Partnerships, civic engagement propel KMUW to statewide recognition


Daniel Caudill

Tom Shine, KMUW director of news and public affairs, poses for a photo with General Manager Debra Fraser. Under their leadership, the radio station was recognized as station of the year for the sixth year in a row.

KMUW, an NPR branch in partnership with Wichita State, was first recognized as station of the year in 2014 by the Kansas Association of Broadcasters (KAB). 

This year, it brought home its sixth award in a row as the top large-market radio station in Kansas. 

“News coverage in radio has dwindled, and that’s part of why we feel like we have a responsibility to do more,” said Debra Fraser, KMUW general manager since 2014. “And by doing more, the result has been that we’ve been more recognized.” 

Fraser has worked in public radio for nearly three decades, first as a reporter for 16 years at Houston’s NPR station. She also serves as chair of the Kansas Broadcasting Council and president of the Old Town Association. 

“We are a medium-sized station behaving like a large station,” Fraser said. “Because I come from a large station, and that’s all I know. So I walked in here and was like ‘Okay, let’s grow.’” 

Besides station of the year, KMUW received 11 awards and honorable mentions across nine categories, including complete newscast and spot news. 

The awards come as KMUW is celebrating 70 years since it began on WSU’s main campus as the first 10-watt noncommercial FM station in the United States. Though it moved off campus in 2016, the station still gets its broadcasting license and a portion of its annual budget through WSU. 

Now tucked in a niche off 1st and Mead streets, KMUW remains in-touch with WSU and the larger Wichita community. Its headquarters are within walking distance of WSU Old Town and the Wichita Eagle, and in the same building as the Wichita Business Journal. 

That central location is prime for the station’s local coverage, said Tom Shine, director of news and public affairs.  

“Moving to Old Town helped us with [our mission], and made us more visible,” said Shine, who joined KMUW two years ago after nearly four decades as a reporter and editor for The Eagle. 

“The whole building contributes to help us produce a good product,” he said. 

KMUW employs 25 staffers across six departments: news and engagement, music, digital, marketing, underwriting and membership. The station also purchases content from NPR to provide a balance of world, national and local coverage. 

KMUW’s partnership with NPR is key to the station’s success, Fraser said, and it establishes a certain standard of quality for their coverage. 

“Everything we do has to meet that bar. We can’t just piddle and play,” Fraser said. “The greatest compliment we can receive is when people can’t tell when we’re on versus NPR.” 

Similar to its arrangement with NPR, KMUW receives and shares content between other Kansas radio stations through a statewide network called the Kansas News Service — something Fraser said is rare among other states. The service is a free news wire with a focus on health, communities and civic life.

“It’s our job to be supportive of them, too,” Fraser said. 

Promoting civic discussion 

One of the biggest features that separates KMUW from other media outlets, Shine and Fraser agreed, is its emphasis on promoting civic discussion. 

“One of our missions is to civically engage the city, increase the level of discussion on important topics and help the city progress and get better,” Shine said. 

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, KMUW began hosting an event called “Engage ICT: Democracy on Tap.” 

The idea behind the event was to use free beer and/or food to draw citizens — especially younger ones — to discuss key issues in the election. Fraser got the idea from another public radio station in Minnesota. 

“That was the point — not to talk about politicians or actual candidates,” Fraser said. “It was about issues and how those issues affect real peoples’ lives.” 

The event is now held monthly in partnership with The Eagle and the Society of Professional Journalists.  

The next installment of Engage ICT will feature a debate between mayoral candidates Brandon Whipple and incumbent Jeff Longwell. It’s set to begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 at Roxy’s Downtown. Doors open at 5:30.

The debate will be aired live on 89.1 FM, as well as KMUW’s official Facebook page. 

Learning on the job 

Complementing its partnerships with other media outlets is KMUW’s internship program that helps prepare the journalists of tomorrow.  

Two students from the Elliott School of Communication can intern at KMUW each semester, including summer. Each intern works in the news lab for about 15 hours a week, and ESC covers their wages. 

By Shine’s count, about half of the station’s employees are Shocker alumni. 

Lu Anne Stephens, director of content strategy, is one of those alumni. She first joined the station in 1989 while studying at WSU. 

Daniel Caudill
Lu Anne Stephens, a WSU alumna, works as KMUW director of content strategy. She first joined the station in 1989.

Originally a music student at Pittsburg State University, Stephens transferred to WSU and finished with a general studies degree after a full-time position opened up at KMUW. 

“I quickly realized this is what I wanted to do forever,” she said.

When she first joined the station, Stephens said it was mostly run by students with five full-time, non-student positions. 

Now a seasoned veteran at the station, Stephens says she continues to learn on the job. 

“You get to be creative,” she said. “We still are able to experiment even though it’s no longer mostly students.”