KCMU 90.5 FM & Other Thoughts and Ruminations... by Dean Smokoff
It’s a Radio Station !
- or, the birth of ... KCMU 90.5!
To give this tale a little perspective - to set the table, as it were - it helps to talk a little bit about what was happening at the time. There’s been nothing like it since.
You may have heard about the Nationwide Student Strike of 1970. It affected many colleges throughout the country. The strike was to protest the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the massacre at Kent State University and other issues like civil rights and liberties. All these sentiments were mixed together in the University of Washington student protest at the beginning of May 1970 to honor the dead in Vietnam and bring home the living.
More than 7,000 UW students participated in a strike that would last throughout the month of May. The inaugural strike demonstration began at 10:30 am May 3rd in front of UW’s Husky Union Building. Striking students and faculty members overwhelmingly approved a list of demands to be presented to the UW Administration.
After a long, serpentine march through campus, the strikers arrived at the UW Administration Building about noon. UW President, Charles Odegaard, refused the strikers' demands. After that, frustrated protesters created two marches that ended up on the I-5 freeway.
The first march was on May 5. After nothing was forthcoming from Dr. Odegaard, the students voted to march en masse off campus and through the University District. I remember sitting in the undergraduate library, shocked to be seeing the incredibly long line of students.
Some 5,000 protesters reached the freeway on-ramp and spilled into the lanes of the freeway. They blocked southbound traffic for over an hour. Many motorists reportedly began honking and flashing the peace sign in approval.
The following day, a much larger group of about 10,000 strikers marched from the UW. They again occupied the freeway and this time were met with much more resistance. Police used tear gas and clubs to move the strikers from the freeway. Outbreaks of violence and peaceful protests continued to the end of the month.
Believe it or not, in the midst of all this, fifty students took over KUOW FM, the University of Washington radio station located on campus in the Communications building. Several of the protesters were from the School of Communications.
They say they took over KUOW because there needed to be an outlet for people to hear what was really going on during the strike. Apparently, all the other broadcast stations in the city had blacked out news coverage of the strike.
My friend, John Bunch, just happened to be in the Communications building when the takeover happened. Much to his dismay, the protesters told him that he couldn't leave the station and was a prisoner - for about one day.
You can imagine how ticked off the UW Board of Regents administration people were about the station takeover. What a great background and lead-in to the UW now approving a proposed student-run radio station. An FM station, KCMU 90.5, prepared to sign on the air the following year with the help of four undergraduates.
Much to my surprise, I recently found out there actually was a KCMU radio reunion in 2013. Too bad I didn't find out before the event happened. It would have been nice to have some of the people responsible for putting the station on the air there. Many of them are spread around the country now. You can find them in Washington DC, Colorado, Spokane, and many more areas. Several of the people are still local. It would be wonderful to assemble these people. They have quite a story to tell.
Everywhere the early history of KCMU radio comes up, I find that people are intrigued by the real story of how this now legendary station started out.
Front line people included; John Kean, the first station manager, Cliff Noonan, the first program director, Tory Fielder, wearer of many hats and Brent Wilcox, the engineer who helped build the control rooms and wire up all the equipment with help from John Kean.
They worked with our faculty director, Dr. Don Godfrey, to get all the license material and other FCC paperwork to permit us to go on the air.
Tom Cordry, of KZAM FM and KZOK FM fame, was our Teaching Assistant for the Communications Department broadcast students. He was Program Director and perhaps also managed KZAM, KZOK, and other stations after his time as our TA.
KCMU FM was funded as a lab for Communications majors. The first crew spent most of their time physically getting the station on the air, then creating a staff and determining the programming direction.
After they left, Paul Sands became the 2nd Station Manager and I became the 2nd program director for the year 1972. Brent Wilcox stayed on as engineer and announcer.
I remember that two of the students who took over KUOW visited us in our early days and gave us a bad time. I guess we just weren't radical enough. They probably wanted to take us over too. They were certainly adept at it.
Paul moved on to manage the news departments in several TV stations across the country. I became the next KCMU Station Manager for the year 1973 and Don (can't remember his last name) became the next Program Director.
One of the early News Directors was Val Munn. We put up the tower on McMahon Hall. That's a story in itself.
We were actually on the air now and moving fast. We developed a much expanded news staff and on-air staff. And we began closely collaborating with the UW Daily newspaper staff. The Daily supported KCMU by listing our programming line-up and doing other articles on us. I also contributed record and concert reviews for the Daily to further cement our relationship. Everyone in the School of Communications, especially the UW Daily, was very supportive of our efforts.
There are many familiar names that came through KCMU in the first two years. People like Paul Sands, Bob Branom, Cheryl Marshall, Jude Noland, Leroy Henry, Steve Lawson, Dave Drui, Steve Sandoz and many others (some last names I can't remember.) These are just a few of the people who pioneered KCMU FM. It was not true that we couldn't come up with enough shows to program after midnight. We could easily have done that. It might have been a signal conflict with other stations or something to do with our initial FCC license. I don’t think we had any people rabidly volunteering for overnight shows. Or, it might have been just a decision not to worry about overnight security and other matters. I can't remember.
There were other college student-run radio stations such as in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Of course, WSU already had a student-run radio station, with a signal that barely reached off campus - but that was all in Washington State.
We started KCMU FM as a way for UW broadcast students to have hands-on experience and training. Some of the first announcers were not Communications majors because we needed to fill positions. That completed the circle for students to get hands-on media experience; in newspaper at The Daily, in broadcast to a limited degree at KCTS Public TV and then finally, with about 2 students per quarter, in radio broadcast at KUOW FM.
On-air people I can remember from 1972-73:
I know I've missed some people. I’ll try to remember more, gather more information and update this list. There were still a lot of things for all of us to do. I took on the task of contacting all the local record distributors; Columbia, Capitol-Stan Foreman, ABC/Dunhill-Michael Alhadeff, MGM, RCA, and Atlantic - anybody I could find. They were very generous and helped supply much of the music we played.
Our broadcast day started at 2 pm with "The Student Sound - A blend of jazz, rock, folk, and easy listening, with an emphasis on today's more popular artists." This show went on until 4 pm, when "Conference Call" started. This 2 hour show featured Public Affairs on and around the University community with interviews, speakers and commentary.
“News Round UP” aired from 6 to 6:30 pm. This was Seattle’s only ½ hour of radio news, with current happening, on the local, national and international scenes.
Next, from 6:30 to 7:00 pm, the show “Array of Artists” was featured. These were “penetrating programs focusing on popular recording artists. "Array of Artists" was a daily weekday program from 6 pm to 8 pm to cover the slot leading into our evening programming. I devised these pre-recorded music shows and gave the weekly line-up to The Daily to print.
I remember artists like Eddie Cochran, Miles Davis, Hank Williams, Bette Midler, The Kinks, Muddy Waters, who recorded a live show at the HUB, Laura Nyro, Sam Cooke, Sandy Bull, Fats Domino, Stevie Winwood and Jim Page, the folk artist who played in front of the Hub and in music clubs at the time, and many more different artists.
From 7 pm to 10 pm, the program "The Student Sound Continues and Evolves" aired. What we called our “Special Shows From KCMU” ran from 10 pm to 12 midnight. Sunday was the progressive rock show with Rick Lancaster and Michael Marti called “Dining at the Evergreen Room," Monday was "Easy Jazz" with Leotis Busch, Tuesday was "100 Proof Blooze" with Tom Bowman, Wednesday was "New Releases" with Steve Sandoz, Thursday was "Sheet Kicker and Blue Grass" with Bronco Brant, Friday was “Flat Top Heaven” with Dean Smokoff and Saturday was "Sweet Soul Special" with Harrison Jackson .
Bill McClarty also did an evening show called “Nice and Easy” and Jeff Peel did another evening "Jazz Show." We even had Jim Cantu doing an evening show called “Musica De La Raza”.
KCMU had no promotion or marketing budget. We did some bumper stickers. And we relied on The Daily and word-of-mouth to let people know about us. It was amazing how many listeners did find us.
There was nothing else like us in Seattle. We broke a lot of new music. Although, a lot of our music was album-cut rock, we played all types of music.
There was no play list. We had a good, tight, little news department with many of the people going on to commercial radio station success.
Professor Don Godfrey was a huge help to us and let us find our way with his assistance. Many things were achieved at KCMU FM just because we didn't know any better.
I believe I was the first person to record Jim Page live and include an interview with the show. It was fun interviewing the progressive rock band “Family”, including Linda Lark, in their little rooms at the Holiday Inn on the Duwamish River in Seattle. They weren’t the neatest people.
When I walked into the Muddy Waters show with my reel-to-reel tape recorder, I simply asked him if I could record the show. When he found out we were a student-run radio station with a signal that wasn't very strong, he readily agreed to the taping. I remember his huge hands. It was a fabulous show.
We read all the FCC regulations and were told not to swear or any of the other radio no-no’s. Well, we never got in trouble and were never taken off the air. The freedom we had was amazing.
The first KCMU staff became very close. We had marriages resulting from our time spent together. There was many a time we’d go out at night as a group. Not everyone was twenty-one.
This was the hey-day of live music at legendary taverns like the Fresh Air and the Walrus. You could actually see many name artists for cheap. We’d dance all night and do the usual kibitzing. We loved discussing our next plans for KCMU and thinking how we could make it better. We tried to support each other as any family would.
Finally In June of 1973, it was time for me and many of the other staff members to graduate. One of the last things we did together was to drive out to the Ballard Locks, sit on the grassy bank and watch the huge barges laden with houses, heavy equipment and other supplies bound for Alaska. It was a bittersweet time.
And it was the last time I saw many of these people. We’d grown up and learned a little bit about radio.
In August, I was off to KXLE in Ellensburg for two years and my first professional radio gig. I got married in 1975 and many of my fellow KCMU'ers attended. It was great to see them again.
I worked 34 years in Washington radio... 2 years at KXLE in Ellensburg and the rest in Seattle at KAYO Country, KVI, KOMO, KBSG, KNDD and KMTT radio as part of a larger radio group under a couple of different owners.
But, I’ll never forget the time spent and people I knew at KCMU. It was incredible fun, filled with wonderful compadres, and many good memories.
Maybe this story will inspire other students to follow their own dreams. Without being too melodramatic, the time we put KCMU together was a time we felt we could do anything.
KCMU was on the air for many, many years. Lots of well-known names went through KCMU in the 70s... Steve Poole now on KOMO TV, Tim Hunter of KOMO radio and KLSY FM, John Steckler, Sales Manager of KIRO TV and KING TV... and many others I'm still researching.
KCMU was student-run for part of the time and then run by paid employees in the 80's and 90's. Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden were actually on the air at KCMU FM. KCMU helped to break bands like Mudhoney and Soundgarden. Tom Mara was one of the last station managers. Washington State ultimately decided to send most of their financial support to the School of Communications at WSU. The cuts in state college funding, they say, lead to this move. The result decimated parts of the UW School of Communications.
We had created something close to being every bit as good as the WSU School of Communications. During this time, the new alliance included a student-run newspaper and radio station, and a public TV station where at least a few students could volunteer. The budget cuts for the UW School of Communications were a huge disappointment.
The broadcast license was sold to the people who started KEXP FM, largely supported by Paul Allen. KCMU is led by Tom Mara, Tom Smith and their distinguished staff. They created a new station from the ashes of KCMU radio. KEXP FM is a fabulous station, worth listening to by anyone, and has listeners across the country and around the world.