Then & Now: KSUA
Raechyl Huisingh/ Sun Star Reporter
Jan. 28, 2014
Students, local DJs and hundreds of balloons crowded in the Pub to celebrate KSUA’s 20th birthday last Friday.
The birthday celebration commemorates 20 years as a noncommercial station. However, the path to get to where the station is now, stretches back more than 50 years and brings back nostalgia for the alumni who worked there.
The first radio station at UAF began in 1962 when a group of students started KUCA, Alaska’s first non- commercial FM station. Ten years later, KMPS- AM started. The station could only be heard on campus and played student-ran shows.
Glen Anderson started working for the radio station his freshman year of college in 1981 and remembers what it was like before the use of modern recording equipment, digital files, microphone processors and transmitters.
“I remember putting my whole heart and soul into my set for maybe three people on campus, but it was great,” Anderson said. “We could play anything we wanted.” After 22 years of broad- casting to campus, KMPS decided it was time for a change. In 1984, they received their Federal Communications Com- mission license to become a commercial station under a new name, KSUA FM 103.9.
The first song to play on the new station was “FM (No Static at All)” by Steely Dan, according to Anderson.
The commercial days of the station were an “experiment doomed for failure,” according to the KSUA website.
However, for the students working for the station, it was an exciting time. Despite heavy criticism from larger commercial stations, KSUA became the most popular station in Fairbanks.
“At the time we were told it was a stupid idea to take a college radio station commercial and try and compete with real radio stations; but we not only did it anyway, we became the number one station in town,” Anderson said.
“We had a sales staff, crazy promotions and we did it all while playing The Clash, Lou Reed and then barely known bands like REM and U2.” KSUA used fun and edgy marketing techniques that won over the hearts of the golden heart city.
While larger stations were raffling off shiny new cars, KSUA was hosting huge events and even raffled off a car of their own – a 1972 Ford Thunderbird painted with house paint with the station’s logo on the side. While the station was taking off commercially, the staff dealt with many obstacles that competing stations didn’t.
Jeremy Vermilyea, who is now a construction lawyer and partner with the Pacific Northwest law firm Schwabe, remembers what it was like working for KSUA during its commercial time.
“Back then we had very limited technology,” Vermilyea said. “We still regularly played music on turntables. Our CD players were often just the cheapest portable unit that we could afford. We played commercials and other announcements on antiquated CART machines that regularly broke down. Our sound board was held together with spit and bailing wire. So we had a lot of challenges that our competitors did not.”
These challenges began to take a toll on the station and despite its popularity, the station’s good fortune began to take a downturn in the late 80s. At the start of 1993, the station went off-air due to financial struggles.
By the end of 1993, a bill was passed through the Associated Students of the University of Alaska Fairbanks to turn KSUA back into a noncommercial station dedicated to educational use for the university. KSUA came back on air under new management, with new equipment, a volunteer staff and a new frequency- 95.5 FM. The station reopened with the same song it shut down with: Pearl Jam’s “Alive.”
“To this day, hardly a TV or radio station in Fairbanks has not been shaped or effected by KSUA alumni,” Anderson said. Many former employees and volunteers went on to be staples in local broad- casting. Glen Anderson is currently the Operations Manager at Last Frontier Media and hosts the KWOLF show “Glenner in the Morning.”
Jerry Evans, a former KSUA jockey, is now the Operations Manager at KUAC. Max-morn ing man, PD at WILD 94.3, and Rocky Barnette at 101.1 Magic FM are both proud alumni.
“Looking back, I owe everything I do now to those days with my friends at KSUA,” Ander son said. “It is awesome to see them still rolling. It’s just sad that they are calling it the ‘20th birthday’ and completely over looking those innovative days in radio that made the station what it is today.”
Today, KSUA is still run by UAF students, and things have changed quite a bit since 1984. The topics of shows range from sports to electronic music to dutch hip-hop. Some of the shows airing on KSUA today are Emotional Celery, The Mint, Musical Gumbo, History of Drunks, and even a show completely dedicated to The Grateful Dead hosted by one of UAF’s physics professors, Dr. Channon Price.
Every year the station wins several Goldie Awards at the Alaska Broadcasting Association Awards, and just last year, the station was awarded an MTV music award for best college radio station in the country. There are even rumors of a possible documentary TV show about the station.
“We have been working closely with the higher administration and public relations on campus now for a few months and it is still just a possibility,” said Brady Gross, the current General Manager of KSUA.
“We are working with a studio in Hollywood that approached us that was really interested in the concept of college radio… Pretty soon they will be coming up here to film a pitch, and then they will see if any networks are interested in taking on the show.”
While KSUA has accomplished a great amount in the last 20 years as a non- commercial station, lets not forget those who were brave enough to push the envelope and blaze the trail for all students working in broad- casting today.
“KSUA was a grand experiment as a commercial station and when it was working it was incredible.” Vermilyea said. “I’m very proud and humbled that I got to be a small part of it.”
“Then and Now” is a series that explores life at UAF now compared to the early 80s.”