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A Look Back at The Day WKMS First Went on Air, 45 Years Ago Today

Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Today WKMS celebrates 45 years of memories, music, news and driveway moments. It was 3:28 p.m. on May 11, 1970 when the station went on air with the National Anthem from Murray State's campus. Back then the broadcast day was eight hours long and the coverage area was limited to western Kentucky with just 13,000 watts of power. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte is joined in the studio by Murray State University Library's Wesley Bolin, who discovered some of of the articles about WKMS' first day on the air while researching another project. Also in studio is George Cumbee of Paducah, who was one of the first staff members of WKMS, and present when the station signed on the air, in 1970.

When WKMS first signed on, Mr. Robert Howard, acting director of the Radio Center said, "The main reason for WKMS FM is that you can get hard rock anytime on any station, but you can't turn on your radio and hear easy listening music," according to an article found by Murray State University Libraries' Wesley Bolin, found while researching photos of student reactions from the Kent State Shooting, which happened to occur shortly before WKMS signed on air. Some of the easy listening on WKMS included the "Dutch Composers of the 20th Century," "Netherlands Church Organs," "Voices of Vista" and "Serenade in Blue." After light classical and dinner classical music, student programming began around 9 p.m., which included a program for children called "The Black American," about the role race relations played in America. 

Credit Courtesy of Wesley Bolin, MSU Libraries, Pogue Library, Murray State News
WKMS-FM Opening Ceremonies, Dr. Harry Sparks accepts the microphone from Dr. Ray Mofield, Chairman of the Department of Communications.

Another program, that had its roots from the Thoroughbred Hour (which began in 1949) was a nightly, 90-minute student production called "Melange" and later "The Voice of MSU," which featured news and information about Murray State and the surrounding community, sports, quizzes, panel discussion, interviews, as well as popular music of the time. George Cumbee was a student at Murray State University at the time (began in 1968) and sat at the console for this production, while people came into the studio to train on air. Cumbee says he learned how to splice tape working on this program.

George Cumbee was the original engineer for WKMS, when it started in the Radio Center in Wilson Hall. He got into the gig after starting school in the fall of 1968, upon graduating from Heath High School in Paducah. He was into music, played in local bands and dreamed of becoming a rock and roll musician (which he did after two years of college). He was interested in the technical side of things: building his own electronics, amplifiers, stereo systems, etc.

Credit Courtesy of Wesley Bolin, MSU Libraries, Pogue Library, The Shield
George Cumbee in the control room on June 8, 1969

Cumbee majored in Radio/TV in the Journalism department and through that got involved in the Radio Center. They saw his ability as a technician and engineer and so he jumped into doing work for the radio station. Back then, he says, there were two turntables, a board and two tape recorders. He put the rack together for the first microwave transmitter, ran coax to the business building and microwaved out to the transmitter in Farmington. They had telemetry equipment to turn the transmitter on and off through the microwave. He helped do the testing, putting music on the air to hear it, making sure everything worked before officially going on air.

For the official ceremony, Cumbee says it's likely he came back on May 11 to attend the afternoon event. Dr. Ray Mofield, considered the grandfather of the project, helped put WKMS on the air in Wilson but realized the space wasn't big enough for his vision and helped move it to the Price Doyle Fine Arts Building. Cumbee recalls covering the groundbreaking ceremony for the building, setting up a table in a yard next to Lovett with a phone line to Wilson to be either recorded or broadcast live on WNBS. He also remembers being in the room during the Board of Regents meeting where Dr. Mofield made the case for WKMS to be on air, for what it could do for Murray State University and the broader region.

George Cumbee has been in the recording and video production business his entire life and gives credit to his days at Murray State University and WKMS.

"I have to give credit to my days here at Murray because that meant so much to me as far as formulating the rest of my life. I met my wife, who I'm still married to after 45 years. We got married in June of '70, so right after this station went on the air... Two daughters and two grandchildren. It all stemmed out of here. What I in essence am to today - all started with the radio center here."

Cumbee began Audio Creations Incorporated in Paducah in 1976, later moving operations to Nashville. He's worked with WPSD and WKPD. He's toured with concert shows and television audio, Chief engineered the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia for many years. His production house evolved into Classic Recording Studios, which is currently being leased to Dolly Parton's producer: Kent Wells Productions. Her album "Blue Smoke" was recorded there last Spring. In 2011, Cumbee formed a subsidiary company known as MidCom AV, specializing in sales of audio/video equipment primarily for church, school and restaurant installations. He also enjoys flying airplanes as a hobby.

Read more about the history of WKMS

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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