Rocking out to KWUR
Situated in the basement of the Women’s Building, the KWUR studio is one of the most frequently visited, yet least known sites on the Washington University campus. Every day, dozens of students file into the space to broadcast their own shows to the campus community via web and 90.3 FM.
Broadcasting 24 hours a day, KWUR’s programming is not limited to music; The station also offers news and sports programming.
“Our number one goal is to facilitate free speech on campus,” senior and KWUR General Manager Kenny Hofmeister said. “We’re one of the biggest student groups where you can go and make your voice heard.”
From the beginning, KWUR has been an entirely student-run organization. KWUR’s members crafted all facets of the station, from its constitution that is dubbed the KWUR Bible, to its software called Unicron, to its training sessions and pre-Orientation program. KWUR is operated and sustained exclusively by its constituents, which helps to cultivate an internal culture and sense of pride.
The station is run as an open forum for students, offering them a way to discuss and explore topics that are not found in mainstream media, including seldom played music.
“KWUR is really unique among college radio stations in that it really does offer a very wide variety [of programming,]” said senior Andrew Warshauer, the KWUR treasurer. “One of our stated goals is to provide music for the people of St. Louis and the Wash. U. community that you cannot find elsewhere. One of our leading tenets is if you can hear it on a different radio station in St. Louis, we don’t know if we really want to be playing it.”
Sophomore Hana Toribara DJs her own music show. “One thing I noticed about St. Louis radio is that it’s remarkably homogeneous… most radio shows seem to play a lot of Top 40, a lot of smooth jazz,” Toribara said. “I’m sorry if anyone likes smooth jazz here, but I don’t really like it, and I think it’s really good to have people be able to listen to something else, anything else.”
Wash. U.’s original radio station, KFRH, was established in 1961. Despite several fund-raising efforts to combat the station’s financial struggles, including a 136-hour marathon DJ session (a collegiate record at the time), KFRH folded in 1974. KWUR was born two years later on July 4, 1976, and has been a large part of the campus community ever since.
“KWUR has had a lot of ups and downs in its history, periods of time where it was accepted by the larger student body, and periods of time where it was definitely a more underground scene,” Warshauer said. “It’s gone through several different kinds of changes in its formatting, meaning what type of music it’s been directed to play—at one point it was a jazz station. It’s really changed over time, but it’s been around consistently…barring a couple of instances where there was either physical damage to the station or some trouble with the administration.”
Since 1976, KWUR has broadcast on 90.3 FM using a tiny 10,000-milliwatt signal. The KWUR transmitter sits atop the Olin Library, and the signal reaches only a mile beyond the Danforth campus. KWUR has appealed to the FCC several times to increase its broadcasting signal to 100 watts, but the appeal has never been approved. To put this into context, city-wide radio stations usually broadcast on 10,000 to 100,000-watt signals.
To compensate for the lack of wattage, KWUR is now streamed online so that shows can be listened to live around the country.
“It’s fun if you get all of your friends to listen,” Toribara said. “My friend Chris called me from Tufts during my radio show, on the KWUR line, and we chatted for a long time in the middle of my show.”
KWUR also works to integrate itself into the Wash. U. and St. Louis communities. On the campus side, the station rents out audio equipment to student groups and also DJs all of the College Programming Council’s Happy Hours. Within St. Louis, the station works with artists to support the local music scene. DJs bring in St. Louis artists to the station for live “Stack Sessions” and participate in community events such as St. Louis Open Streets. The station also hosts KWUR Week in the spring, putting on shows and events for students on campus.
Ultimately, KWUR functions like most student groups at Wash. U. It creates a close-knit community for students with a common passion and provides them with an outlet to express this passion. For some members, the bond formed with their listeners and fellow DJs makes involvement enjoyable. For others, it’s something greater.
“It’s more about the community. That’s what I care about,” Hofmeister said. “I feel like it’s easy to get caught up in yourself on campus, like, ‘here’s what I’m doing’—and that’s obviously a part of KWUR, but the ultimate end is not about one person. It’s not about me, it’s not about a particular DJ, it’s about contributing to the KWUR community as a whole and, by extension, the Wash. U. community, the St. Louis community and beyond.”