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SPR Believes in Variety

Back to History of Spokane Public Radio

Although KPBX's roots are firmly planted in that South Hill basement, the organization known as Spokane Public Radio marks its birthday as January 20, 1980. It is KPBX's debut as a true National Public Radio member station, and the first date most of its anxious supporters heard its voice for the first time.

Margaret May Ott, a piano professor who has come to the KPBX studios many times, said she was excited for Spokane's children. "Many have little opportunity to hear great music, and so when you try to teach this, they have no idea what it means, It's not in their experience. Now we have the whole history of music here! It's one of the most musical events in the city," she said.

Today, although SPR has three stations on the air, technology has dramatically changed, and programs have come and gone, much about KPBX remains the same. Before going on the air, KPBX developers promised a cultural service to Spokane-area radio listeners, playing classical, jazz, and other music that reflected world traditions. Public radio for Spokane would also offer national and international news programs, developing background on the news of the day. Local reporters would bring the same kind of perspective to issues important to the "Inland Empire."

Most listeners would say KPBX lives up to that promise. Keeping a variety of programming has never been easy. In 1980, board member Ron Miller said the biggest myth KPBX had to confront was that most people thought public radio should be a classical station. "They don't expect variety," he said. Today, some listeners continue to bolster their favorite aspect of KPBX, asking for perhaps more classical, less talk. For decades, public radio stations throughout the country have bowed to niche programming, narrowing their focus, becoming all-classical, or just news and jazz services. Yet most KPBX listeners include a wide variety when listing off their "favorite programs."

"The station believes in offering a balance of programs," said former General Manager Dick Kunkel on the event of the 20th anniversary in 2000. "We broadcast the major arts that are not serviced by commercial radio. Both the national and local programming are professionally done, produced by people of high artistic reputation. And we have not seen or heard anything that would compel us to move away from that mission."

National Public Radio began in 1970 precisely to provide that kind of variety. Commercial radio has always appealed to the broadest audience possible, leaving special interests off the air. As KPBX's first general manager, Marvin Granger, explained, NPR is committed to cultural integrity. "We can play music which is 'culturally important but commercially weak' in nature, such as chamber music and contemporary experimental music. It's one of the few places creative people gain exposure," he told Spokane Magazine. But even so, Granger admitted then what all public radio stations today know. "There's always some financial pressure, even with listener-supported radio. There are the inevitable situations where people say, 'Play what I like or I'll withdraw my support.' This variety is the exact opposite of commercial radio, where success depends on being absolutely predictable...the same sound-the same time. That is why there can be 14 different types of rock stations. Nobody wants to be surprised. Research shows that teenagers expect absolute consistency in their music and will simply change stations if you do anything different. In many ways, adults do the same thing, and public radio is a direct challenge to that."

"People need to learn how to listen to public radio," then-board member Shelly Kuney said in 1980. "We have to look through the program guide and decide what meets our needs and remember that Radio Reader or San Francisco Opera is on at a certain time." Back when KPBX broadcast 18 hours a day, the mix consisted of 43 percent classical music, 24 percent news and public affairs, 16 percent jazz. The other 17 percent included folk music, drama, and literature performances (such as Dick Estell's Radio Reader), art and information and children's programming.

As of 2014, the mix is the same, although the percentages had changed. KPBX currently airs 24 hours a day, with the BBC World Service taking the overnight hours. Taking the same 18 hours a day that KPBX broadcast in 1980, today's numbers work out roughly to news at 36 percent, classical at 30 percent, 14 percent jazz and blues, and 20 percent folk, arts, and world music. "That is a conscious thing," said Program Director Verne Windham. "We do encourage suggestions, and we do make small changes. We've allowed KSFC to be all news and information programming, but we have a commitment to keeping that balance of the arts and news."