St. Louis Public Radio turns 50, and looks to the future
Fifty years ago, a radio station with the call letters KWMU made its debut in St. Louis. Broadcasting from Lucas Hall on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus, KWMU (now St. Louis Public Radio) introduced the very concept of public radio to St. Louis.
Station founder Don Driemeier, who also served as dean of UMSL’s School of Business, identified the need for public radio in St. Louis in 1971.
“At that time, public radio stations were popping up because the Public Broadcasting Act had created space on the dial for public stations, and they were specifically popping up at universities,” explained longtime St. Louis Public Radio staffer Mary Edwards.
Edwards started as a music assistant in 1974, just two years after the launch of the station. She worked full time at St. Louis Public Radio for 44 years and retired as executive producer of St. Louis on the Air in 2018.
Edwards witnessed many changes over the years. That includes the start of receiving programs via satellite in 1979. Prior to that, programs either originated locally or came by mail on reel-to-reel tapes from a syndicated service. “I got a big box with the five programs. We aired them one week, then I put them in the mail to send to KBIA in Columbia, and then they aired them the next week. They came with these address labels, and then they would send it on to the next station,” she said.
In 1983, St. Louis Public Radio received the area's first compact disc player. On the weekends, production manager Barry Hufker would take the CD player to record stores to demonstrate the new technology.
Music programs, primarily classical music, dominated the radio station for the first half of its existence. The station began airing two hours of NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 1980 and didn’t start airing “All Things Considered” until 1982, more than a decade after the national program debuted. It wasn’t until 1996 that the station fully transitioned to a news/talk format, which coincided with the launch of St. Louis on the Air.
Other significant developments in the station’s history include moving into a 27,000-square-foot building in St. Louis in 2012 and merging with the St. Louis Beacon, an online news nonprofit, in 2013. The merger drastically increased the size of the newsroom of the combined organizations. The station’s reach expanded in 2012 and 2017, when it began broadcasting in Quincy and Rolla, respectively.
Ushering St. Louis Public Radio into the future is CEO Tina Pamintuan. Pamintuan, who began working at the station last December, has a vision for the station that centers equity in all of its work.
“It's about going back to the very heart of the mission of public radio, which is this idea that it is public,” Pamintuan said. “Every step of the way, you are either inviting people in or not inviting them in. And I think St. Louis Public Radio has done both in its history. It has invited people in and it has not invited people in. And my intention during my tenure is to make sure that we are really reflecting the communities that we are representing.”
Said Pamintuan, “I would really love to see STLPR really claim the space of local journalism in St. Louis, and Rolla and Quincy where we also broadcast. Because up until now, STLPR has done a wonderful job in terms of its breaking news, its features and its public affairs.
“But I don't think we're really quite there yet at the point where we are known as the source. And so what I would like to see going forward is for us to not only claim the space, but really engage with our community so that we know the issues that aren't being addressed.”
A timeline of the radio station’s history highlights notable moments and photos over the decades. A public exhibit is set to open Aug. 4, and a celebratory street party will be held in the fall.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.