KWSU Radio (Pullman)

  • By Albert Powell, Ph.D.
  • Posted 3/09/2022
  • Essay 22416
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The 100-year history of KWSU Radio illustrates the history of broadcasting in the United States. Owned by Washington State University, it signed on in 1922 as KFAE and began training students in engineering and broadcast skills. WSU is credited with creating the first course in radio performance, and broadcast graduates include legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and sportscaster Keith Jackson. Since its inception, the station has had three sets of call letters, three broadcast frequencies, and three transmitters. The station called KFAE, KWSC, and then KWSU has weathered two world wars and evolving technology, including the creation of LP records, magnetic tape, FM radio, microwave and satellite transmission, and digital media. In the 1980s KWSU began creating a cross-state network of translators and radio stations carrying National Public Radio news and classical music to both urban and isolated markets across the state. In 1986 the network adopted the name Northwest Public Radio (NWPR). After expanding to include more than 19 radio stations, two TV stations, and digital program streams, in 2018 the network became Northwest Public Broadcasting (NWPB). NWPB trains interns and student employees in roles as announcers, producers, reporters, and social-media producers. Their work experience prepares students for professional careers when they graduate.


The history of KWSU parallels the history of broadcasting in the United States. Its origin dates to 1901 and it has had only one owner, Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman. As a Land-Grant institution, WSU is charged with serving the entire state of Washington. All WSU broadcast operations support that mission.

In 1901 Washington State College (WSC) had an early wireless telegraph station with self-assigned call letters WC, built by H. V. Carpenter, head of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. Radio station licensing began in 1912, and by 1916 WC became 7YI. When World War I began in 1917, all U.S. wireless stations other than those controlled by the Navy were shut down, but 7YI was put back on the air to give the Student Army Training Corps practical experience.

When World War I ended, radio broadcasting gained popularity, and in 1922 WSC President Ernest Holland ordered 7YI to be turned into a radio station. The new station, KFAE, signed on at 360 meters (866 kHz) with 500 watts, one of the most powerful stations in the nation. A fundraising drive that year rebuilt the radio station using many of the components of 7YI. Construction of KFAE was carried out by Homer Dana, who partnered with Carpenter to find the materials and equipment. By the end of 1922, there were more than 500 licensed radio stations in the U.S., including KFAE. 

What's On the Air?

An obvious question is: who would provide programs? Federal law in 1922 required all programming to be live; using recorded music was illegal. The obvious program source was the faculty. President Holland sent a note to the faculty stating "this opportunity will doubtless be grasped eagerly by every department." His note referenced "lectures, musical recitals and reports to be dictated, sung, or played into the microphone" (Harrison, 13). 

The first formal broadcast on KFAE aired in December 1922, when Carpenter read a script provided by the Department of Agriculture. KFAE soon added live local music, plus sports programming, beginning with a basketball game broadcast on January 26, 1923. This event initiated a long-running practice of broadcasting the school's home basketball and football games. Programs mostly consisted of lectures on agricultural practices, book reviews, music by fraternities and sororities, and sports.

By May 1923 there was a traffic jam of radio stations, and the Department of Commerce changed the power and frequency allocations of many stations. KFAE became a regional station for Eastern Washington, Central Idaho, and Northeast Oregon, and changed frequency to an 860 kHz regional channel. In 1925 its call letters changed from KFAE to KWSC. The following year, Professor Maynard Daggy of the Speech Department created a course called Broadcast Performance, believed to be the first course in radio performance. It included the study of "skits, plays, and similar material for presentation on radio KWSC" (Harrison, 21). 

In 1927 and 1928 the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) reshuffled radio frequencies again. KWSC moved to 1390 kHz, sharing time with Spokane station KFPY, which used two-thirds of the available airtime. KWSC broadcast three nights a week, plus sports and some special programs. The program schedule grew to 39 hours per week, including evenings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which were considered prime time. Carpenter created programs, including an "Old Fiddlers Contest," with listeners voting on performances by telephone or mail. Faculty aired educational talks, student groups provided live performances, and when the prohibition on using recorded materials ended, phonograph records provided musical entertainment. Daggy introduced radio dramas, and student variety shows aired. The regional audience grew, and competition for listeners was limited, as there were only four stations in Spokane at the time.

A Famous Alum

After the stock market crash of 1929, WSC upgraded and moved its transmitter onto the central campus, and a new antenna was built near the veterinary science complex. In 1930, KWSC's frequency was changed to 1220 kHz, with 2,000 watts of daytime power and 1,000 watts at night. KWSC shared time with KTW, run by the First Presbyterian Church in Seattle. The church wanted airtime only on Sundays, Thursday nights, and religious holidays, so plenty of air time was available. This resulted in a time-sharing plan that lasted until 1950. The reach of KWSC was shown by fan mail that arrived from Tacoma and suburbs of Los Angeles.

The year 1930 also marked the graduation of one of WSC's most famous alums, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow went to London in 1937 as Director of CBS Europe operations. His fame began in 1938 with coverage of Hitler's Anschluss, the annexation of Austria. In the lead-up to World War II and throughout the war, Murrow's in-person live broadcasts from Vienna, Czechoslovakia, and especially in London during the Blitz, made him world famous. His legacy in setting the bar for news coverage would lead to the 2008 creation of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU.

Technology Changes

In 1934 the newly created Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued rules on radio antennas, requiring replacement of older horizontal antennas with vertical models. KWSC built a 224-foot antenna that was effective, but disliked by maintenance people who had to climb it to replace aircraft safety lights at the top. This tower served until the 1970s, when the transmitter and antenna moved to WSU's dairy farm south of Pullman. Once the new tower was in place, KWSC asked for more operating power. By late 1934 it had 5,000 watts daytime, 1,000 watts at night, and may have been the most powerful educational station in the U.S. In 1939, nighttime power was increased to 5,000 watts, yielding impressive coverage. In 1941 it moved to its current frequency, 1250 kHz.

In 1936, the KWSC studios moved into Science Hall, later called Arts Hall, which is now [2022] the Murrow building; the studios remain there today. In 1937 KWSC began year-round operation. Manager Kenneth Yeend developed programs designed for K-12 classroom listening, adding popular music programming as an alternative to the soap operas popular on Spokane stations.

World War II Prelude and Aftermath

As the situation in Europe worsened, KWSC added news programming, a United Press teletype machine, and an Associated Press news wire during the war. Journalism classes began covering local and college news, and production director Pete Barr provided commentary based on news releases from Europe.

In 1943 a bomber crossing northern Idaho got lost during a storm. The Walla Walla air base asked KWSC to urge its audience to go outside, listen, and help track the plane. Dozens of listeners responded after hearing the plane, and the bomber made a safe landing. KWSC was credited with saving the lives of the crew.

Turnover of staff and students was rapid during the war; in 1943 Glen Jones took over as manager of KWSC and Pete Barr handled operations. Women became announcers, previously a male-only position. By 1944, women held many positions on the announcing staff and unsurprisingly did a first-class job. 

In 1944 President Holland retired and President Wilson Compton took over. In 1945 there were 989 licensed radio stations in the US; by 1947 that number more than doubled, and existing stations applied for more operating power. Through the late 1940s the demand for radio programming was unprecedented.

In 1946 Frederick Hayward became KWSC Manager; he had considerable experience running radio stations serving GIs during the war. In 1947 he created the slogan "Entertainment for an Empire," and added syndicated music services, weekly NBC-scripted productions, and a publicity campaign promoting the station. KWSC claimed to have the largest radio staff in the Pacific Northwest with 42 students. Hayward lasted only a year at KWSC; in 1948 Allen Miller took over. Miller was a dominant figure in Chicago radio for 14 years; he was also head of the University Broadcasting Council and became one of the great broadcast managers of his era.  

Miller dropped the slogan "Entertainment for an Empire," which faculty disliked. He developed talk shows with serious educational themes including discussion shows, a weekly round table, science commentaries, and book reviews. He convinced Compton to rebuild the radio studios and replace the aging homemade transmitter, which was not dependable and no longer met FCC specifications. The station soon had a new transmitter, a well-equipped master control room, and three new radio studios, including an auditorium with seating for more than 100 people.

The GI Boom

The GI Bill flooded WSC with new students after World War II. Housing, food, and teaching capacity were all overloaded. Many incoming students wanted to study broadcasting, as radio was a glamor industry in the pre-TV era. Murrow had become famous and widely respected, as were a cadre of young reporters who covered much of the war and were becoming famous in their own right. Murrow's reputation attracted aspiring radio broadcasters to WSC, which promised "to train young people in the use, operation, and human service of the radio" (Harrison, 39).  

In 1949 the professional staff was four people -- Allen Miller, Hugh Rundell, chief engineer Robert Baird, and Pete Barr. Miller, who was from Denver, immediately hired Burt Harrison out of Colorado; Harrison would become station manager for nearly 20 years. Miller later hired Calvin Watson and Robert "Bob" Mott, both of whom had worked in Denver, giving the staff a Colorado flavor. But this staff was inadequate to run the station while also training the new students. Accordingly, students did most of the on-air work at KWSC. They were organized into groups, each with a Chief: there was a Chief Announcer, a News Chief, and so on. Announcer competitions were held at the start of each semester; faculty rated the competitors. Students were categorized into classes A, B, and C, and pay was scaled accordingly.

By 1953 there were more than 3,000 radio stations in the U.S., and WSC was among the few colleges with training programs that included professional experience at a radio station. In the early 1950s KWSC was a guide signal for pilots flying commuter planes into the local airport, since the airport lacked radio guidance equipment. The airport once called after signoff asking KWSC to put the station back on the air to guide a lost airplane to the airport. Fortunately, the plane landed safely before the transmitter was turned on. 

In 1948 Columbia Records introduced the 33 RPM LP record; by 1950, KWSC was equipped to use LP recordings, and Elmer Erickson was hired. Erickson was a classical bassoonist who left symphony performance to reduce his stress and get a college education. His wife was already on staff at WSC, so he enrolled there. Miller immediately hired him as KWSC student Music Chief. Erickson remained at KWSC for 27 years, overseeing the station's shift to classical music. He eventually built one of the largest classical music libraries in the U.S.

Sports, One Way or Another            

Sports coverage was important, and from the late 1940s onward, KWSC aired live Cougars football, basketball, and baseball games, as well as Pullman High Greyhounds games. Games played out of town, including a 1950 WSC appearance at the baseball College World Series in Omaha, were covered by in-studio re-creation, then a common practice. Western Union provided constant teletype reports; the station used those reports to narrate a dramatized and time-delayed version of the game as it progressed, adding details and sound effects for atmosphere. When a commercial feed failed in 1959, KWSC also re-created some football games. Sound effects, including whistles and crowd sounds, were easy to generate in the studio, along with recordings of cheers.

TV Enters the Picture

Interest in television boomed after the war, but the FCC stopped issuing new licenses from late 1948 to 1952. KWSC built operational TV-capable studios in the 1950s, years before it had a station license, because they felt any leading institution training broadcasters had to have a program in TV. KWSC-TV went on the air a decade later in 1962.

In the 1950s KWSC invented an after-school radio program titled "Mr. Record Man and the Story Lady." It consisted of a man and woman reading stories and playing children's records. It was surprisingly popular with area residents and ran for many years as a staple of afternoon programming. Another 1950s addition was the Metropolitan Opera Network, which added KWSC to its network. The new programming was secured thanks to the Met's program broker having a fortunate fondness for football and the WSC Cougars. Also during the 1950s, KWSC aired numerous programs from the British Broadcasting Service, which offered classical music, serious drama, literature, and discussion. There was so much BBC programming that some student announcers referred to the station as "Your limey station in Pullman" (Harrison, 51).  

Audio Recording Evolves

A major upgrade to recording technology occurred with the advent of magnetic tape, which originated in Germany during World War II. Its advantages over LP records included longer playing time and recording capability. Using magnetic tape, KWSC and other educational stations across the country began exchanging programming. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, WSU had its own tape-duplication facility run by Robert "Bob" Giese. The recorded programs by WSU faculty and other experts were mailed on reel-to-reel tapes to stations across the Pacific Northwest.

When KWSC-TV went into operation in 1962, Bob Mott became general manager of Radio-TV Services. Calvin Watson became manager of KWSC-TV, and Burt Harrison continued as manager of KWSC Radio. Mott asked President Compton to move the radio tower and transmitter to the WSU dairy farm. He also requested a large addition to Arts Hall, which would house new TV studios and provide more space for all broadcast operations. Both were approved, along with KWSC's first TV translator stations (low powered, unattended stations) used to relay TV signals to Spokane, Walla Walla, Ephrata, Clarkston, and the Tri-Cities.

WSC became WSU in 1959, but the radio station call letters remained KWSC for another decade. The KWSU call letters were in use by another FCC-licensed function, but finally became available. In 1967, TV call letters changed to KWSU, followed by KWSU-AM in 1969. That year, Gordon Tuell replaced Mott as manager of Radio-TV Services. By good fortune, WSU's application for the desired call letters got to the FCC just three days ahead of a similar request from Wichita State University.

In 1977, some key members of the staff retired, including long-time stalwarts Burt Harrison, Elmer Erickson, and Gordon Tuell. Lyle Mettler replaced Tuell as GM, Bob Eastman became the manager of KWSU Radio, and Don Gay replaced Erickson. In 1978, WSU hired Dennis Haarsager from Idaho Public Broadcasting to be the general manager of Radio-TV Services. Haarsager would head the broadcast and educational telecommunications operations for 30 years and develop a new vision for the broadcast stations. 

The Advent of FM

Harrison had tried to get an FM license in the early 1970s without success, and FM was gaining listeners from AM. Haarsager felt that KWSU needed an FM signal and needed to extend AM coverage into new parts of the state. He was convinced that KWSU needed to become more than a single-market station, and must augment shrinking university funding with private resources.

In 1982, WSU gained an FM station from the University of Idaho, eight miles away. WSU assumed operation of its station KUID-FM at 91.7 and changed the call letters to KRFA in 1984. Also in 1982, Haarsager organized a nonprofit group in the Tri-Cities called Fine Arts Radio to raise funds for a 100-kW FM station. This created KFAE, using KWSU's original call letters. This NPR affiliate on the WSU Tri-Cities campus is staffed and operated by WSU. 

Northwest Public Radio

The addition of signals and stations meant that KWSU was no longer operating as a single station. In 1986, Radio-TV Services staff proposed a network name and with approval, changed the label under which KWSU operated. The network was called Northwest Public Radio (NWPR). Haarsager and the staff felt the name described "where the radio operation was going" but kept the identification as part of WSU. KWSU-AM was the source of much of the programming for NWPR.

Growth of the network continued through the present as microwave links, translators, and additional stations were added, eventually reaching west of the Cascades. NWPR's translators were set up on mountains or high-terrain points where their limited coverage could serve entire communities on FM frequencies. In 1983 alone eight translators were added, and more have been added since then.

NWPR's programming feeds are structured into two services, essentially serving as two networks. One runs NPR news and talk; the other is a dual format of NPR and classical music. "NPR Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are simulcast on both networks, but otherwise each is programmed separately. Classical music comes mainly from Pullman, with additional music from Tacoma, where there is a staff of two specializing in classical music. NWPR can feed the network from either source. One advantage of NWPR's statewide network is fundraising. Like most public broadcasting, NWPR depends heavily on its on-air fundraising. As the network expands, more listeners mean more potential donors who spend hours every day listening to NWPR programming.

KWSU partnered with Colorado Public Radio to create a "zone" broadcasting system, which permits each NWPR station to air its own information specific to the station's area. NPR provides most of the news programming, but the music programming, including classical, can originate from other stations. NWPR now runs this system independently.

In 1987, WSU added a TV station in Richland, KTNW, and began using the name Northwest Public Television to refer to both its TV stations. In 1997, WSU was asked to operate KZAZ in Bellingham, and shifted its incoming NWPR feed from microwave to satellite to eliminate the challenge of getting signals across the Cascade mountains. Most NWPR stations now receive programming via satellite. NWPR pays a fee to NPR and uses an NPR-owned satellite to distribute its programming, which reduces the need for maintenance-prone translators.

New College for a New Century

In 1990 the Communications Department became the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication; In 2008, new WSU President Elson Floyd approved creation of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. As part of its creation, the Murrow College recovered the radio and TV broadcast operations and staff from the WSU IT department, one of the units which had administered them since 1968. A driving force behind creation of the new college was Interim Dean Erica Austin; within the year WSU hired the college's Founding Dean, Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS Middle East correspondent, author, and journalist.  

In 2008 Haarsager retired to become interim CEO of NPR, and NWPR manager Roger Johnson retired. Kerry Swanson took over from Johnson and would hold that position for 14 years; he further expanded NWPR through new translators, stations, and partnerships across the state. Under Swanson, NWPR increased revenue, added local programming, and a news department.

In 2010 NWPR signed on KSWS 88.9 FM covering Centralia/Chehalis and Olympia. Also in 2010 and 2011, WSU took over operation of KTVI from Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood. The station was near closing, but WSU graduate and president of Horizon Broadcasting Keith Shipman was on their board and connected them with WSU. Clover Park turned over operations to NWPR while retaining ownership. In 2012, these studios began their own programming on the NWPR network, adding hours of classical music. KTVI's studios are the second NWPR source for classical music after the music programming from Pullman.  

In 2012 NWPR partnered with the Yakima School District and Yakima Valley Tech Skills Center (YV-TECH), bringing NPR news to the school district's radio station KYVT at 88.5 FM. NWPR had one station (KNWY) in Yakima with classical music programming, but listeners also wanted an all-news station. There was no available frequency in Yakima, but Swanson learned the school district was using KYVT for training and negotiations ensued. The school district retained ownership, but NWPR programs and operates KYVT with the NPR news signal. YV-TECH students work with NWPR staff to support student learning. Student programing is also available in Yakima on the HD service of NWPR at 90.3 FM.

In 2013 KJEM went on the air in Pullman at 89.9 FM as the 19th station in the NWPR network. Called "The jazz gem of the Palouse," KJEM received 15-year startup funding from Bruce McCaw, son of J. Elroy McCaw, whose initials the call sign honors. The senior McCaw was a WSU broadcast graduate who had great success in cable TV and in broadcasting. The KJEM call letters had been licensed to the Coast Guard, but they soon released them. KJEM's student staff developed a website and attends and records local jazz events, including the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho. 

In 2014 NWPR developed cell phone apps for listeners to access the signals of NPR News and Classical Music, NPR News, and KJEM Jazz. In 2015 NWPR added a bilingual reporter based in Yakima, funded by matching grants from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In his first year, reporter Rowan Gerety covered such disparate stories as fires in Okanogan, emergency planning regulations that leave farmworkers in migrant housing unprotected, the growing practice of paid video visitations in jails, and "remote jailing," when people accused of minor crimes are jailed hundreds of miles away from their family members and attorneys.

Some NWPR stations use digital (HD) FM broadcast technology that allows their FM signal to carry multiple program streams. In 2015 an HD stream using Sub Channel Authorization (SCA) was added to KFAE in the Tri-Cities, providing a reading service to sight-impaired listeners; a group of volunteers reads the news from local papers daily in the Richland studios. Sight-impaired listeners use special state-provided radio receivers to tune into the SCA channel.

In 2016 NWPR added a translator on Green Mountain in Southwestern Washington to extend NPR News service on 97.3 to the Longview/Kelso area. That signal now serves approximately 66,000 people.

In 2017, the Matteson family in Pullman and the Sundquist family in Yakima established an endowed fund, enabling KWSU to move from using physical CDs to a digital library shared and accessed by both KWSU and the KVTI studios in Tacoma. This digital music library ensures the NWPR classical music library is instantly accessible to NWPR programmers.

New Network Name

In January 2018, KWSU combined Northwest Public Radio and TV stations KWSU and KTNW-TV under one new brand: Northwest Public Broadcasting (NWPB). Since then, all station IDs use NWPB as the network name.

NWPB has a long history as a training ground for the next generation of media producers. Network stations employ interns and student employees as announcers, producers, reporters, social media producers, and in other roles. The real-world work experience prepares them for careers when they move on from college. For example, KJEM is the sole jazz station of NWPR and is led by three student managers.

As part of NWPB, KWSU programming now [2022] reaches more than 3.6 million people throughout Washington and in Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. About half the audience receives public radio exclusively through NWPB. Internet streaming services, PBS Passport, smartphone apps, and smart speakers all deliver NWPB programs to growing audiences every day.


Burt Harrison, Washington State On the Air, First printing (Pullman, Washington: KWSU Radio-TV, 1993); Author Albert Powell interviews with Don Peters, Keith Shipman, Dennis Haarsager, Marvin Marcelo, Glenn Johnson, Kerry Swanson, Lawrence Pintak, Don Peters, Marvin Marcelo, and Erica Austin, notes in possession of Albert Powell; Northwest Public Radio annual reports, 2010-2018; 1922 Radio station count, accessed March 1, 2022 (; "WSU's Murrow College Launches New Jazz Radio Station 89.9 KJEM (news release)," WSU Insider, November 1, 2013, accessed March 1, 2022 (; "Why HD Radio?" website, undated, accessed March 1, 2022 (

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