KNTU: A History
KNTU Signs On
After the University of North Texas had been around for 79 years and plans for a radio station had been around for at least 10, KNTU signed on the air. This may not have been as glorious an occasion as could have been hoped for, but it certainly was the start of something much greater than thought possible.
“The very first word ever uttered on the air was a curse word,” said KNTU general manager Bill Mercer (B. Mercer, personal interview, October 20, 2003). At the time of signing on, KNTU studios were more filled with confusion than certainty. These students had never been on the air before. KNTU signed on and hit the airwaves for the first time on Monday, November3, 1969, broadcasting Orson Wells’ Halloween classic from 31 years earlier, “War of the Worlds,” as well as President Richard Nixon’s policy speech on Vietnam (KNTU-FM Reaches Air, 1969; New Station Operating at North Texas, 1969). KNTU delivered news for the first two weeks without a news wire, borrowing wire copy from KDNT and rewriting stories from local newspapers. Only three days after signing on, a DJ and a newsman were speaking on the air at the same time due to having separate studios with no communication. This quickly became fixed as the studios were moved into adjoining rooms with a window in between (Kemplin, 1969).
Soon after KNTU was established, KRLD-AM loaned some of its equipment to make live remote coverage of Denton County news and sports possible. The station operated at 250 watts and just barely covered the Denton city area. Soon after signing on, KNTU was allowed to increase power to 440 watts. Formats included popular music, public affairs, live music performances, and university sports.
Early on, although programming was not great, dedication and perseverance by students were remarkable. “It wasn’t the greatest radio you ever heard, but it was a start,” said GM Bill Mercer (B. Mercer, personal interview, October 20, 2003). KNTU was originally located in the northwest wing of the speech and drama building (now the RTFP building). KNTU had only four rooms: a studio, control room, news booth, and lobby/writing area. Mercer was teaching four classes and told them of the opening of a new radio station. Those in his radio and TV announcing class had been ‘playing radio’ in a pretend studio, and some of them jumped at the chance to do it for real. When fall came and the chance to go on the air rolled around, Mercer had a few student volunteers. “So I just gave these people positions. Nobody had any radio experience whatsoever.” Mercer was both the station manager and program director in the beginning. Because students were bringing their own music, Mercer knew he had to do something about programming to make it enjoyable for someone to listen to (B. Mercer, personal interview, October 20, 2003). KNTU developed a station clock telling them when to play what genre of music. They played top 40, big band, rock, and classical at the same time each day and each week. “It was something to behold. I had to train the kids in charge, who then had to oversee the students on the air” (B. Mercer interview, October 20, 2003). KNTU would not adopt a jazz format until thirteen years later.
After KNTU had been on the air a few weeks, the station began to receive phone calls from Denton residents complaining about turning on their TV and receiving KNTU audio instead of the TV audio they wanted on channels five, six, seven, and eight (Kemplin, 1969). Mercer called an engineer friend and asked for help with this problem. The engineer knew right away that cheap audio receivers on old TV sets caused the problem that happened frequently with new radio stations. KNTU kept a list of names and addresses of those who complained. A cheap, simple fix for each TV set at each house was made out of a certain length of cable. This cable filtered out KNTU’s audio from the TV. About 25 or 30 people had this done for them. But by this time, many of those with the problems also had been calling the Denton Record Chronicle to complain. The Chronicle then did a story on the audio problems, which in turn raised awareness of KNTU. “It was really one of those problems that turned into a plus. So, then people started listening” Mercer recalled (B. Mercer, personal interview, October 20, 2003). KNTU had signed on and had a small audience, but how would KNTU grow into the larger, professional station it would become?