MANKATO — Ten watts.
That's how KMSU Radio got started. On Jan. 7, 1963, the non-commercial, educational FM station got its start at Old Main with a group called the Radio Guild — broadcasting classical and popular music and discussion and news shows, much like today, said general manager Jim “Gully” Gullickson.
Several changes of venue, a few decades and thousands of watts later, KMSU 89.7 “The Maverick” is celebrating its 50th anniversary year Saturday at Minnesota State University.
“In the early days they did a variety of things. The old KMSU is probably more like today,” Gullickson said. “It's block programming. It's appointment radio.”
Since the 1930s, a partnership had existed between the then-called Mankato State Teachers College with students producing radio shows through KYSM to give them a chance to learn about broadcasting.
John Hodowanic was director of informative services and operations manager of Radio Guild, and he is credited for starting KMSU to both service the college campus and the community. When the station was finally up and running, Hodowanic became the first station manager.
One of KMSU's first big broadcasting moments came its first year on Nov. 22, 1963, said Karen Wright, operations director. George Dewey was playing some lunchtime music when student manager Dick Ulland handed him a news bulletin to announce live.
“It was that John Kennedy was shot,” Wright said. “He said, 'Oh my God, what did I just say?' Everybody was in the student union listening.'”
Over the years, the station changed and evolved with the times, and Gullickson said “the heydays” were in the 1980s. During the era, MSU President Margaret Preska proved to be a strong advocate for KMSU.
The station saw more funding, bought a 3,000-watt transmitter and a new antenna. It became a National Public Radio member and put out a monthly newsletter, the Monitor.
In 1982, the station increased its power to 20,000 watts and installed a 400-foot-tall radio tower near Gage Complex. The greatly expanded reach of the signal transformed its audience.
“Before, they said on a good day the signal could reach St. Peter,” Gullickson said.
The 1980s also saw KMSU's reputation in the community change from a student station to one that served south-central Minnesota and was managed by professionals.
Some of its longest running programs also began in that decade: the “Master Gardener Show” with Barb Lamson and Ronnie Burton; Herb Kroon's “Best of Broadway”; and Mark Halvorson's blues music shows.
“They were flush with funding and with staff,” Gullickson said. “They had the ability to do some amazing stuff.”
After moving into its current location in the Alumni Foundation Center in 1989, the 1990s proved much more difficult for the station. Tightening budgets made KMSU an easy target for university cuts, Gullickson said, and it found itself fighting to stay afloat with tens of thousands of dollars cut from the budget.
In 1995, Gullickson said “things got really dire” when the administration intended to give the station's license to Minnesota Public Radio. But MSU President Margaret Preska stepped in and saved the station, Wright said.
These days KMSU offers a variety of programming, which still includes Halvorson's blues shows, as well as a morning show with a solid following called “Shuffle Function,” co-hosted by Tim Lind and Shelley Pierce. It has two full-time staff and more than 50 volunteers.
Just like in the beginning, students are involved in operational duties and the Southern Minnesota News Project, among other things. And with the advent of live-streaming on the web, Wright said the station gets calls from listeners around the world.
“It's just kind of cool to know people are out there listening,” she said.
At a glance A 50th anniversary celebration will be held Saturday in the Centennial Student Union Ballroom, MSU, featuring John Hodowanic, who started KMSU; Dick Ulland, the station's first student manager; and George Dewey, an original student announcer. There will be a 6 p.m. social hour and a dinner and program at 7 p.m. KMSU student intern Chris Houck compiled a 50-year history of the radio station that will be available at the event. Tickets are $25, and reservations must be made ASAP. Call 389-3235 or for more information, visit https://www.mnsu.edu/kmsufm/ or call KMSU at 389-5678.