After 73 years on the air, radio station 89.5 KEWU -FM is set to shut down at the end of the year.
Eastern Washington University’s announcement this week of its plans to close the university-owned and -operated jazz radio station spurred some confusion and disappointment among listeners and students. University leaders wrote that the decision “did not come lightly,” and arose from a “changing media landscape.”
“The move has the support of program faculty and university administrators, who recommend Eastern will be best served by looking at new broadcasting opportunities in the future,” reads an announcement written by university spokesperson David Meany.
Moving forward, the university plans to look into “other broadcasting options, such as involving students with podcasting, or other creative forms of communication,” wrote EWU Provost Jonathan Anderson.
Answers remained unclear surrounding the fate of the station’s frequency license.
In a phone interview, Meany said he didn’t “have any news” to report on whether EWU would sell the station’s frequency, keep it and create a new station or forfeit it to the Federal Communication Commission. The station costs the university just more than $115,000 to run annually, Meany said. That amount doesn’t include licensing.
“It’s not like we’re realizing these huge savings,” Meany said. “It literally is just kind of time for a new era.”
Originally called KEWC, the station first broadcast a 10-watt signal on April 7, 1950 into the airwaves of the campus of what was then called Eastern Washington College of Education . The station operated as a free-form, student-led station and mainly played classical music and local history commentaries, according to the Spokane Historical Project.
The Spokesman-Review’s Feb. 19, 1979, edition indicated that at the time, two other student-led stations still functioned at EWU. First-day freshmen were allowed to take control of KEWC – a station that only played into the dormitory speakers on campus.
More experienced students at the time were handed the reins of KEWC-FM, the 10-watt, non-commercial station.
In 1979, there were 323 students enrolled in EWU’s radio-TV program, Spokesman-Review staff writer Dale Goodwin wrote.
In 1986, the university increased the station transmitter’s output up to 10,000 watts. That year, the station changed its call name to KEWU and switched to playing exclusively jazz music – both recorded and live-band sessions.
The radio-TV program eventually dissolved into EWU’s film & digital media bachelor program.
EWU alumna Shannon Muir Broden graduated in 1994 with degrees in radio-TV and English. She said KEWU was a “formative” part of her experience growing up in the Cheney community and attending the university.
“I didn’t see it coming, let’s put it that way,” she said of the closure. “And I have a feeling I’m not alone.”
‘It never recovered’
Aiden Cook, a senior at EWU, has worked at KEWU the past couple years and is one of the students in charge of helping close the station. He said the station’s closure is “a real shame.”
“I really wish that the university would make the effort to actually keep it running,” Cook said. “It doesn’t seem like they want to put in the effort or hire the people to put in that effort. But at the same time, I understand why they would cut something like this.”
Cook believes the radio station is leftover from when the university had its radio-TV program, adding that the station hasn’t done much to serve the student arts department.
“It never recovered from the onset of the COVID pandemic,” Cook said. “Management was really hands-off, and I think it really didn’t meet its potential in the past few years – as sad as that is to say.”
Cook, who is pursuing majors in music technology and electrical engineering, said he is one of four EWU students who currently work at KEWU.
KEWU program director Elizabeth Farriss has worked at KEWU since 2004. She was twice named the Best Small Market Jazz Programmer by Jazz Week Magazine in 2005 and 2009.
EWU music program director Jodi Graves said it would be sad to let go of KEWU, but that at the same time, it would be an opportunity to get creative and try something new, such as podcasting and producing live recordings.
“I really appreciate the tradition and the legacy of the radio station for Eastern,” Graves said. “But I look forward to other ways that we can really feature our students moving forward. … I think we need to serve students more than what perhaps the radio station was able to do.”
‘A public safety issue’
Fred Jacobs, president of media consulting and research company Jacobs Media Strategies, said the potential loss of KEWU is “unfortunate.” Jacobs has worked with several public radio stations run by universities over the years.
“They really run the gamut,” he said. “There are some universities that really lean into their radio stations and support them, and there’s others where there’s just a lot of questions: Why do we own a radio station? What are we doing?”
Jacobs speculated the university could get a “good hunk of change” if they sold their radio frequency license, and that whoever is calling the shots likely no longer sees radio as “hip” or part of the university’s mission.
KEWU enjoys a strong signal throughout Spokane County and well into Kootenai County, including in Coeur d’Alene, according to radio-locator.com.
In the United States, Jacobs said 90% of the population listens to the radio every week, while the podcasting audience is less than half that size.
“There was a very telling line in the release about how they ‘want to get into some other kind of broadcasting like podcasting,’ ” Jacobs said. “Podcasting is not broadcasting. There’s nothing broad about podcasting, unless you’re Joe Rogan.”
If the university sells the frequency license, there’s a good chance it will go to a religious broadcast of one kind or another, Jacobs said.
“The biggest buyers of nonprofit radio stations over the past couple years in the United States have been Christian broadcasting giants, such as EMF and Family Life Radio,” he said.
In June, Family Life Radio bought Detroit’s 93.1 FM WDRQ country station for $10 million.
In the event of natural disasters, shootings and other crises, radio stations have served as crucial disseminators of information when the internet goes down or evacuees need to access information while fleeing from disasters.
Some car companies recently indicated they did not want to continue building AM radio capabilities into their vehicles, sparking conversations of public safety and the future of radio.
“The radio broadcasting industry really woke up after that,” Jacobs said.
Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate calling for an AM radio to be built into every new vehicle that rolls off a U.S. assembly line.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has played a large role in advocating for that bill, Jacobs said.
“What just happened in Maui? The cell towers and WiFi went down real quick,” Jacobs said. “The radio station infrastructure is robust. Almost all those stations remained on the air throughout the wildfires. There’s no question it’s a public safety issue.”
The situation with KEWU reminded Jacobs of the planned shutdown of Seattle station KPLU several years ago. When KPLU announced it was closing, a community of listeners began crowdfunding and raised $7 million to save the station. In 2016, KPLU became independently licensed and changed its name from KPLU to KNKX, which stands for “Connects.”
Jacobs added that the finite number of radio frequencies in existence make the media format a scarce resource.
“You and I – if we had enough funding – could start a newspaper tomorrow,” he said. “There’s only a certain number of licenses that are available here. To me, the question comes down to what’s the best programming a station can put out there that’s going to make a difference for our community?”