College Radio Cuts: Professionalism in Oklahoma, 1980s

Oklahoma’s college radio stations offered a microcosm of national trends in the 1980s. The state’s ten noncommercial FM stations—one reporter called them “towers of strength” thanks to increased wattages—left the amateur “sandbox” behind. With powerful stations emerging, including the mammoth 100,000 watts of KCSU at Central State University, nearly every Sooner could tune in to a noncommercial, college-owned outlet for jazz, classical, news and information. Universities expanded beyond the “usual” elitist, highbrow academy-affiliated audience with “culturally uplifting” fare that still included rock music and blocks of freeform. Proponents trumpeted a kind of “sonic idealism” regarding programming, particularly programs that highlighted experimental music and multi-cultural voices. But observers found that these cultural programs did not translate into larger audiences. It was nationally syndicated news and information shows that ballooned listener rates. A new model emerged. 

KGOU in Oklahoma occupied a spot on the commercial dial but maintained a noncommercial business model. In 1983, a new, primarily classical and news format drew donations and corporate underwriting. This was a reversal from 1981, when the station, loaded with $200,000 of debt, offered only thirteen hours of classical music per week, the rest dedicated to rock—leading OU’s president to label KGOU “purely parochial and patently pedestrian.” Administrative governance meant OU provided 75 percent of KGOU’s funding, but self-sufficiency increased as its reputation improved. While depending on some sixty student volunteers, a staff limited to six full-time employees, and seven part-time students, some receiving work-study funding, KGOU kept operations lean while pumping out quality programming. Journalism and Mass Communications school faculty spearheaded a committee to review the station, and despite a picket and protests by students who wanted to maintain control, KGOU joined the NPR network in 1982. 

Champions of this new model saw it as the true meaning of educational radio, heralding the format’s “sophistication.” Stations expanded listeners, and students retained hours late at night to play what they wished. “The old format trained DJs,” a journalism professor who served as general manager explained, “but that takes only a week.” Instead, “handling community events, news, a variety of types of broadcasting,” he argued, offered superior education as well as public service. And, administrators celebrated, “KGOU remains essentially a student operation,” providing professional experience. OU could be proud. But that didn’t mean students and communities were always happy.

Source: Jim Killackey, “Campus Radio Stations Have Come a Long Way Since ‘Sandbox’ Days,” Daily Oklahoman, January 16, 1983.

“Sonic idealism” from Chernonsky, “Imagining Listeners through American Experimental Music: NPR’s RadioVisions,” 230, 248.

Chris Casteel, “KGOU Shifts Format,” The Daily Oklahoman, December 27, 1982, archived https://oklahoman.com/article/2007910/kgou-shifts-format/

Joye R. Swain, “KGOU/FM 106: Carrying on a Tradition,” Sooner Magazine (Spring 1984) Vol. 4, 27–31.

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