History of Public Radio in Phoenix - It All Started at PC

Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Phoenix College Students in the Radio Club in the 1930s
A student in Phoenix College's radio station in the 1950s with microphone, two turntables and other equipment
A newspaper clipping from the Arizona Republic boasted KFCA as Phoenix College’s new frequency modulation radio station, with two hours of programming between 4 and 6 pm weekdays.
An upclose image of the KFCA-FM 91.5 microphone

The history of public radio in Phoenix germinated in a student club at Phoenix College in the early 1930s, and in 1936 PC added broadcast radio to its curriculum. In 1951, a new radio station hit the Phoenix airwaves, operating at just 10 watts. KFCA’s signal reached a radius of just a few miles around Phoenix College near 15th Avenue and Thomas Road, where the station was based in PC’s physics department.

KFCA was 88.5 on the FM dial. An Arizona Republic news clipping boasted KFCA as Phoenix College’s new frequency modulation radio station, with two hours of programming between 4 and 6 pm weekdays.

For a few years, the student-run broadcasts ran for an hour or two a day, up to four or five hours daily. In 1958, the station aimed at expanding its programming from private record collections to college news, sports and creative writing, although it was still only broadcasting a few hours a week. 

In the mid-1960s, KFCA began shaping its future as a public radio station. Programming throughout the decade saw music, news, interviews, sports and specialty programs focusing on agriculture and more. In 1967, the station’s frequency was increased to 50 watts, and it moved to 91.5 FM. By late 1968, KFCA was broadcasting from 7:30 am to 9:00 pm Monday through Friday and for 10 hours on Saturdays.

When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) launched in 1968 to support public broadcasting, KFCA was one of the stations to receive funding. In 1971, KFCA joined the newly formed National Public Radio network as a member station. Around the same time, the call letters were changed to KMCR. 

Downtown Blues

Spurred on by the CPB’s support and looking to expand its location, KMCR left Phoenix College for downtown Phoenix in 1972. The new office near Fifth Avenue and Washington Street had three radio studios, according to the station manager Carl Matthusen. A year later, the station was run by eight full-time staff and 85 students studying mass communication at Phoenix College.

By 1973, the station was operating at 100,000 watts, the most powerful educational station in the United States, according to an article by the Arizona Republic. KJZZ still operates at 100,000 watts today, the maximum power permitted by the Federal Communications Commission.

By the mid-1970s, KMCR was airing a wide range of content that included live hearings from the Arizona Corporation Commission and other community events, U.S. Senate and House hearings carried by NPR and weekly original programming, with shows like “State Capitol Forum” and “Got a Gripe?” It also aired college courses recorded by community college instructors for students taking correspondence courses.

While downtown Phoenix is prime real estate today, back then, the location was putting a wrench in KMCR’s plans to grow. The CPB was buying each member station a satellite dish, but KMCR didn’t have a location with a clear signal that was close enough to South Mountain. So, in 1980, KMCR packed up its operations in Phoenix and moved to Mesa Community College. By that time, the station was operating as part of Rio Salado College, MCCCD’s distance learning college that was established in 1978.

Finally, KJZZ

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the little station that started off as an experiment with the Phoenix College physics department finally settled on the call letters listeners know today. 

Matthusen said KMCR added jazz music to its programming after another Valley station, KXTC, changed to a disco format in the late 1970s and donated its jazz music library. “I was looking for [call letters] besides KMCR, something that would work for us,” he said. Matthusen got word that a Tacoma, Washington, station was changing formats and about to give up KJZZ.  “As soon as [the call letters were] available, we wanted them,” he said. KMCR officially became KJZZ in January 1985.

In 2001, the Friends of Public Radio Arizona was incorporated as an Arizona nonprofit. The board of volunteers works in partnership with the Maricopa County Community College District, Rio Salado College, staff at KJZZ 91.5 and KBAQ 89.5, and Public Radio Partners/Market Enginuity in a coordinated effort to support public radio in Arizona.

KJZZ remained on the campus of Mesa Community College until 2002, when it moved to its present location at Rio Salado College in Tempe. The station has translators in Globe, Tucson and western New Mexico, and now reaches more than 300,000 listeners a week.  Over the past 20 years, KJZZ’s newsroom has expanded from a handful of employees to more than 25 full-time reporters, producers, hosts and editors, covering the Phoenix metro area, the state, the border region and Mexico, Arizona's largest trading partner.

It all started at Phoenix College!