The nation's first public radio station
Minnesota's own WCAL 89.3 FM was our nation's first listener-supported radio station and a cofounder of National Public Radio. It began with a physics experiment in 1918, when five students and a professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, built a small radio transmitter on the campus. Using a wire antenna strung between the campus chapel and another building, the students sent signals that were picked up as far away as New Zealand. Four years later, St. Olaf was granted the WCAL call sign and began broadcasting two programs a week at 770 on the AM dial.
In 1924, a financial crunch threatened the station. When listeners sent donations in response, WCAL achieved its pioneering "listener-supported" status. The station was granted an FM license in 1968. Three years later, WCAL became one of ninety founding members of National Public Radio.
WCAL developed a core group of dedicated listeners who appreciated the diversity of its classical programming and its knowledgeable, genial hosts. "Classical 89.3" became a welcome alternative to Minnesota Public Radio's (MPR) more mainstream classical station, and for more than a decade the nation's first public radio station shared a market with one of the nation's largest public radio networks.
On August 11, 2004, St. Olaf announced its decision to sell WCAL to MPR. Although two other broadcasters submitted offers for the station, college officials said at the time that MPR, "with its own strong focus on classical music and on news, as well as its 37-year history in public radio and public service," was the best buyer to carry on the legacy.
At the time of its sale, WCAL had 80,000 listeners. Some of those people formed a grassroots group called SaveWCAL, which petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to block the sale. But the FCC dismissed the group's petition, calling parts of it "frivolous and irrelevant." The station stopped broadcasting from its Northfield studios on November 21, 2004. On January 24, 2005, listeners tuning in to 89.3 FM heard "Shhh" by the local hip-hop group Atmosphere, the first song to air on KCMP, Minnesota Public Radio's new alternative music station, popularly known as "The Current." Three months later, The Current was voted "best radio station" by City Pages readers.
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