The Early Years Of KUOW

Jan 24, 2013

KUOW recently began its seventh decade on the air in Seattle.  In the second installment of a three-part series exploring the history of KUOW, Feliks Banel takes us back to the station’s early years before pledge drives and NPR, and then on to the rise of public radio in the 1970s.

Back in the 1950s when KUOW was first broadcasting in Seattle, television was on the rise and commercial radio was reinventing itself as a vehicle for popular music. Some people had a sense that not very many listeners were tuned in to 94.9 FM.

Don Riggs began his long broadcasting career as a student broadcaster at KUOW in the 1950s. “There was a morning Seattle disc jockey who at one point said that he thought KUOW was actually hardwired into the hearing aid of a little old lady in Ballard and that was it,” Riggs said. “And we had no reason to think that he might not be right.”

This was long before National Public Radio. There was no Prairie Home Companion, no Car Talk and no All Things Considered. KUOW programming was rudimentary and the audience was small. Don Riggs says that the original KUOW studio was both.

“It was in a temporary building on campus that was a little bit bigger than your average cargo container but not nearly as charming,” Riggs said. “And the studio part was kind of stuffed into one end of it. It broadcast. It worked, but it was not at all pretty."

After just a few years in its Spartan home, KUOW moved to new facilities in the communications building at the University of Washington. Programming in those days covered a range of issues.

Bob Newman got his start in radio and was also a student broadcaster at KUOW in the 1950s. Newman went on to a TV career where he is probably best known for playing Gertrude on the J.P. Patches Show on KIRO. But he still credits KUOW for teaching him what it took to become a broadcaster.

“First of all, you walk in and shut up,” Newman said. “You learn to be quiet and you learn to read a script and another person's reading the other lines. And you learn to function in the broadcast way.”

This was KUOW’s role for its first few decades: to give student and amateur broadcasters hands-on experience and to offer an eclectic mix of programming, whether or not anyone was actually tuned in.  

KUOW offered listeners pure content five days a week, with no pledge drives and no underwriting announcements. Annual appropriations from the state of Washington, based on tuition revenue, covered station operating costs.

During the turbulent times of Vietnam and civil rights in the late 1960s, KUOW began broadcasting on Saturdays. One of the shows that premiered that first Saturday in January 1968 was Swing Years, which is now one of the longest running radio programs in Seattle.

The biggest change to KUOW came with the premiere of a new program on May 3, 1971.  That afternoon, an announcer’s voice was heard saying, for the first time, “From National Public Radio in Washington, I’m Robert Conley with All Things Considered.”

It was the first news and information program produced by the recently launched NPR.  All Things Considered brought a more thoughtful and in-depth approach to national and international news to KUOW.

It was not too long after this that the economic model of college radio began to shift. Reduced enrollment at the University of Washington meant budget cuts from Olympia. To make up the difference, KUOW held its first on-air pledge drive in March 1972. It’s a tradition that continues to this day.

Throughout the 1970s, state funding shrank and KUOW listener support grew. Successful fundraising and the popularity of NPR programming empowered KUOW and other college stations around the United States.  Many began to replace student broadcasters with professionals.

As the 1970s ended, KUOW had changed from its early “little old lady in Ballard” years. Private support had grown from $10,000 in 1972 to around $200,000 in 1980. On the air, the station had found something of a sweet spot with a mix of classical music, local news, NPR programming and shows like Prairie Home Companion.