Shifting to 'public radio' in the 70s gave WKAR a wider reach
This story originally aired during WKAR's Century of Service special on Aug. 20, 2022.
WKAR is 100 years old! We received our official radio broadcast license on August 18, 1922.
For almost the first 50 years of our history, WKAR operated as an “educational” radio station. For decades, we relied on our own financial means. Then, in the late 1960s, a new model came along that would bring WKAR and our audience into a bigger world.
In 1922, WKAR was founded as the first educational radio station in Michigan. It was never designed to turn a profit. As an extension of what was then called Michigan Agricultural College, WKAR was steeped in public service. Educational radio carved out its own niche.
However, as commercial broadcasting grew up alongside, nonprofits like WKAR found it harder to compete for audiences.
Big sales revenues paid for better production value. The disparity was plain to see.
In the 60s, Congress decided to level the playing field.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a landmark bill creating a new agency to help fund noncommercial stations: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“It will get part of its support from our government,” Johnson announced. “But, it will be carefully guarded from government or from party control. It will be free and it will be independent, and it will belong to all of our people.”
(It was) so uncharted that we didn’t know how we were going to provide program services to all of the public radio stations in the United States.Dick Estell, former WKAR station manager
By that time, TV had long surpassed radio as the most popular medium in America.
Originally, the bill was going to be called the Public Television Act. Just then, a Michigander spoke up.
Republican Senator Robert P. Griffin suggested the “Public Broadcasting Act” to ensure radio wasn’t left behind.
That eleventh hour change happened so close to the deadline that the revisions were physically added to the bill with Scotch tape.
With a new name and mission, public radio was now in uncharted waters.
“So uncharted that we didn’t know how we were going to provide program services to all of the public radio stations in the United States,” said former WKAR station manager Dick Estell in 2013.
Estell was at the helm in 1970, when WKAR signed on as a charter member of the newly christened National Public Radio.
The distribution system that educational radio had relied upon for so long didn’t change overnight.
For years, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters based at the University of Illinois ran a tape network.
Stations would produce programs and then submit them for national distribution.
It was absolutely fascinating because it was just such a breakthrough moment for us, because it totally liberated us from being confined in a kind of smaller world.Steve Meuche, former WKAR station manager
“In the mail every quarter you’d get a catalog of shows that were available, and you’d order them and then they would come in boxes in the mail on tapes,” said former WKAR station manager Steve Meuche, who succeeded Estell in 1978. “So it was all, what we called, ‘bicycling’ tapes around. It was like, when you’re done with your tapes, you send them along to Ohio State.”
Then, on May 3, 1971, everything changed.
National Public Radio went on the air for the first time with its new flagship show, All Things Considered.
“It was absolutely fascinating,” Meuche recalled. “It was just such a breakthrough moment for us, because it totally liberated us from being confined in a kind of smaller world.”
Using telephone lines, the fledgling network broadcast an anti-war protest in Washington.
It was a chaotic scene, as some 20,000 people marched and shouted in the streets and helicopters droned overhead.
Meuche remembered a moment when it got a little too real for radio.
“And I’m sitting there listening to this thing, and it was sound of them arresting the veterans, putting them in a bus and driving away as they chanted, ‘One, two, three, four…we don’t want your f-ing war,’” he remembered. “And I went, 'Oh, wait a minute! Can we broadcast this?' We’ve never had to deal with anything like this.”
It was a momentous start for the new network.
News coverage became an integral part of National Public Radio.
Dick Estell had a front-row seat.
In 1972, he began a two-year stint as chairman of the NPR board of directors.
“The fact that we could get the news from so many sources provided us then with the capability of doing something that had never been done before in all of these local communities throughout the nation,” Estell said.
The fact that we could get the news from so many sources provided us then with the capability of doing something that had never been done before in all of these local communities throughout the nation.Dick Estell, former WKAR station manager
Joining the public radio fold brought both responsibilities and rewards for WKAR.
The station held its first radio fundraising campaign in 1975, netting $10,000.
In 1979, NPR introduced its satellite network, extending its reach and immediacy to an even bigger audience.
Today, WKAR is a nearly $10 million annual operation with 45 full-time staff members.
There’s more than 51,000 regular weekly radio listeners and 172,000 monthly television viewers.
None of our varied educational content, our many outreach initiatives, and, of course, our diverse programming would ever be possible if it weren’t for the generosity and support of our members.
So, on behalf of all of us here at WKAR, thank you for putting 100 candles on our cake.
We promise to make our next century even sweeter.