For the last three years I have watched as the University that I know has slowly disintegrated. The Spirit of the University of North Dakota Past is walking into the sunset down University Avenue, with barely a glance over it’s shoulder to recognize all that was. So, here I am, with recollections for the days of what had been…
And one of the things that was has been KFJM radio.
KFJM’s ties with theatre actually go back many years. During Grand Forks radio’s formative years the Dakota Playmakers had a weekly radio broadcast (I don’t recall if it was 15 or 30 minutes, but it was a prime chunk of radio time in those days). Eventually they became ‘The Radio Playmakers’ and later were totally spun out of theatre to become freestanding radio talent. In 1949 Woodworth hall, the performance home of The Dakota Playmakers, burned down due to some overheated equipment at KFJM, which was also in the building. Throughout the station’s history, theatre folk have lent their voices as on air talent.
When I arrived at UND in 1990 I learned about KFJM fairly quickly. Sara Edlin-Marlowe was a faculty member in Theatre Arts at the time, and she was involved with KFJM. Also involved were some of our students, who students during the day, rehearsing in the evenings and doing air shifts at all hours of the day.
In those days the studios were in Old Science, a building built in (I believe) 1904, with the older tan brick common with the first buildings on campus. It was a half a block from Burtness, tucked back partly behind Merrifield hall, the remainder of earlier dreams of a campus layout.
KFJM had records- vinyl- massive collections of records ranging from classical to jazz and blues, to country. Take a pick of genre and they probably had it. All catalogued. All waiting to be heard. As a new sound designer those resources were like catnip. And they came with an important, even bigger, resource- people. People who knew the craft of radio and the art of music. People ready to share that knowledge.
I can’t even count the number of times that I would come over to their spaces and pick their brains. Sometimes it was while they were in the midst of their air shift, with something classical playing in the background while we were talking about the style of music that I was searching for. Talking and laughter. UND gossip. Then a hand in the air telling me to hold that thought as they would put the headset on, turn a couple of knobs, and, as the record was winding down, kick into that classic public radio voice, with something like “that was Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony Number nine, ‘From the New World’, written when Dvorak was…”. The hit of a switch, a record on a second turntable would start the next song, turn off the booth mic, and the conversation that we were having would pick up right where it left off while they cued up the next record. I would listen to what they had to tell me, trying to just keep up with the music conversation at hand, as I talked with those who I considered Masters, about the music that was their passion.
There were also the fire escape meetings, talking to the KFJM folk while sitting on the fire escapes. I usually stayed in the room, window open, whoever I was talking with sitting on the fire escape smoking, or just trying to soak up some fresh air, from their third floor perch.
It’s important to know that back then there were actually three stations, the FM station that broadcast classical, a second FM station that played more current work, much like MPR’s ‘The Current’ does today (though KFJM was years ahead), and the AM news station. All run from studios in Old Science, done on a shoestring, but done well, so well that the average listener would have no idea that the announcer for one of the music stations was actually announcing for both, juggling two completely different genres of music at the same time. It was studio ballet.
In my mind the change started twenty years ago, April 1997. As flood waters rose around Grand Forks, radio stations across the city were washed out, and KFJM’s stations opened their studios to a true community effort. KCNN provided their on air talent, KFJM their studios and transmitters, to send the message out through the region. In the days before effective internet the words coming from those stations were critical for getting information to the citizens.
After the flood budgets and attitudes changed. Key personnel left the station. It downsized and eventually moved to new studios at Cambridge. I didn’t get over as often as I wanted, mostly because of distance and changes in technology that allowed CDs and mp3s, and in more recent years, downloading music.
I do take to heart those early lessons from “the Masters”. From Mike Olson, as comfortable to talk to in real life as he is to listen to on air. From Christine Paige Diers, who, for me, was the voice of news in Grand Forks in my early UND years. From Mary Hawkins, who turned me onto allmusic.com, a single great resource for music information. From all those KFJM employee whose names I have forgotten, but whose contributions and help will always be remembered. From the many students who worked the studios and filled our stages with their talents.
The Grand Forks Herald says that the studios will soon be gone, the license sold, and nearly one hundred years of UND radio history will be silenced. This saddens me. It hurts. But Mike says that things will be alright, and I take him at his word. This week the shop will be listening to ‘Into the Music’ and guessing Mike’s mood by the eclectic tastes being heard from his sprawling playlists. And I will be thinking back and remembering some golden years of radio at UND.