The History of Radio K on Campus

16 years and 77 haircuts later…

By Sammi Boring

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After working through the night on snippets to play in-between songs, the new--and first ever--production director of Radio K, Steve Nelson, quickly got on his bike headed for Coffman Memorial Union. It was almost 6 a.m. on October 1st, 1993—the day that Radio K would officially go live. After procrastinating on clips for the broadcast, Nelson was ready to hear the first airing of Radio K right from Coffman. 

“I was riding my bike as fast as I could, had my Walkman radio turned on,” Nelson said. “As I got the end of the Washington Ave. Bridge [ . . . ] I heard, ‘The oldest station in the state is now the newest, you’re listening to Radio K.” 

During his time as a student, Nelson worked tirelessly over a two year period to finally bring Radio K into production. It was one of his “greatest memories” to hear Radio K for the first time on the Washington Ave. Bridge.

On the day of the first broadcast, RadioK celebrated the milestone on 7.70AM radio with an unusually specific stunt: lining up 77 Aveda stylists to give 77 simultaneous hair cuts in the mall by Northrop. “I don’t know why they chose haircuts, and still to this day, I have not asked, but they were just doing haircuts and celebrating this new thing,” Sarah Lemanczyk said, Radio K’s current program director who had been dating one of the founders of Radio K at the time.  

Nelson explained that after thinking of “goofy and wild ideas” to celebrate the start of Radio K, student Mary Beth Foss came up with the idea for 77 haircuts. “I remember walking through the mall after that day back to Coffman and just tons of hair being in my mouth,” Nelson said. 

Twenty-five years later and Radio K still stands--but now in the Rarig Center, a deceptively brutalist building in the heart of West Bank. The walls of the station are covered with musicians’ posters: Neko Case, Metz, and Bill Callahan to name a few. Many are names that students may have never heard of.

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According to the Radio K archives, the first radio transmission at the University of Minnesota dates back to 1912 after a professor began experimenting with broadcasts. As the years went on, Women’s and Men’s Minnesota Radio (WMMR) was created in Coffman Memorial Union in 1948 and mainly focused on serving the student body. KUOM (University Of Minnesota), another University station that made programs similar to those of Minnesota Public Radio, was simultaneously on the rise.

As KUOM and WMMR grew and changed throughout the 60s into the late 80s, KUOM began to lose money and eventually went up for sale. Many were looking to buy the station until one student, Jim Musil suggested that students should take it over. He then began his tireless work with Dan Thorn, Steve Nelson, and Mary Beth Foss to acquire the station. 

“It was a heady time. It was 1993, the 80’s were over, we had taken the safety pins out of our jeans, Nirvana was breaking—, it was an incredible time,” said Radio K’s current program director, Sarah Lemanczyk, who had been dating one of the founders of Radio K at the time. 

The students presented to the Board of Regents that rather than selling the station, they should give it to the students. Musil remembers the difficulty of their pursuit. “The J school [the University of Minnesota’s journalism program] was concerned about students being on it,” Musil said, but “The President at the time, Neil Hasselmo, was a big supporter.” 

The process took about two years, yet in the end, their efforts paid off. “In miracles of miracles, they gave it to the students,” Lemanczyk said

At the time, Lemanczyk was not interested. “I was busy with theater.,”she explained. Now, Lemanczyk is the program advisor for Radio K and is one of the only full-time workers at the station. The rest of the station is student run. With over 10 years of working at Radio K, Lemanczyk has witnessed students come and go, the station grow, and Rarig stay the same. 

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“I am proud to say that this is  student-run, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in a major market,” Lemanczyk said. 

There is a staff of 25 students, 70 DJs, and over 700 students on the email list. Minneapolis, with its historic music past, makes this a prime spot to have a college run radio station. Radio K has music, brings in live bands as well as on-air talent, and centers students in all its operations while being overseen by Lemanczyk. Radio K is one of the few stations in the country to be fully run by students. While the amount of college radio stations is tough to track, out of approximately 4,000 colleges in the United States, there were only at least 600 college stations in the United States in 2018 (according to National Center for Education Statistics and RadioSurvivor, respectively).

“The fact that my students, who might have seven months ago been driving a tractor in the Hutch, are now on the air in a major market is phenomenal,” Lemanczyk stated. 

Started by students and perpetuated by students, Radio K has given many the opportunity to learn something new or pursue their post graduation goals.The visions of students are brought to life on air under the guidance of Lemanczyk.

Listening in to the station is easy, but the work that goes into it is intense. Student volunteers need 10 hours of volunteering at the station and then go through training to become a DJ before  actually going on air. Like any other station, Radio K follows strict Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) standards. The FCC overlooks all radio and television programs and strictly forbids crude language. Breaking FCC standards, say, by swearing on air, could result in a shut down by the FCC.  “We want to make sure they [the students] want to do it because if something were to happen, the 27 years that we worked so hard to build would be gone,” Lemanczyk said. 

For students, the station can be a way to find a community, a new array of music, a unique opportunity for their resume, or simply a place to play their favorite music. One student, Marina Lundell, has been a part of Radio K since her freshman year. She works at the front desk, DJ’s one shift, and helps with a specialty show, “Those Meddling Kids,” which is hosted by Marina and different high school students each week. This show is like many specialty shows at Radio K that involve more interviews and information besides music. 

“Radio K gives variety,” Lundell said. “Students really have a say in what happens here.” 

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As for Musil, being one of the first students to work for Radio K, he reflects fondly on his time at Radio K. “I owe a lot to the station,” he said, while also mentioning, “It did delay my graduation.” From those that started it all to students now, a community has been created that both allows students the opportunity to get on air and offers listeners at UMN a station catered to them. 

*A note: We at The Wake are dedicated to journalistic integrity and would like to disclose that two Wake staff members, not involved with the writing of this story, hold positions at Radio K. 

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