A Real Classic: Local Radio Station Turns 50Jul 01, 2022 11:06AM ● By Dwain Hebda
Photos Provided by KVNO
A steady stream of music that tells a story has been sent out over the airwaves in Omaha for the past half-century—radio station KVNO has broadcast classical works that have stood the test of time and speak to the enduring beauty of the art form and the musician’s skill.
What many listeners and patrons do not know, however, is that most of the best stories the station ever produced never made it on the air, said Dr. Michael Hilt, dean of the College of Communication Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
There’s the one about how, in the early days, the station was housed in the Storz Mansion. It got warm in the studio, as former University of Nebraska at Omaha journalism professor Dave Ogden said in a February podcast on the station’s anniversary. Thus, they left a window open to help cool the space. One day a guest DJ—a squirrel—leapt from a nearby tree and wound up using a turntable as a treadmill.
Another well-worn tale is how the station’s debut was delayed several hours for want of finding the right light switch. Apparently, all wiring for the station’s equipment was controlled through one nondescript switch, something the inaugural broadcast crew only discovered when it was time to go live.
“I can confirm that, because the person I’ve heard it from was actually part of the process,” Hilt said. “I remember looking at him like, ‘That can’t be.’ I’m sure at the time people were saying, ‘Well, there’s a light switch, but how could that be involved?’ Apparently, it was.”
Hilt, who’s spent 34 years with UNO, loves the story, as it demonstrates the lean, almost pirate-radio mentality of the station, which first hit the airwaves Aug. 27, 1972. He’s equally proud of how it’s weathered changing times and tastes to remain an important part of Omaha’s cultural fabric.
“KVNO is still here because of the community and because of its relationship with the university,” he said. “For a station like KVNO to exist 50 years, that’s a long, long time in the broadcast world.”
“The existence of an all-classical radio station is becoming a rarity in this country,” said Josh Krohn, former on-air personality and production coordinator from 2006 to 2019. “It’s a unique service to be able to offer something people may not ever be exposed to…outside of being embedded in other forms of media. Having an actual radio station provide that for the community, and having community support, it is a special combination. That’s what I found attractive about [KVNO].”
The station started as a college amenity. When the University of Nebraska Board of Regents was granted the broadcasting license in 1972, KVNO was used as a living classroom and the programming reflected the eclectic tastes of student DJs, ranging from jazz to popular music and various other genres. Format eventually turned all-classical, guided by on-air and back-office staff who truly cared about their place in the community.
“KVNO was a small shop and there was such a feeling of camaraderie, a ‘We’re in this together,’ sort of feel,” said Scott Blankenship, who, in typical KVNO fashion, wore a lot of hats—from intern to on-air talent to producer. “I loved that everyone on staff had a role to play in KVNO’s success, from fund drives to live remotes and everything in between. There was a feeling of shared success that I loved.”
While the station would eventually move from a full-time classroom to a professional staff, today numbering 11, it never strayed far from its academic roots. KVNO not only taught listeners about the classical music art form, it also gave UNO students real-world media experience.
“I had a small team of students who worked extremely hard to produce great stories, many of which won local and regional awards,” said Robyn Murray, former news director. “The station provided a unique opportunity for students to gain professional, hands-on experience while they completed their degrees. They also had opportunities to be broadcast statewide through Nebraska Public Media and a few times nationally through NPR. It was a collaborative, innovative environment and I am thankful to have been part of it.”
Sherry Brownrigg, station manager and program director since 2020, said she routinely encounters people who’ve been listening to the station for decades and are not shy about sharing how much the station means to them.
“We had a pledge drive and people called in to pledge their support and tell us what the station means to them,” she said. “Many people have told us it’s their go-to place for some peace, some serenity. There’s so much shifting sand today that it’s pretty amazing to have this place for incredible, timeless music that reminds us [concerning current events] this too shall pass.”
A list of upcoming events commemorating KVNO’s anniversary can be found at kvno.org/50th-anniversary.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.