Lexington, Ky. — At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, 1940, WBKY radio, owned by the University of Kentucky, hit the airwaves in Beattyville, Kentucky. Fast forward exactly 75 years, and WUKY 91.3 FM (formerly WBKY) will celebrate its anniversary in style tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 17. The celebration will take place in WUKY’s new facilities on Spurr Road in Lexington and will include a visit from NPR’s Susan Stamberg as well as a recreation of the station’s first broadcast.
After being housed on the third floor of McVey Hall on UK’s campus in studios originally built in 1939, WUKY will more than double its square footage in the new facility, which had been a professional recording studio and living quarters. The property was acquired by Lexington businesswoman Ann Bakhaus, who in turn, with her son Michael Russell, made a gift of the building to UK for the benefit of WUKY and UK’s Opera Theatre program in the School of Music in the College of Fine Arts.
“This is a beautiful facility,” said Tom Godell, WUKY’s general manager. “It’s a tremendous space that provides a full recording studio and room for the station to grow. We’ve always been involved in the community, but having this new facility will enable us to bring more people to the radio station, and it allows us to have better access to Central Kentucky. Ann Bakhaus was able to see that this building would enable WUKY to have a much larger footprint in the community.”
Although the 75th anniversary celebration will take place at the Spurr Road location, it will actually be at least six months before the staff can move in while renovations and technical work is done to accommodate the needs of a 21st century 100,000 watt radio station.
In contrast, a small 100-watt transmitter powered WBKY’s first broadcast, making the station the nation’s first university-owned non-commercial educational radio station. UK became the first university to obtain an educational radio license, and the plan was to build a network of stations in Eastern Kentucky focusing on the needs of individual counties in the area. Beattyville was chosen as the location for the first station and it was staffed by one employee, Ruth Foxx, and several volunteers.
Godell, who has delved into the history of the radio station and read various communications between Fox and her supervisors, said Fox described the people of the Beattyville area as being “crazy for radio.” Ministers, law enforcement, musicians, educators and others wanted airtime.
The original plan of several radio stations in Eastern Kentucky was eventually altered, and the WBKY studios moved to UK’s campus in Lexington around 1945 operating as a public radio station with information and music programming for the Lexington area. In the early 1970s, a representative from WBKY and about 50 other public stations met in Washington, D.C. about more ways to collaborate nationally. One of the outcomes of that meeting was NPR.
“We were there at the birth of National Public Radio,” Godell said. “The idea was to pool resources to not only provide local news to our listeners but also news from the U.S. and the world.”
WBKY became WUKY in 1989 to better reflect its association with the university. In 2007, the station became the first in Lexington to broadcast in HD – high definition digital radio. Today WUKY offers programming via HD, the WUKY.org website, and free iPhone and Android apps. The main broadcast channel, WUKY 91.3 FM (HD-1) provides an eclectic schedule of NPR and award-winning local news, Rock & Roots (bluegrass, blues and rock) music, humor, and more. HD-2 is a 24-hour NPR news and talk channel and on HD-3 is all jazz 24/7.
“It’s an exciting time to be in radio because of all the changes and new ways to engage the audience,” Godell said. “I am so proud of our station and our people. I was when I came here in 2004 and now that we are entering our 75th year, I’m even more excited to be part of it.”
He’s also excited about the 75th anniversary celebration planned for Saturday, calling it a “fantastic party.” The open house gets underway at 3 p.m. Hors d’oeuvres will be served. Live music will take place on the back porch of the building, and tours of the new facility will be offered from 3-5 p.m. Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre and Ben Chandler, director of the Kentucky Humanties Council will speak, and a meet and greet with NPR legend Susan Stamberg begins at 5 p.m.
“She is the godmother of public radio,” Godell said. “Susan Stamberg is the first woman to anchor a national newscast on any network in the United States and she’s still an active reporter for NPR.”
Tomorrow’s celebration will culminate at 7:30 p.m. when WUKY personnel will re-enact, or as Godell terms it — “reimagine” — the original broadcast made exactly 75 years prior.
“We want to sort of bring you back, in a way, to the 1940s,” Godell said. “We will have a news cast by News Director Alan Lytle of what was actually happening in Kentucky and the world in October 1940. We will have an imagined conversation between Ruth Foxx and her boss at UK about some issues they were encountering. We plan to recreate some of the musical performances that were broadcast 75 years ago — there were a couple of light classical arias on that first broadcast and a lot of string band music. It’s going to be fun!”
For more information on the WUKY 75th anniversary celebration, visit the station’s website at WUKY.org.