The Wildcat 91.9 added a streaming website, the date of which he did not mention, that enabled listeners to listen online and a television station during his tenure at KSDB. The main point of the station was making a strictly formatted schedule. It was a rock station during the day and an urban station at night with specialty programs lined up for specific hours (6-8 and 10-12) and these specialty programs were not done every day. He stressed the importance of a strict format.


“Learn how a real radio station works and how you can play your format and get good ratings and run an actual radio station,” Bartlett said.


This helps getting a job because radio stations run according to a format. This also helped listeners identify with the radio station and have an understanding of what is going on-air at a specific time.


Jared Clark, student and former program director of The Wildcat 91.9, started out in 2010 doing video and held the program director position until May 2013. Audio and video production is his forte, and this is what is he is planning on doing after graduation. The radio station changed from DB 92 to The Wildcat 91.9 in 1999, due to it wanting to be more recognized as Kansas State University’s radio station. One of the many things that have improved in Clark’s time is the audio


KSDB had even been playing vinyl for a while, and that changed to automation with the new Scotts programming, which automatically plays formatted music.


“Things change all the time,” said Clark “really it was the way of radio how it changed into automation.”


Along with improved branding came better equipment, better microphones, and better boards, which control the sound volume. The signal also became better when it switched to digital.  Additionally editing software was upgraded which has many benefits for the radio station, the date of which was not mentioned. The expenses were paid for by K-State.


 “With the staff that we have now and the experience that we have from our staff has actually made better specialty shows,” said Clark.


 Specialty shows can vary from a variety of genres of music to a multiplicity of different talk shows. Specialty shows add interest to the radio station and uniqueness to the radio station, since most radio shows are just strictly formatted. Additionally K-State sports are covered as well as formatted program, which sometimes includes Djs and comes in the genres of rock in the day and urban at night. Knowledge is passed down to new students, and the shows are much more improved than previous shows. The feedback that has been received has been extremely positive for the most part, according to Clark. Clark hopes that after he is gone that he will have contributed to its improvement. The station has been run by students for over a decade, but there is a faculty advisor who helps out.


Vern Wirka, KSDB faculty adviser, fills that role of a helping hand in advising the station manager, Eric Nehm, and Jen Edgar, program director, as well as helping students with any questions that they might have concerning their shows or the radio station in general. He also teaches MC 385 in order to give students a needed understanding that will help them find a job when they graduate. Additionally Wirka helps with the technical aspects of the radio station. He said that he is working on implementing a new program into the system, and he has already helped develop the new features that the radio station has recently put together. In an event of a technical difficulty Wirka is the one who fixes the problem. While he is the only faculty that helps with the radio station, he however does not run the radio station.


With each coming year the station has an influx of new executives and student volunteers to help run the station from sports to news, music, and many other entities, but the one thing that remains constant is the love and dedication that these students have for their university and their radio station.


            KSDB-FM, the Wildcat 91.9, has weathered many transitions over the long years, including the fire and financial difficulties, but it has survived to become the premiere college radio station in Kansas, according to the Kansas Association of Broadcasting, as well as the Big 12.

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