It was a most remarkable kind of alumni reunion that took place on the evening of December 15, 1924. On that night, KU graduates from all across the country were able to tune their radios to wave length 275 and hear the maiden broadcast of their alma mater’s radio station, KFKU, sent out from its makeshift headquarters inside Robinson Gymnasium. Old friends had mutual greetings read on the air, alumni heard the latest university news, and everyone marveled at how well the voices, music and Rock Chalks sounded “in the ether.”
Technically, this was not the first time the University ever had been on the radio. As the KU News Bureau recalled in a commemorative piece issued many years later, “The first radio rally to be broadcast by any school was heard April 8, 1916, from Robinson Gymnasium over a nationwide network of telephone lines leased for the occasion by the alumni association – 3,800 miles of wire. It was also the first transcontinental alumni reunion.” And beginning in 1922, KU’s first Radio Night and other programming were broadcast over the Kansas City Star’s radio station, WDAF. But by 1924, the University was ready to go it alone, and after the construction of a radio tower behind Marvin Hall, KFKU was on the air.
The word went out to all alumni in the November 1924 edition of the Graduate Magazine, which advised readers to tune in on December 15, at 8 p.m. “Telegrams from alumni will be read and a great exchange of greetings will be passed back and forth among old timers,” reported the magazine. “It is hoped that every K.U. alumni group now organized will be together … and that they will send in messages saying whether they are able to hear the new station and how they like the program.”
When the appointed hour arrived, an avalanche of telegrams rolled in, 160 in all, from cities in 22 states – the farthest away being from Schenectady, New York. As the University Daily Kansan put it, all “expressed their delight at hearing the old rally yells and songs and greeted faculty members and speakers.”
Perhaps the most remarkable message on that inaugural broadcast came from Washington, DC. Herbert Hoover, who was then President Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, sent a telegram out to Lawrence that read, “I congratulate you on your entry upon this fine task and look forward to the not distant time when you can make available to your community the best thought of the minds of the world.”
It may seem surprising that KFKU’s 500-watt signal could be heard as far away as Washington and Schenectady during these early days of radio. But in the mid-1920s, there were only about 600 stations broadcasting nationwide and, thus, there was very little interference to disrupt or degrade the signals and almost no overlapping of bandwidth. At its inception, KFKU broadcast on a wavelength of 275 meters (1090 kilocycles) by permission of the Navy Department, which regulated such issues prior to creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, the precursor to today’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established in 1933. (Incidentally, 1090 kilocycles is the functional equivalent of 1090 kiloHertz; so in today’s parlance, KFKU was originally broadcast on 1090 AM.)
KFKU’s programming that evening began with a stirring rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” followed by KU Chancellor E.H. Lindley’s official “tuning-in” announcement: “This is KFKU, the new radio station of the University of Kansas, at Lawrence.” Radio Night then commenced with a series of “short hellos” from faculty members, live vocal performances by the KU Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs and orchestral pieces by the University Band, and an introduction of athletic coaches and team captains from Dr. F.C. “Phog” Allen, KU’s director of athletics.
Near the end of the two-hour broadcast, Chancellor Lindley rose again to give the night’s “address of dedication,” titled Radio and the University. “It is probable,” he said, that “there is enough knowledge now in the possession of the few, which if shared by all people and put to work, would reduce the ravages of disease, promote health, prolong human life, and contribute to the efficiency of all. How far the radio can contribute to these educational ends remains to be seen. One cannot hope to get a college education by radio, but much can be done to stimulate and encourage the intelligent and ambitious among our people.”
Listeners might not be able to get a college education by radio, but KU was taking deliberate steps to see that the new medium served some pedagogical purpose. “One of the features of the broadcasting from KU,” wrote the Graduate Magazine, “is that a course for credit will be given over the radio,” although it “will be naturally supplemented by correspondence work. So far as is known by the radio committee of the University, this is the only course for credit given in the country at present.” The course was Educational Psychology, taught by Dr. Raymond A. Schwegler, dean of the School of Education, which began airing on January 8, 1925. KU broke ground that month again by offering the first ever foreign language course over the radio, a weekly elementary Spanish lesson taught by Prof. Arthur L. Owen of the department of Spanish.
In spite of this exciting and promising beginning, by April 1925, according to Bruce Linton, professor emeritus of journalism, theatre and film at KU, “the airwaves were jammed with competing signals [and] there were twelve stations attempting to broadcast on the same frequency as KFKU.” By December, the Kansan reported that as many as 26 other stations were operating on the 275 meter (1090 kHz) frequency. A significant casualty of this technical reality was the University’s embryonic radio extension classes, which were discontinued after less than a year.
This intense competition for bandwidth was coupled with even more intense competition for audience, and stations offering popular programming overshadowed primarily educational stations like KFKU. To attempt to solve the problem of signal interference, the Federal Radio Commission decided in October 1928 to require KFKU to share broadcast time with Lawrence’s WREN (which moved its headquarters to Topeka in 1947). This, wrote Linton, “resulted in an ever-decreasing amount of airtime. By the Fifties, KFKU was on the air only one hour per day, Monday-Friday.” As for the problem of a sparse audience base, no federal agency could provide a panacea for that. In the words of KU historian Clifford Griffin, KFKU was both “low in wattage and program quality.”
The station had enjoyed something of a resurgence in the late 1940s when it came under the direction of Frank Stockton, former dean of the Business School. According to one researcher, “In 1947, faced with the alternative of justifying its existence or leaving the air, KFKU met the challenge and was victorious.” Stockton established and chaired a Radio Advisory Council at the University and managed to secure more funding and generate more enthusiasm for the station than had any of his predecessors. “Stockton was very supportive of the radio operation,” wrote Linton, “for he believed that radio -- and also television -- could be extremely valuable in providing an educational outreach for the university.” Yet “not much could be done on KFKU with just one hour of broadcast time a day. Repeated requests to WREN for additional air time were refused by the manager, citing a significant drop in audience numbers whenever KFKU was on the air.”
In 1952, KFKU gained some powerful competition as the University established its first FM radio station, the 30,000-watt KANU 91.5. Indeed, by the late-1950s, oftentimes KFKU would merely “simulcast” whatever program was being broadcast on KANU during its hour-a-day allotment. Additionally, in October 1975, the University’s first student-run radio station, KJHK 90.7 FM, made its debut, marginalizing even further the beleaguered KFKU.
Compounding the station’s distresses, WREN eventually demoted KFKU to a paltry 30 minutes a day, and by the 1980s, WREN itself began to fall on hard times, attracting more creditors and IRS agents than actual listeners. When it finally went off the air in September 1987, the demise of KFKU seemed imminent as well. As to the idea of continuing KFKU by some other means, Dr. Max Utsler, the KU School of Journalism’s director of radio, television and film programs, told the Lawrence Journal-World that he “didn’t notice any groundswell of support from the members of my department and my bosses, and that speaks for myself as well.”
Following WREN’s collapse, KFKU’s general manager, Howard Hill (who also directed KANU at the time), formally surrendered the station’s license to the FCC. The University’s first radio station has been silent ever since.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas