Written by on May 24, 2018

KCPR’s Origins AKA Burnt Dog’s Beginnings

Ella Worley (WVIT ’19) is a student assistant in Special Collections and Archives and KCPR Programming Director.

I never know where to start when I’ve compiled a lot of information. When looking at a stack of Things That Happened, it seems unfair to tell a portion of the story without taking the time to give context–read as “I want to write a book about this but it would take too much time.” Doing less feels like I’m teasing you with a tiny bite of delicious cake, while I know very well that I have many cakes in the kitchen that no one is going to eat. I do not want to be stingy with my cake–err information.

Cal Poly Radio, KCPR, is very near and dear to my heart, so I want to paint it as the important and interesting institution that I know it to be. I could easily write a blog post sensationalizing the station’s history, but that has been done so much. If you’d like to read some drama, just dig around the 1981 Mustang Dailys’ letters-to-the-editor sections. KCPR has given so many students incredible opportunities, and to some extent helped place San Luis Obispo on the map music-wise, so I thought I’d approach this like the serious topic it is. I might provide some clickbait down the line though, so keep it tuned.

Original photo from August 2, 1968 Mustang Daily, artistically interpreted by the author. Original caption reads “COLLEGE VOCAL . . . Student disc jockey monitors first night of broadcast for K C P R, the new FM educational station produced on the campus.” Photo by Olson.

KCPR was born in 1968. It was the weak-signaled child of Gary Gardner and Alan Holmes, but also of faculty and students that rallied for campus radio for close to twelve years before the first words were spoken on 91.3FM. Small sidebar: legend has it that the first words spoken on air were “Is thisthe damn switch?!” but recently I came across an archived version of KCPR’s year 2000 website that claims the first words on air were “How the helldo you turn this thing on?” So needless to say, I’ve started taking KCPR lore with a grain of salt. The general idea is there, but facts and figures are all jumbled up. I attribute that to the fact that KCPR history has never been written down. This year, for KCPR’s 50th birthday, we’ll work towards changing that. End of sidebar. Before the beginning of KCPR is where I’d like to start. Context for the context!

The earliest mention of radio at Cal Poly that I’ve found was in a copy of El Mustang (AKA Mustang Daily, AKA Mustang News) from April 10th of 1947. The article is about a pre-Poly Royal radio show to be aired on KVEC through Mutual Broadcasting systems. The show, having a 40 person cast from out of town and being broadcasted live in front of “several thousand townspeople” on the athletic field, is eons away from being campus radio. However, the event proved that radio was considered important by the townspeople of San Luis Obispo who attended the event and by the administration who presumably shelled out big bucks to fly in 40 cast members and accomodate the show (“El Mustang, April 10, 1947”). The people clearly craved radio.

Sadly, Cal Poly was unable to deliver radio programs at that time, but it did have a student-run radio that wasn’t concerned with public broadcasting. In 1950, El Mustang mentioned the station W6BHZ. It broadcasted on “low frequency over amateur bands,” and seemed to be used for communication with other stations such as JA8RO in Japan, LU1KB in Argentina, UA8CK in Russia, as well as others in the states (“El Mustang, March 31, 1950”).

Two years later, electronics students Dillon and Laird (no first names found) began planning for a campus station that would broadcast entertaining and educational programming to the entire student body. After a year of hard work, the station was up and broadcasting to about three dormitories between the hours of seven and ten (probably PM). Dillon and Laird had dreams of joining an intercollegiate system of radio stations and keeping the station student owned and operated to ensure free participation from the student body (“El Mustang, January 23, 1953”). This is our proto-KCPR! However, it was missing administrative approval and funding, which are essential for operation. That station had only one mention in the paper, so its fate is unknown to me at this time.

Four years of silence ensued in print, maybe not on the airwaves, until electronics junior Gorgon Browning debuted RVOP (Radio Voice of Poly) in 1957 (“El Mustang, January 22, 1957”). Following the unveiling of his plan, Browning sought approval from administration to broadcast programs to the entire campus. Twist–his station was technically not a station, but a closed-circuit system that transmitted through the campus electrical system. Benefits of this bizarre system included low cost (crucial when you’re granted a small sum of $315 to make a radio station and form a radio committee) and ability to reach the entire campus with the broadcast (a weak FM signal would only reach a portion of students, so this was desirable in the event of an emergency). The proposal contained the call letters KCP (so close!) and dreams of two-and-a-half-hour nightly broadcasts of campus news and music (“El Mustang, April 5, 1957”). Articles of the application process span 1957 and 1958, but end abruptly before 1958 Poly Royal. Without receiving approval from Cal Poly or the FCC, and with increased hopes of eight-hour nightly broadcasts, the fledgling KCP disappeared from our campus newspapers for years (“El Mustang, February 28, 1958”).

Radio resurfacing looked a little different in 1964: the radio committee (formed with the aforementioned $315) made its first appearance in El Mustang in six years like it never missed a beat! A whole new cast of characters populated the committee, but they were still proposing a closed-circuit system. This time, however, they wanted a $2,000 budget in addition to approval. Why not an FM system this time? Committee chairman Malcolm Kemp said that FM signals are too expensive to start up and take too long to receive approval from the FCC (I find this reason funny since they took six years to re-propose the closed-circuit system). Radio owners, do not dismay! The system would be able to be picked up by AM radios located a “few yards” from the electrical system (“El Mustang, March 3, 1964”). No articles celebrating approval followed. Go figure.

In 1966, we start getting to the good stuff. A new proposal was made by student chairman James Long and faculty advisor Glenn Smith, which scrapped the closed-circuit idea entirely and advocated for a full-fledged FM signal. What the proposal lacked in cost-effectiveness, it made up for in professional presentation. Inclusion of the station in the English–Speech Department’s curriculum seemed to be a successful selling point. The proposal also emphasized the importance of having a means of immediate communication throughout the campus (“El Mustang, October 14, 1966”). After almost three years of deliberation, in 1968, the station was approved and the call letters KCPR were assigned. However, the roadblocks didn’t end there. As part of what seems like a cruel joke, the same front page of Mustang Daily that celebrated KCPR’s approval also shared information about the unexpected death of its faculty advisor, Glenn Smith (“Mustang Daily, April 17, 1968”).

Mourning their loss, finding a new faculty advisor, acquiring a used transmitter from UCSB, setting up the station, staffing the station, and planning the programming took about four months. On August 2, 1968, KCPR made its debut on 91.3FM in mono (that’s right–only one ear), reaching only part of campus with its 1.8 watts of power. The programming began an hour later than expected, leaving time for station engineers to test equipment and proclaim the legendary “Is this the damn switch?” or “How the hell do you turn this thing on?” The first announcement aired (before technical difficulties shut the signal off for the night) was “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another full evening of pleasurable listening. This is campus radio, 91.3 megahertz on your FM dial, educational FM for San Luis Obispo, broadcasting with 1.8 watts of power. Our transmitter is located on Radio Hill on the Cal Poly campus with studios located on Perimeter Road in the Graphic Arts Building, Room 201. We hope you enjoy tonight’s program.” Following that, Kennedy went on air to dedicate the station and the first program was “A Look into the Life of Dr. Robert E. Kennedy”(“Mustang, August 2, 1968”). A wholesome end to the founding and beginning to the maintaining of KCPR, Cal Poly Radio.

I lied, there’s no clickbait this time, but thanks for tuning in.

(KCPR on the front page of the Mustang Daily, September 30, 1968)


Read more on 1960sand1970sCalPoly, cal poly history, kcpr, and university archives.

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