In his deep radio voice, Bruce Larson recites the once-standard station break of KWLC: “You’re in tune to the radio voice of Luther College, KWLC, Decorah.” Larson, who is on staff as the station engineer but was a KWLC DJ in the late 1960s, recalls: “The very first time I was on the air, they put me in a studio, and the only thing I did was give a station break. I was armed with this phrase—it was written down on a piece of paper—and Dan Olson ’67, the DJ, gave his back-announce to whatever record he was playing. Then he pointed at me, the light came on, and I had a lump in my throat while I delivered that line. That was the beginning. And by the end of my freshman year, I was combo-ing” (engineering and broadcasting at the same time).
Larson describes a scene straight from radio’s golden days. But while the technology, programming, and promotional aspects of the station have evolved in the past few decades, the effect of KWLC on the students who work for and listen to it remains just as powerful.
On good days, KWLC general manager David Grouws says, the station’s signal reaches almost to La Crosse, Wis. KWLC operates on the AM band but also streams its programming, which means that people can listen worldwide. In addition to its original shows, KWLC streams chapel and Sunday morning services and select live campus sporting events, which are board-operated by work-study students hired for the task.
Grouws became KWLC station manager in November 2014, and his goal is to teach students—14 of whom work in paid roles and 50–60 of whom are volunteer DJs—to become not only creators but also promoters. “The station is an outlet for creativity—the students produce a beautiful thing, so they learn to be craftsmen and journalists,” he says. “But I really want to move to a model of teaching them to be independent producers, where they create a beautiful show and promote and sell it as you would in any media or entertainment industry. I want them to make a product that they can take with them and market.”
According to Grouws, the traditional college station tries to bring in genres of music that aren’t amenable to commercial radio. “We try to capture a diversity of tastes,” he says, citing a show on Scandinavian rock, another on video-game music, and a third astonishingly specific show featuring German rap.
Grouws recognizes that in a digital age, when people can stream music for free and queue up podcasts on demand, radio is becoming a rarefied medium, but he thinks KWLC offers something valuable: “We bring an editorial intelligence. We’re curators. We can help find music our audience doesn’t even know they like. Students spend a lot of time selecting music, but their shows are only an hour each week, so what they choose to play matters to them.”
What’s more, Grouws says, KWLC students “coach listeners. They’ll say, ‘Listen to this part’ or they’ll point out connections between songs. So you have a knowledgeable companion.” In an age when listening options—good and bad—are near limitless, it saves a lot of time and money to have a curator willing to sift through the chaff to find the wheat. Having one that can educate you into the bargain? Priceless.
Sophomores Colin Landsteiner and Daniel Melaas-Swanson have one of KWLC’s few talk sports shows. And although their show is strictly volunteer, they do a lot of footwork for it. They cover Luther, collegiate, and national sports, and they court expert opinion. On their program, they’ve hosted columnists from USA Today, the Washington Post, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Denver Post, and the Charleston Post and Courier. For their pre–Super Bowl coverage between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, they even pulled off a phone interview with Denver Bronco safety David Bruton. Of course, they also interview hometown athletes, like Luther basketball player Anna Madrigal ’17 and soccer player Melisse Chasse ’17.
Although Landsteiner’s love of sports knows no bounds, he appreciates the eclectic KWLC lineup. “When I first got here, there were shows in four or five music genres, but the station seems more diverse now in terms of programming.”
In fact, one initiative on Grouws’s agenda is to increase the amount of news and talk programming at the station. “We’re trying to create a public affairs presence with more news journalism, more sports journalism, and more talk radio. And we’re starting to experiment with new narrative forms of journalism.”
KWLC’s spring on-air schedule features several news shows, including This Week at KWLC, a music-discussion show that explores the music industry, from trends, tours, and new videos to more philosophic discussions, like musicians’ rights, for example in the Spotify–Taylor Swift dustup, in which the singer pulled her music from the low-royalty music-streaming site.
Grouws is also initiating a top-of-the-hour news segment that recaps both local and international news. The goal is to expand it into an hour-long current events program.
In what promises to be a win-win situation, Luther added a journalism minor last fall, and one requirement of the minor is to work on news at either KWLC or Chips for two semesters. The station has amped up its technical resources in anticipation of the journalism students, upgrading to the newest Adobe Audition software and adding a sound station where students can mix in sounds from field recordings.
Sylvester Mhlanga ’16 might have the most diverse musical tastes of anyone on campus. A management major from Swaziland, his favorite musician is country singer Don Williams. Other list-toppers include new age Enya, Irish rockers U2, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and reggae. Mhlanga hosts both a reggae show and a world music show, and he’s also the station’s music journalism editor. He puts out a print and digital monthly newsletter, which means overseeing a stable of writers and learning a thing or two about email marketing.
Mhlanga, who volunteered as a DJ until last summer, when he became a paid student-worker, says, “In Swaziland, where I grew up, radio DJs are like celebrities. So when I got a chance to work in radio, it was a big deal to me.”
He continues, “It was a challenge when I started. I was never someone who looks for the opportunity to speak in public. When you broadcast at the station, there are only one or two people, but it feels like a lot of people are watching you.”
Mhlanga used to work for Luther’s custodial department, and after he delivered this spring’s Convocation address as president of the International Student Union, his former supervisor shared how surprised and impressed she was to see him at the podium, given how quiet he’d been before. “I’ve come a long way from being someone who minds their own business to public speaking,” he admits.
Many of the KWLC students have a similar ease about them. They’re comfortable in their skin. They’re confident. They don’t say “um” or “like.” They don’t hem or haw or use other stalling techniques when asked a question.
“Working at KWLC has honed my skills of how to think on the fly or play off mistakes,” says Marlene Jones, rock music director.
“I’ve always been a good extemporaneous speaker, but now I think on my feet very quickly,” agrees Emma Cassabaum ’16, KWLC’s co-station manager and news director.
Both Jones and Cassabaum manage and train other students—as station director, Cassabaum manages and trains upward of 60 of them—and their positions obviously engage their managerial, leadership, scheduling, and organizational skill sets.
But with great responsibility comes great perks, and, owing to a combination of canny timing and media savvy, Cassabaum has gotten to interview such greats as famed Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi and South African musical icon and freedom fighter Hugh Masekela.
Another perk? “I get to watch our DJs evolve from their audition to the end of year,” she says. “They completely blossom.”
On the sound side, Erin Bradley works as KWLC’s recording technician, recording Luther ensembles and visiting musicians who come to the studio. As part of its promotional efforts, the station has started putting out an annual CD featuring these recordings. Bradley recruits the bands, sets up a time to record, records, edits the recordings, sends out the tracks for burning to CD, and designs the CD. “Organization is key,” she says. “I was not an organized person coming into this job, and you’d be surprised how quickly that turned around.”
The position has also taught Bradley some people skills. “There is a stereotype about musicians being moody, and that doesn’t change even in the recording studio of a college campus,” she says dryly. “So I’ve been learning to work with different personality types and different expectations—and also a wide variety of sounds.”
Bradley plans to work as a technician in the D.C. area next year while she considers entering an audio technician master’s program. “Radio is a dying art, and it shouldn’t be,” she says. “There’s so much you can get out of it, from learning to manage your time and organize your thoughts quickly to diving into new music, especially, when it comes to Luther, into music you may not get in the major.”
KWLC occupies the sub-basement level of Dahl Centennial Union, and most KWLC students agree that a top priority is making the station more visible on campus—“bringing it out of the basement” is a phrase they regularly deploy. To that end, they’ve increased promotion both on campus and social media, and they’ve started staging wildly popular outdoor music events each semester.
Jones explains, “We’ve put on more events over the past couple of years, and we’re tying to come to the surface with more promotional things. A lot of people at Luther don’t know about KWLC, but there are so many doors it can open. It’s different from any other club because there is no strict formula—you can do what you want with it. That creative freedom has been so rewarding.”
Some of the most powerful recent changes at KWLC have nothing to do with its content, but rather with its appearance, from a new digital billboard that hangs outside the station offices to a new coat of paint on the office walls. Bradley says, “It’s not only a physical renewing—it’s also renewing the spirit of the radio station. It’s not just forgotten in the basement. From the events we throw outside, to the promotions, to the digital billboard with the face of the DJ who’s currently hosting on it—it’s a cool opportunity that was hidden before, and we’re turning it into something inviting.”