‘We’re live, we’re local’: Kansas Public Radio marks 70 years on the air

October 2, 2022 3:33 am

Shown here in the 1970s, James Seaver debuted his music program, “Opera Is My Hobby,” on KANU days after the station began broadcasting in 1952. The program ran until Seaver’s passing in 2011, making it Kansas Public Radio’s longest-running program. (Kansas Public Radio)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions.

With all of the stressful forces rocking the world today, how do you deal with it all?

Where do you turn as you look for ways to maintain a sense of stability, sanity and community? Who do you trust as a reliable source of news and information?

When I roll out of bed in the morning, one of my first moves is to tune in to public radio — Kansas Public Radio, to be specific. I like to be informed about what’s going on in the world and hear from familiar voices as I make the coffee and start the day.

I remember at one point, many years ago, this morning ritual enabled me to move through a difficult time when I felt a bit isolated. Listening to my “friends” on the radio as they proceeded with one of their periodic membership drives helped me feel connected in a way that lifted my spirits and reminded me of the larger community to which I belong.

I wonder how many others may feel the same way.

Judging from the comments read on the air during the “Fall Fanfare” KPR just conducted, I’m not alone. Listeners from all over eastern Kansas (and beyond, thanks to the internet) expressed appreciation and noted the affinity they feel for the station.

They seem to feel as though they have a personal relationship with the folks who serve as announcers, program hosts and reporters, both locally and nationally. Those who tune in on Saturday mornings, for example, are accustomed to hearing the familiar voice of Scott Simon hosting “Weekend Edition Saturday” from National Public Radio.

KPR’s Laura Lorson, the local host of “All Things Considered” on weekday afternoons, described Simon’s voice as “calm and consistent.”

“You wake up, you hear Scott — all’s right with the world,” Lorson observed during a recent pledge break she co-anchored with J. Schafer, KPR’s news director, who noted that those who take a job with the station tend to hang around for a while.

Schafer himself has been there for 27 years and Lorson has been there more than 20, having previously worked for NPR in Washington, D.C. She found herself in conversation with Scott Simon on his show back in 2015, when he quizzed her about winning a spot as a contestant on “Jeopardy,” which made her a bit more of a local celebrity.

“I am consistently struck by how much KPR is a part of the fabric of the community,” Rex Buchanan, a former director of the Kansas Geological Survey and KPR commentator, told me. “People really rely on it. And they really care about the people who work there.”

Production engineer Chuck Smith works in the Kansas Public Radio Live Performance Studio. (Kansas Public Radio)

If you are a regular listener, you know that KPR is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. According to the history cited on KPR’s website, its signal first hit the air at 1:45 p.m. on Sept. 15, 1952. Its original call letters, which still identify the transmitter located in Lawrence, were K-A-N-U.

In September 1987, KANU staged an event marking its 35th anniversary with a live broadcast from South Park in Lawrence. It was a warm, sunny afternoon with a relaxed audience reclining on the grass or sitting comfortably in lawn chairs. I was there to gather footage for a story that would air in the first season of “Sunflower Journeys.”

Dan Crary, a guitar picker well-known to fans of the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, was among those who performed that day. Back in the early 1970s, he hosted a bluegrass show on KANU.

Crary’s music seemed so upbeat and quintessentially Kansas to me that I selected his rendition of “Cotton Patch Rag” as the original theme song of “Sunflower Journeys” when it hit the air a few months later.

During the broadcast that day, Howard Hill, station manager at the time, presented Dick Wright with a distinctive, cathedral radio as a special token of appreciation for his many years of service to the station.

Wright had been hired as the station’s music librarian in December of 1956, hosting a new program called “The Jazz Scene” beginning in 1959, which he continued to produce for 28 years. Like others who would follow, he developed a special relationship with those who listened to him on the radio.

“The nicest letters I get,” he told me, “are when people say, ‘We think of you as one of our family. We get up every Saturday morning and listen to “The Jazz Scene” … and you’re part of our family.’ That’s a great feeling!”

In tribute to Wright after his death in 1999, KPR honored his memory by creating the Dick Wright Legacy Society as a way of encouraging more substantial and long-lasting contributions to the station, acknowledging the enduring relationship he had with the community.

Many longtime listeners also remember the weekly program called “The American Past,” hosted by University of Kansas journalism professor Calder Pickett. Mixing narration with songs and movie clips of various eras, Pickett produced more than 1,500 shows over 32 years, garnering a Peabody Award for “meritorious service to journalism” along the way before his final broadcast on Christmas Day of 2005.

When he died eight years later, the Lawrence Journal-World ran a feature story referencing his popularity among students as well as his contributions to journalism, quoting what he had to say about his simple, straightforward motivation.

“I think people should do something good in the world when they can,” he said. “I felt that way with teaching, and I felt that way with the radio program.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude to the memory of Pickett. He provided guidance and encouragement as one of my advisers at KU, teaching me a few things about interpretive writing along the way. I especially appreciate that thought he expressed when he wrapped production on his radio show: “People should do something good in the world when they can.”

The longest-running program on the station, however, began four days after KANU went on the air in 1952, when another KU professor — James Seaver — introduced “Opera is My Hobby,” which ran until his death in 2011 at the age of 92.

Former station director Janet Campbell referred to him as “the epitome of a gentleman.”

“When talking with (Seaver),” she said, “even if you weren’t an opera fan, you walked away a devotee as he just exuded with joy when talking opera.”

“Retro Cocktail Hour” host — and Kansas Public Radio program director — Darrell Brogdon appears at the program’s 25th anniversary concert featuring the Waitiki 7 this year. (Kansas Public Radio)

Program director Darrell Brogdon now approaches a similar degree of longevity as Dick Wright, Calder Pickett and James Seaver, reaching his 40th year of service at KPR this year. In between his on-air stints during the live broadcast from South Park in 1987, I asked him to share some of his thoughts about the station.

“We are doing an awful lot of live radio,” he told me. “The station has put a lot of support behind doing that kind of radio. It’s also a way to reach out into the community and offer things to the public, other than just playing records on the radio.”

Although Brogdon has played quite a lot of records on his “Retro Cocktail Hour” program over the years, he also played a key role in the increased production of live broadcasts, including “The Imagination Workshop” (subsequently named “Right Between the Ears“), which began with broadcasts from the Lawrence Arts Center in 1985.

As the station has continued to expand its offerings of live, remote broadcasts from venues such as Liberty Hall in Lawrence or from the Sunflower Music Festival in Topeka, it also has added more live broadcasts from its own performance studio.

At the same time, KPR continues to provide its weekday offerings of classical music curated by Cordelia Brown and Jeff Watson and other locally produced shows, such as “Trail Mix” and “Jazz in the Night” with Bob McWilliams, and “Jazz with David Basse.”

For many of us, however, news and public affairs remain the most important type of programming, compelling us to tune in daily. In addition to NPR’s national news broadcasts, we hear from reporters with the Kansas News Service and Harvest Public Media, collaborative ventures with which KPR is affiliated.

Among the nationally distributed programs airing on Saturday mornings is “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” a weekly news quiz with a humorous bent featuring the familiar voice of Bill Kurtis, a native Kansan from Independence.

In the early ’60s, Kurtis studied journalism at KU and then obtained a law degree from Washburn University before launching a storied career in broadcasting, which erupted when, in his part-time job as an on-air talent for WIBW-TV, he exhorted Topeka residents to seek immediate shelter from a massive tornado: “For God’s sake, take cover!”

As J. Schafer pointed out during a recent pledge break, Kurtis began his broadcasting career at KPR (although he was an announcer for a commercial radio station in Independence when he was just 16): “William Horton Kurtis was a classical music announcer for KANU back in the day.” Kurtis maintains his connection to the station by serving on its board of advisers.

“Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” host Bill Kurtis works in a radio studio early in his career. Kurtis grew up in Independence and worked at KANU. (Kansas Public Radio)

Like Kurtis, many people volunteer their services in support of the station. You can hear some of them on the air during membership drives, often sharing their motivations for engaging with the station while encouraging others to do so as well.

The importance of such support from the community grew last year, when KU, which holds the license for the station, slashed more than $200,000 from its budget as the university trimmed expenses. It was by far the largest funding reduction in the station’s history and could have had dire consequences.

“Budget cuts have threatened to bring Kansas Public Radio down,” KPR director Dan Skinner wrote in a recent communique with members, “but faithful listeners and underwriters have risen to the challenge and now provide more than 84% of our funding.”

KPR claims to have more than 100,000 weekly listeners, and it appears that more of those listeners have begun to contribute or increased their contributions since last year’s budget cut hit the station.

I should note that my wife and I are among those who have become “sustaining members” at a modest level, helping the station stabilize its budget through automatic contributions on a monthly basis. We also contribute to KCUR, the public radio station in Kansas City, since we use its services as well.

I should also acknowledge that KPR has at times aired stories that I have produced in conjunction with documentary projects. Drawing upon content generated for our documentary about the Santa Fe Trail, for example, I edited a monthly series of short stories that aired on KPR last year during the bicentennial of the trail.

That documentary featured a few of the voices familiar to KPR listeners, with Brogdon, Schafer and Lorson assuming the roles of historical characters associated with the Santa Fe Trail.

Through this and other personal interactions I’ve had with these folks and others at KPR, I can now say they truly are friends of mine and I feel a genuine bond with others in this far-flung community, thanks to a radio station that continues to be, as it identifies itself, very much live and local.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. He’s currently engaged in the production of a documentary about the local impact of a changing climate.