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Omaha Magazine

A Rich History is Leading to a Rich Future

Sep 26, 2019 02:53PM ● By James Vnuk

This year is the 50th anniversary of KIOS-FM, and development director Michael Lyon has a lot to be excited about. “It is a triumph in itself that we’ve been here for 50 years,” he says, “but also that we’re in a position to keep going another 50, better than ever.”

Lyon joined KIOS in 2006 as a local anchor of “Morning Edition,” and took over as development director in 2017. To him and the other radio employees, the anniversary is a moment of celebration and rebirth for the station: KIOS held a celebratory open house in September bringing in guest speaker Susan Stamberg—the first woman to anchor the nightly news nationwide—and the station is also adopting new branding, material, and avenues for broadcast.

KIOS would not be possible without support, and that support started with the government. Public radio fell under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, in which Congress declared “It is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes.”

Following this act, public radio stations opened across the nation, including KIOS, thanks to two founding fathers—Craig Fullerton, Ed.D., then-assistant superintendent at Omaha Public Schools; and broadcaster Jim Price. “Jim Price was a journeyman broadcaster, a traveler, and a live musician,” explains program director Todd Hatton. “This is why you could tune in and hear either Dmitri Shostakovich or Grand Funk Railroad, depending on the time of day.” Together the founders envisioned a station devoted to educational broadcasting for students and the public welfare of Omaha—a mission born out of a shared love for education and the medium of radio itself, Hatton says. The station came to life at 10 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1969, from the basement of Central High. Its first message for the city was a humble, anti-smoking PSA.

Joining together, 90 public radio stations, including KIOS, were the founding, charter members of NPR, first incorporated in 1970. As a charter member, KIOS enjoys some historical distinction and notoriety, but operates no differently from other stations in the NPR tent. “It wasn't that we were picked,” Hatton explains. “It was the vision of the people who founded KIOS, working in concert with like-minded radio broadcasters throughout America, that created NPR.” Five decades later, NPR now boasts around 900 member stations, taking nationwide that mission of educational and public broadcasting held by Price, Fullerton, and their contemporaries.

That mission continues in full force today. “We exist to bring the world to local listeners,” Lyon says, “and what’s good about the anniversary is the opportunity for new ideas at the table that coincide with advancements in technology.” He says that industry experts are all in agreement: radio is as strong as ever. “We’re very conscious as a team of industry trends, and a lot of our upgrades have been looking for ways to keep up, like the huge demand for on-demand radio…we are a voice bringing things to the community, but we also want to give a voice to the community.”

KIOS FM second historical photo

The opportunities to create new programming and rethink distribution have dovetailed nicely into the station’s commitment to community, and Hatton is particularly excited about the developments. “It represents a shift in philosophy: it used to be that curating radio content was top-down—now, it’s the other way around.” KIOS has worked closely with local nonprofits and individuals, giving time to their stories and reinforcing that connection, and the programming under Hatton’s helm has delved into expanding features and reporting on the community.

Recent features—including one focused on the young Methodists who refused confirmation in protest of the church’s LGBTQ positions and another detailing JP Lord School’s extraordinary and innovative program for special needs students—resonated deeply with listeners. “These are sound-rich stories with a real sense of place and atmosphere that’s only possible on radio,” Hatton says. “You can take your time, let the story tell itself; by shifting to feature pieces like these, we can use our resources very strategically.”

“NPR calls stories like these ‘driveway moments,’” adds station manager Ken Dudzik, “because people don’t want to leave their cars until they’re finished.”

Changes to the station programming must be weighed carefully, though, and the team is careful to mind this. “Our listeners trust our schedule to be reliable; you want to hear the program you want to hear when you know it’s going to be on,” Hatton says. “But in order to make room for new programing and to create a tent big enough for new audiences, you do have to tweak and adjust a little… big events like the 50th anniversary are a good time to do that,”  The airwaves will see some shifts, but the biggest new developments will be online. The station is hoping to launch several on-demand streams by the end of the year, including curated playlists for jazz/blues and adult album alternative listening. “We live in a city with a rich musical tradition,” Hatton says, “and our station is just 10 blocks away from Saddle Creek Records…with streaming, we can find a home for that programming.”

When asked about challenges the station has faced over the years, Dudzik is frank: “the challenge is the same as it always is: maintaining ongoing membership.” Dudzik is clear that member support is absolutely vital to the health and viability of KIOS—support that he is extremely grateful for. “It’s a lot of work to ask for money, but when we go on the air and ask for pledges, we want everyone to know this is your station.” The challenges of the moment involve finding ways to sustain funding, but also to grow membership—something Dudzik hopes the station’s new efforts to attract new audiences will help accomplish.

Lyon agrees. “A part of our future will be ways to collaborate with other nonprofits in the community. Having Susan Stamberg at the Joslyn has been extremely rewarding, and we are in a place to become a more relevant and viable resource for the community.” All three are confident that the future is bright, as Hatton puts it succinctly: “KIOS has had a rich history, and it will have a rich future.”

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This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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