When KCPR founder Alan Holmes decided he wanted to start a radio station, he searched all over campus with fellow student Jim Stueck for empty rooms to give it a home base.
Their efforts fell short — no department would let them conduct a radio station in their storage rooms. After searching all over and with few options left, their professor-turned-adviser Glenn Smith suggested getting a school bus and parking it by a building to use as their station.
That request went to then-University President Dr. Robert E. Kennedy, who said, “No way is that gonna happen,” according to Holmes.
However, Kennedy remembered from his time as a journalism professor years prior that there was an empty, unused studio somewhere on the third floor of the Graphic Arts building: KCPR’s home today.
“He actually went down there unbeknownst to us to take a look at the facility,” Holmes said. “So if it weren’t for Dr. Kennedy, there wouldn’t be a KCPR.”
All Holmes knew when he closed his eyes and ran his finger down the page of Lovejoy’s College Guide as a high school senior was that he would apply to the first college his finger landed on. When he opened his eyes, the words under his index finger read ‘California Polytechnic State University.’ Unbeknownst to him, the New Jersey native would pioneer the award-winning college radio station KCPR, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this fall.
“If you get hooked on working at a radio station and you like it, it’s going to give you the self-confidence of talking to a microphone and believing there’s 10,000 people listening,” Holmes said.
One common myth among students is that KCPR was founded by two students experimenting in their dorm room, according to Holmes.
“That’s not true,” Holmes said with a laugh. “Yes, it would have been an illegal thing to do. And also, we probably wouldn’t have gotten any commission for the station from the [Federal Communications Commission].”
Though KCPR is the brainchild of Holmes and Stueck, they were heavily inspired by Smith, who wrote radio plays for his alma mater station.
“[Smith] purposely let us do everything on our own, because I think he figured if we were serious about this, we’d follow through with everything,” Holmes said. “He was on the sidelines. When we needed some advice, he was willing to give it. But he wasn’t active and he never voiced anything on the station. He was an adviser only.”
This loose leash allowed Holmes and Stueck to experiment with the station through trial and error.
With help from Kennedy, the young men were ready to go live on stereo in the Graphic Arts building. Old Cal Poly Legend claims “How the hell do you turn this thing on?” to be the first words said on air, but Holmes had a different version of the story.
“The story [of the first words on the air] is bologna,” Holmes said. “Because the first words on the air were pre-recorded from a cartridge tape. We pushed the button and simply played it. It was my voice announcing ‘KCPR Cal Poly Radio Station, 91.3 FM, rating at the power of 2 watts San Luis Obispo area.’”
Because KCPR was brand-new, DJs had the autonomy to run the station to their likings. While a large vinyl collection lines the station walls today, they relied on their friends and fellow DJs for records when they were just starting out.
“The vinyl we played were mostly students’ personal collections,” Holmes said. “Regular rock ‘n’ roll music. Just think Elvis Presley and The Beatles.”
KCPR was just as active out in the field as they were on the radio. Even in its early days, they interviewed as many artists in the area as they could, including the ‘Father of Soul,’ Ray Charles.
“We just had to tell [Ray Charles’] people that we were from KCPR and they said, ‘Ah! Come this way!’ And we went in there and interviewed him,” Holmes said.
Holmes, Stueck, and other staff members were on the air four hours a day, four days a week. Their hard work did not go unnoticed.
“We did receive a couple of letters,” Holmes said. “We ended up showing [them] to the President of the school, and he was amazed. He responded back that he also heard from several people, out of nowhere, tell him, ‘Hey, I listen to that station of yours.’ We never got a grasp of how many people were listening, but we know somebody was listening. Who knows how many are listening today.”
Fifty years later, the San Luis Obispo community still tunes in to KCPR even beyond the radio station 91.3, thanks to kcpr.org and radio streaming websites like iHeartRadio.
In honor of “KCPR’s 50th Birthday Party” as KCPR General Manager Ally Millard called it, events took place Oct. 12-14 for community members and KCPR alumni. Friday night kicked off the festivities, with a concert at SLO Brew Rock featuring LA-based band Sure Sure, along with local musicians The Charities and .paperman.
On Saturday, alumni from each decade since KCPR’s inception returned to the station for guest DJ slots. A gala followed, where four alumni were inducted into the Cal Poly Journalism Hall of Fame.
Millard said she is confident in the direction KCPR is headed today and hopes to continue partnering with local businesses to throw concerts and “continues to be something that is a place for students and community members who love music to find other people that also love music and just hang out together.”
“I think the past couple of years we’ve been moving towards being not radio-centric, but a center for culture for all of the [San Luis Obispo] community,” Millard said. “We try to throw events that really include everyone.”
Holmes, who considered KCPR a “vocation,” never got tired of life on the air. After graduating, he taught television at a local high school in his hometown of Clifton, New Jersey.
From its humble beginnings, KCPR has evolved into a key player in San Luis Obispo’s rising music scene. Although the days of record players and cartridge machines may be over, the founding idea of a space where music and culture flourish will always remain.
Looking back on his time in front of the microphone at KCPR, Holmes said he has nothing but fond memories.
“There was never stress,” he said. “It was a good place to be.”