Twenty candles burning do not make much of a sound for radio purposes, and that may be only fitting for the anniversary Waco public radio station KWBU-FM is celebrating Wednesday.
The station turns 20 years old, measured in on-air time, but listeners will hear the close of a three-day pledge drive meant to make up for a spring drive sidetracked by COVID-19.
Listeners also will hear some things they have continued to hear most days since then: National Public Radio news programs “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered;” “This American Life” with Ira Glass; “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross; classical music in the mornings and jazz on some nights.
And they will continue to hear the comfortable tones of station manager Brodie Bashaw, who has anchored most mornings since the former Baylor University student station flipped the switch to become the community’s public radio station.
“We’ve weathered quite a few storms,” Bashaw said. “I’m still really proud of what we as a station and we as a community have done for 20 years.”
Waco’s lack of a public radio station despite its size had been a matter of discussion in the 1990s with Dallas radio station KERA-FM and Austin’s KLRU-FM contemplating extending their signals into the Waco market.
Baylor University’s decision to take over the license of public television station KCTF in 1998 opened the door for the university to bring in public radio by converting its student station to an National Public Radio affiliate. While the university absorbed the broadcast license for KWBU-TV from the newly created Brazos Valley Public Broadcasting Foundation, the radio station’s license was a community one, managed by the foundation.
Larry Brumley, then a Baylor spokesperson and the foundation’s first president, said Waco’s status as the largest American city without public radio was a key factor in Baylor’s decision to support the station.
“It really had no competition … and NPR was popular right out of the box,” said Brumley, who is now Chief of Staff at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. “I remember Dr. Sloan (then Baylor President Robert Sloan) telling me later it was the best decision he had ever made. The students at the time were very upset about it, but I think that was an important decision that affected the quality of life in Waco.”
While some of the details of the station’s early history are fuzzy, Brumley said he clearly remembers the first day KWBU-FM went on the air, with Bashaw at the microphone.
The station started in Baylor’s Castellaw Communications Center with a somewhat robust lineup given its youth and initial listener base. Bashaw and business manager Carla Hervey remain from the original staff, though others and former interns now are on public radio stations from Kentucky to Minnesota.
KWBU now has its own building and studio on River Street adjoining the Baylor campus, broadcasts on 103.3 rather than the original 107.1 and transmits its signal from a taller, better positioned tower, the latter thanks to community-supported funding.
Core programs such as “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Marketplace” and “Fresh Air” from NPR and Public Radio International continue today. Some of KWBU’s most listened-to programs, “A Prairie Home Companion” with host Garrison Keillor and “Car Talk” with Tom and Ray Magliozzi, no longer are on the air.
Added on the way have been “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” the BBC and in recent years,”Texas Standard.”
“From my very first (ratings) book, I found the audience was younger than I thought it’d be,” Bashaw said. “And who knew that cooking programs would be so popular?”
The station has brought radio personalities including Carl Kassel, Tavis Smiley, Juan Williams, John Burnett and Wade Goodwyn to Waco. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, foiled Bashaw’s plan to bring NPR’s Korva Coleman to town in October.
Joe Riley moved from Maine Public Broadcasting to become the Brazos Valley Public Broadcasting Foundation president and CEO in 2009.
“I have felt good about this radio station from the beginning, and Baylor’s reputation made it a good place to come to,” he said.
Two decades after going on the air, the station faces a challenging year ahead. A slowly growing listener base and a federal COVID-19-related loan helped KWBU survive a cut in Baylor’s financial support in the fiscal year that ended in May, but that reduced funding will continue and at a time when the national economy struggles to regain its footing.
This week’s pledge drive is intended to compensate in part for a spring drive that was canceled because of COVID disruptions. It is a first for the station in that it will be conducted largely online.
COVID-19 is changing pledge drives, from no local volunteers manning phones for call-in contributions — no room for social distancing — to a shift in peak morning listening, no longer 6 to 7 a.m. but now 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. as many work from home.
Bashaw said a large amount of local programming produced by community leaders and volunteers has been a key part of KWBU’s ongoing operations and listener support. Riley agreed.
“We have more local programs using volunteer help than we have had in the history of the station,” he said.
Expanding the station’s listener base and financial support in the years ahead will allow KWBU to expand its staff and production abilities to do even more, Riley said.
It is the community that has formed over 20 years listening to Waco public radio that keeps Bashaw, and the station, going, she said.
“I love Waco,” Bashaw said. “I honestly love Waco, and what keeps me at this job is I know there are people counting on us.”
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