Guest Opinions

Taking the time to look more deeply: 40 years of public radio in Idaho

A scene from the early days of public radio at what is now Boise State University.
A scene from the early days of public radio at what is now Boise State University. Provided by Boise State Public Radio

Most listeners know Boise State Public Radio as the home of NPR News programs such as Morning Edition, one of the most popular radio shows in the country. One of its national hosts is Idaho native Rachel Martin, who this summer shared the ups-and-downs of her 25th high school reunion with the nation, broadcasting a series of personal stories from Idaho Falls.

This is where public radio news excels. In-depth audio reports with a human touch. Hearing the sounds of places we don’t always go. Sharing the voices of people we don’t always hear. Taking its time with a five-minute story instead of a 30-second headline.

Just this year, one of its programs, Reader’s Corner with Bob Kustra, welcomed its 500th guest. There’s still a place for the half-hour radio interview, where you can find two people talking about a single topic.

But public radio isn’t just known for news. Some know Boise State Public Radio as the last refuge for classical music on their radio dial. Others are drawn to longtime local DJs Arthur Ballinger, Carl Schieder and Tamara Shapiro, who still entertain listeners the old-fashioned way: by running a needle along vinyl grooves on top of spinning tables.

Last weekend we celebrated public radio in Idaho being at the 40-year mark. About 400 people came to the open house at our headquarters on ParkCenter Boulevard along the Boise River. Former DJs and longtime fans toured the studios and a memorabilia room chock-full of old station programs, coffee mugs and, yes, tote bags. Several generations of station managers were in attendance, including Gary McCabe (1977-79), Jim Paluzzi (1987-2005), John Hess (2005-2015) and Peter Morrill (2016).

The station grew out of a radio club on the campus of Boise State University that has roots all the way back to the 1930s, when the school was Boise Junior College. In the 1960s, the student radio station was a training ground, with low-power transmissions across campus. In the 1970s, after the school became Boise State University, the station settled on the call letters KBSU. The official launch didn’t really occur until 1977, when the station first joined the FM dial as a noncommercial broadcaster. Now it was legit.

A decade later, by the mid-1980s, Boise State Public Radio had begun its transition from a 10-watt student-run college music station into a professional public radio service. The first nonstudent general manager was hired in 1986. An afternoon news program from the Christian Science Monitor was added to the slate of local DJ music sets. In 1988, KBSU expanded its signal to 19,000 watts and started purchasing national programs from National Public Radio.

The statewide network began to grow as well, with the addition of transmitters outside of the Treasure Valley. Multiple signals were added in Twin Falls, Sun Valley and McCall. Service was extended to rural outposts with transmitting sites in Stanley, Salmon and Challis.

Today two main services now originate in Boise. Classical music is heard on KBSU throughout the week on 90.3 FM, with eclectic music at night and on the weekends. A few doors down the dial, at 91.5 FM, KBSX broadcasts local and national news. The station’s 18 transmitters and translators reach about 1 million Idahoans across the state. The signals even spill over into eastern Oregon and northern Nevada.

The radio network now operates out of the Extended Studies department of Boise State University, with about 30 staff members, including students. The station is primarily funded by its listeners; about 12,000 of them donate as members each year. It holds tight to its mission of public service. And after 40 years, it still takes its time to tell a story.

Tom Michael is the general manager of Boise State Public Radio.