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WKMS History

Authored by former WKMS Intern Katie Villanueva (Beginning-2007, for a JMC graduate class), WKMS News Director (formerly New Media & Promotions Coordinator) Matt Markgraf (2007-Present)

Looking for historic photos of WKMS? See them on Facebook.

On Sounds Good, May 11, 2015, Kate Lochte speaks with George Cumbee - the first engineering director for WKMS about the station signing on air and MSU Libraries Wesley Bolin about some of the first programming. Hear the conversation.

The Beginning

In 1948 WNBS owner Chuck Shuffett gave the Murray State drama department an hour a week to broadcast plays adapted for radio.[1] It wasn’t until October 4, 1949 the first broadcast from Murray State College was heard with Murray State College on the Air. The college studio from which was broadcasted consisted of a hand-made control board located in the old economics room on the third floor of Wilson Hall.

The title of the show would change in the 1950s into The Thoroughbred Hour and broadcasted nightly half-hour segments. The content changed from radio plays to campus information. The Thoroughbred Hour was under the direction of Charles Henry Stamps through the use of a telephone line.[2]

In 1962, The Thoroughbred Hour’s staff was split into an audio department and into a technical department under the direction of a student program director and a student chief engineer. In the early 1960s a news department was added emphasizing on in-depth–on-the-spot reporting for the southwestern Kentucky area. In 1964 an official station manager, program director and engineer was instituted and The Thoroughbred Hour. Also in 1964 special broadcasts came into being with the Homecoming Parade. The Thoroughbred Hour was extended into full our segments Monday through Friday and two hours on Sunday in 1965. During this year live broadcasts expanded and included broadcasts from the Auditorium, the Student Union Building, freshman basketball games, Dr. Wood’s Twentieth Year Banquet, and the Quad-State Band and Choral Festivals. The Thoroughbred Hour Tape Library was formed in 1966. It provided the college with a permanent record of important events. By 1967 a Board of Directors was established.

Up until 1969, WKMS was originally called “The Radio Center, The Voice of Murray State.”[3] Executive assistant Ray Mofield’s pushed for a radio station for the 1965-66 college budgets. Mofield convinced, then President of Murray State College, Ralph Woods of the benefits from a radio station on campus, and as a result $15,000 was set aside for its development. In 1968 Woods applied for a non-commercial educational radio license from the FCC and requested to be located at 91.7. In 1969 the FCC granted a construction permit for WKMS to operate at 91.3, 91.7 was already taken.[4]


WKMS-FM, the broadcasting service of Murray State, signed on air May 11, 1970. President of Murray State, Dr. Harry Sparks noted this milestone and said, “With this radio station’s audience we lengthen the shadow and multiply the sphere of influence of this University. Every broadcast of whatever type is a public relations message saying something about this school.”[5] Sparks also put forth a mission for WKMS to follow, “We perceive WKMS as the window on the world for our region. It will help cast a longer shadow for Murray State University and will deliver not only news about Murray State but will also offer culturally and educationally enriched programming throughout the Murray State region.” At first the station only employed Mofield as a general manager and Thomas Morgan as station manager and was assisted by students and volunteers. As a result broadcasts were only manageable while school was in session.[6]

The two rooms in the northwest corner of Wilson Hall just weren’t meeting the productive professional environmental needs of educational radio broadcasts Mofield had first envisioned. Mofield and other faculty of Murray State recruited about a million dollars to build the Price Doyle Fine Arts Building, the new location for WKMS. In September of 1971 the building was officially open for use. In its permanent home on the sixth floor (in the late nineties the sixth floor became known as the eighth floor), WKMS was fully equipped with offices, soundproof studios, state-of-the-art RCA equipment, and a new stereo with FM capability. In the September of 1972 WKMS affiliated itself with National Public Radio. NPR’s news programs set the standard for comprehensive and enlightening reporting. 91.3 was among the first public radio stations to affiliate with National Public Radio. When NPR was created, stations affiliated receive support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit organization funded by Congress. With finances from CPB, the station was able to upgrade its network interconnection: a high-quality telephone line.[7] As NPR and WKMS converged, All Things Considered became the only daily newscast at the station and was an instant success.[8] In 1973, WKMS received its first underwriter for thirteen weeks from the Cleveland Orchestra. Businesses took a queue from the Orchestra and began participating in underwriting.[9] 1973 was also a landmark year as the Watergate Hearings were in progress. WKMS provided the only radio source in western Kentucky for the hearings. WKMS has since provided a service for the region in equally important moments in United States history, such airing the hearings regarding the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, wall to wall coverage of the Columbia Shuttle Disaster, wall to wall coverage of the beginning of our operations in Afghanistan, the Presidential impeachment proceedings of 1999, wall to wall coverage of the events following the attacks of 9/11, and wall to wall coverage of the January 2009 Central Plains and Midwest ice storm that hit most of western Kentucky and the surrounding region.[10][11]

October 1976 marked the first year WKMS started membership coordination. “Student friends” could donate three dollars, “friends” could donate five dollars, “good friends” could donate ten dollars, “great friends” could donate twenty-five dollars, and “best friends” to the station could donate fifty dollars. These membership donation applications were sent in the mail and found on the back of the first programming guide. The programming guides were a membership type of magazine released monthly at first and then seasonally. It always started off with a letter from the station manager discussing new programs added to the schedule and the reasons some others were taken away. There were statements of the current financial situation as well as a reminder of the importance of listener support. The guide would also have a grid of a regular week’s program schedule in it, and the break down of each show’s features. Later it would include features on staff, volunteers, musicians, and/or composers. In later guides it would also eventually mention the involvement of WKMS in the community and community feedback.[12][13][14]

The advent of advanced technology took place in the late seventies with a sophisticated system of satellite interconnection of radio and televisions around the country. Before the new technology, stations were linked by terrestrial land lines that were leased from AT&T. Costly telephone lines delivered a low quality signal, and were only suitable for talk programs to be sent through. This new, however, would transmit all programs, music and talk, through satellite and, “be of the highest quality.” The satellite transmissions would also permit stereo and quadraphonic network broadcasts, therefore allowing WKMS to broadcast live stereo concerts from anywhere in the world. Consequently content for the air was enlarged and the station was given more options to choose from.

On November 5, 1979 Morning Edition premiered and became an instant hit like its counterpart All Things Considered. It also was the first show to transmit from NPR through the new satellite terminal.[15] That year WKMS received a $150,000 facilities grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to increase power and upgrade studio facilities, a milestone acquisition. The station moved its transmission from the old KET tower in Farmington, KY to its present co-location with the Kentucky Early Warning System in Land between the Lakes. The 501-foot tall tower and the station’s two transmitters receive the WKMS signal from the studios at Murray State University by microwave.[16]


The eighties were a notable decade for WKMS-FM. On March 30, 1980 at 5pm WKMS boosted its power to 100,000 watts, Dick Estell from Radio Reader stopped by the studios in 1983 to help a fundraiser, and listener Joy Thomas of Murray won the “Powdermilk Biscuit” recipe contest.[17] Weekend Edition premiered on Saturday November 2, 1985. At first it was only aired on Saturdays. It took until January 18, 1987 to debut a Sunday Weekend Edition. It was at this time NPR provided a full news service for seven mornings and seven evenings.[18] Furthermore, both NPR news shows were well received by WKMS listeners.

91.3 experienced nationwide recognition with homegrown shows that were syndicated through NPR around the country. Twenty-seven NPR stations in sixteen states (ten percent of the network at the time) picked up The Black Cats Jump; a WKMS produced show hosted by Bobby Bryan. The Black Cats Jump was a thirteen week series of hour long programs on big band music. The series featured some of the great black big band leaders, sidemen, vocalists, and arrangers. The first show was aired live on Friday October 3, 1980 at 8 p.m. Bryan was inspired to do the show with the re-release of many of the big band sides on re-mastered 33 1/3 and 45 rpm vinyl which featured the contributions of the black band leaders, sidemen, vocalists and arrangers from 1934 to 1950. He explained, “During the ‘30s and ‘40s, the big hotels and ballrooms played by white bands controlled most of the air time for big bands, and black bands simply did not get the exposure they deserved. And if you didn’t get air time, your records didn’t sell very well.” He said most every white musician copied and learned from black musicians, but the public didn’t know. It wasn’t until the likes of Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, and others began to integrate the bands and share the spot light.[19] Bryan later created another thirteen-hour series about Billie Holliday and the musical biographies of over forty major artists that had played with her over three decades. He named it Lady Day and the Cats. Nearly one hundred stations in thirty-six states picked up Lady Day.[20]

The eighties also saw the switch from vinyl records and cassette tapes to compact discs, or CDs. WKMS took the opportunity to provide the community with tips on how to buy CDs, who to buy from, what genres sounded better, and so forth. On August 21, 1988 a lighting strike set off a chain reaction that, “fried many components and circuitry,” within the transmitter. As a result the station had noticeably long dead air. Station manager Janet Kenney cleverly named it, “Sounds of Silence,” and used it to WKMS’s advantage. In the fall 1988 programming guide she addressed the situation to listeners and challenged them to recall the need they had for public radio during the silence, and reminded them of the importance of their support. The fall Friendship Festival that year easily met the fundraiser goal and surpassed it.[21]


January 24, 1990 Attorney General of the state, Fredric J. Cowan, wrote to WKMS. He commended the station for fulfilling Murray and western Kentucky with information, “that is crucial in our system of democracy."[22] WKMS celebrated its twentieth birthday that year, and as a special birthday treat, Bob Edwards, host of Morning Edition, came to WKMS for a Special Guest open house informal seminar. He also joined the WKMS staff and volunteers at the Paducah Symphony’s Concert in the Park at Kentucky Dam Village State Park.[23] On July 15, 1994 the old fine arts center, a connecting building to the Doyle Price Fine Arts Center, caught fire. 91.3 was off the air at 9 a.m. until the next day. WKMS remained unharmed, but with a few smoky studios as an exception.[24]

During the nineties WKMS expanded airing twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in a five state area. The creation on on-line streaming offers world wide listening opportunities. Translators have been put up to expand broadcasts to 92.1 Paducah, 99.5 Paris, TN, and 105.1 Madisonville. Two studios were also added to the station.[25]


In the late spring of 2007 WKMS-FM provided a new digital signal which virtually eliminates noise in broadcasting such as static, hissess, pops, and fades. The new techonolgy also provides a second channel in which WKMS airs 24/7 classical music.[26] NPR and Public Radio International (PRI) now send shows through the internet. It is only a matter of minutes that a show can be received. This new process is much faster than the 1979 satellite transmission that recorded shows in real time.

WKMS and the January 2009 Central Plains and Midwest Ice Storm

During the January 2009 Central Plains and Midwest ice storm, power was temporarily lost to the regional signal at the tower and HD radio digital transmission system in Land Between the Lakes and operated on its studio site auxiliary system, a low-power transmitter and line that reached most of Calloway County and the WKMS transmitter in Paris, Tennessee. By January 31, a generator obtained with the assistance of the Calloway County Emergency Operations Center and the Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Service, enabled the station to resume its regional analogue service, however the HD radio signal remained damaged and inoperable. Tower inspections revealed icing damage to a flange weld connecting the digital antenna to its transmission line, resulting in water damage to the line itself. Repairs estimated nearly $40,000 in previously unbudgeted expenditures for the public radio service licensed to Murray State University[27]. All services, including the HD radio signal, have since resumed normal operations.


In February 2010, WKMS changed the frequency and the programming on its Paducah translator, to carry a 24-hour classical music service. The Paducah translator, formerly 92.1, has been switched to 92.5 FM. Broadcasts include the Paducah Symphony Orchestra, concerts from Murray State University and nationally syndicated programs like From the Top and Sunday Baroque. The Paducah translator broadcasts at 27 watts, designed to improve WKMS reception for area listeners in low spots due to the proximity of the Ohio River where lack of clear line of sight challenged reception from the main WKMS 100,000 watt transmitter in LBL.

In March 2010, WKMS signed on a new repeater service, 90.9 FM, WKMD, Madisonville. Additionally, the station put its all-classical WKMS HD-2 service on its 105.1 FM, Madisonville translator. The repeater service at 90.9 FM,transmits from a tower on campus at Madisonville Community College. This is repeater transmitter broadcasts a signal at a power just over 20,000 watts. 90.9 FM WKMD, Madisonville rebroadcasts 91.3 FM, Murray areas of Union, Webster, Davies, McLean, Ohio, Muhlenberg and Christian counties previously outside a public radio service coverage area and boosts the reception for listeners in Hopkins County.

On May 11, 2010, WKMS celebrated 40 years of on-air service. In June 2010, WKMS improved reception for listeners in Fulton, South Fulton, Martin and Union City, Tennessee with repeater service 89.5 FM WKMT, Fulton. WKMT restores a strong signal from WKMS to Fulton, one of the communities that experienced reduced reception when WKMS moved its transmission site from Farmington, Kentucky, to Land Between the Lakes in 1980. WKMS is using a data-link connection to transmit programming to the WKMT tower from its studios in Price Doyle Fine Arts Building at Murray State [28].

In June 2010, WKMS improved reception for listeners in Fulton, South Fulton, Martin and Union City, Tennessee with repeater service 89.5 FM WKMT, Fulton. WKMT restores a strong signal from WKMS to Fulton, one of the communities that experienced reduced reception when WKMS moved its transmission site from Farmington, Kentucky, to Land Between the Lakes in 1980. WKMS is using a data-link connection to transmit programming to the WKMT tower from its studios in Price Doyle Fine Arts Building at Murray State [20].

On September 4, 2012, WKMS launched the show Sounds Good, a daily two-hour music and conversation show hosted by Tracy Ross and occasionally other staff members. The show welcomed guests each hour on topics from charitable events and regional activities to insights into cultural affairs. This launch came around the same time as a "rebranding" for WKMS, with an updated logo - featuring the Murray State shield with headphones, and the tagline "Murray State's NPR Station."

In late 2012, WKMS launched the Youth Radio Project, involving interested youth in radio production. This project grew with a grant from the Carson Myre Charitable Foundation in 2013, to record and broadcast youth orchestral and choir performances. In the summer of 2013, WKMS partnered with Murray State University implementing a Teen Leader Radio Project, reaching out to high school juniors and seniors in area leadership groups to produce stories for university scholarship awards. 

In 2016, WKMS Music launched as a 24/7 stream of curation by WKMS music hosts as well as repeats of local and national music programs heard on the main channel. WKMS Music also broadcasts on 102.9 FM in Madisonville. 

In July 2018, the station expanded classical music service in Paducah, on 92.5 FM, to reach an estimated 30,000 more listeners. 


[1] "30 Years of WKMS." Murray Calloway County Kentucky Chamber of Commerce 8 (Apr. 2000): 3.
[2] Cole, Elizabeth T., and Gene H. Coleman. Radio Center Handbook. Ts. Murray State University.
[3] Cole, Elizabeth T., and Gene H. Coleman. Radio Center Handbook. Ts. Murray State University.
[4] "WKMS - The Story." Celebrating 20 Years of Listener Support 5-7.
[5] "30 Years of WKMS." Murray Calloway County Kentucky Chamber of Commerce 8 (Apr. 2000): 3.
[6] Cole, Elizabeth T., and Gene H. Coleman. Radio Center Handbook. Ts. Murray State University.
[7] Cowan, Frederic J. Letter to the staff and management of WKMS-FM. 24 Jan. 1990.
[8] "NPR Milestones." Celebrating 20 Years of Listener Support 24.
[9] Cowan, Frederic J. Letter to the staff and management of WKMS-FM. 24 Jan. 1990.
[10] Cowan, Frederic J. Letter to the staff and management of WKMS-FM. 24 Jan. 1990.
[11] "Meet Jay Landers." Celebrating 20 Years of Listener Support 4-5.
[12] WKMS fm stereo (Fall 1976).
[13] Kenney, Janet. "Welcome Note." Air Fare (Winter 1988): 1.
[14] "HD...High Definition... Digital... More & Crystal Clear..." WKMS with NPR news 91.3 fm (Autumn 07): 7.
[15] "New and Different." WKMS-fm stereo 91.3 (Nov. 1979).
[16] "WKMS - The Story." Celebrating 20 Years of Listener Support 5-7.
[17] "WKMS - How The Years Go By." Celebrating 20 Years of Listener Support 9-12.
[18] "NPR Milestones." Celebrating 20 Years of Listener Support 24.
[19] Miller Welch, Karen. "WKMS Goes National with "The Black Cats Jump"" WKMS-FM (Oct. 1980).
[20] "Lady Day & The Cats." 91.3 WKMS-FM Listening Guide (Sept. & oct. 1990): 6.
[21] Kenney, Janet. "Welcome Note." Air Fare (Winter 1988): 1.
[22] Cowan, Frederic J. Letter to To the staff and management of WKMS-FM. 24 Jan. 1990.
[23] "Meet Bob Edwards." Celebrating 20 Years 21.
[24] "FIRE!" Notes from 91.3 FM (Sept. & oct. 1994): 2.
[25] "30 Years of WKMS." Murray Calloway County Kentucky Chamber of Commerce 8 (Apr. 2000): 3.
[26] "HD...High Definition... Digital... More & Crystal Clear..." WKMS with NPR news 91.3 fm (Autumn 07): 7.
[27] Tim Moore. "WKMS HD Digital Transmission System Damaged by Ice Storm"[].
[28] "WKMT Extends WKMS Signal to Southwest" Press Release. Membership Coordinator Kate Lochte (2010-06-04).