Daniel Perez: Radio station has played part of UTEP’s history

By on July 27, 2014

The University of Texas at El Paso’s radio station, KTEP-FM, began as a college lab for aspiring broadcasters seven decades ago and has since evolved into a cornucopia of news and entertainment programming with legions of fans across the region.image
Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.

The University of Texas at El Paso’s radio station, KTEP-FM (88.5), started as a college lab for aspiring broadcasters more than 70 years ago and has evolved into a 100,000-watt cornucopia of news and entertainment programming with legions of fans.

KTEP has filled a lot of niches through the years with its eclectic collection of news, talk and music — folk, jazz, blues, gospel, opera and orchestral — which has kept generations of listeners informed and entertained.

For students, it has served as a starting point for exciting careers. One of the station’s most famous alumni is retired ABC newsman and commentator Sam Donaldson, who served as a student station manager and hosted his own music show in the 1950s.

Longtime listener Vicki Williams said she got hooked on the station in the early 1970s as a stay-at-home mother who was too busy to read newspapers or watch television. She had two radios going in her Kern Place home during the day and they all were tuned to KTEP. She said the programs made her think, kept her engaged and broadened her perspectives.

The station started modestly on Jan. 16, 1942, using a carrier signal from KTSM-AM from the Centennial Museum to the campus. The lab became WTCM-AM (Texas College of Mines) on Oct. 5, 1946, and it was broadcast out of the third floor of Kelly Hall, now called Vowell Hall. Because of a conflict with another station, the call letters were changed to KVOF-AM (the Voice of Freedom) in 1947. The weak signal limited its capabilities, but it served as a great lab for students interested in the trade.

The college received its license for KVOF-FM, the city’s first FM station, in spring 1950 and began to broadcast the following Sept. 14. It was to be operated as a community service. KVOF broadcast on a humble 10 watts, which limited its range, but local public schools that purchased special FM receivers could hear the station’s educational programming.

It turned into KTEP in 1967 and moved its transmitter to the Franklin Mountains. The station’s signal jumped to 3,800 watts in 1970 and covered most of El Paso. KTEP began to offer news from National Public Radio (NPR), music and entertainment shows around the same time. It broadcast in stereo for the first time in 1976.

Faithful listener Doug Bowe recalled studying broadcast journalism at KTEP under Virgil Hicks, considered the father of public broadcasting in El Paso. Bowe, production director at KOFX-FM (92.3), cut his teeth in the Kelly Hall studios when the station’s antenna was on top of a former windmill.

He said the station had a reputation for great shows as well as for producing promising graduates.

Managers of commercial stations would call Hicks asking for hiring recommendations.

Bowe, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from UTEP in 1977, said the most important thing he learned from working at KTEP was how to deal with people.

KTEP moved to its new studios on the second floor of Cotton Memorial on July 25, 1979, about the same time it got a more powerful transmitter and additional NPR content. It began to broadcast at 100,000 watts in May 1980, which created a louder, cleaner signal with a radius of 100 miles.

Since its inception, station management has worked to keep KTEP informative, intelligent and educational. It has been rewarded with several awards for broadcast excellence and longtime fans who consider the programs to be “appointment radio.”

Daniel Perez is a senior writer for UTEP’s University Communications office.

Posted in: El Paso Times Series

Daniel Perez is a senior writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.