Revisiting the KJHK revolt of 1988

Cami Koons | @Koons_Cami

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Not long after KJHK went on air in 1975, the station received national acclaim for its cutting edge music, and the music scene was bustling in Lawrence largely because of the station. So what happened in 1988 that caused former DJ’s, listeners and staff to protest the station’s format and leadership? 

Advised by the School of Journalism in 1987, KJHK established a format and changed the rules for its disc jockeys, all with the goal of gaining listenership and a more professional sound. Many at the station and in town disagreed and thought the cutting-edge, “Sound Alternative” was selling out.

KJHK has always been a student-run radio station. It was created and is still run today as place for students to learn the trade and important professional skills. The problem in 88 was the perception that KJHK was becoming a training ground for newscasters only and leaving little room for music DJs.

In 1985 the journalism school lost its television station, Channel 30, which served as a broadcast student laboratory. The department turned to KJHK as the only environment where students could gain the same broadcasting experience.

In 1987, real change was made when the KJHK Board ( consisting of three journalism faculty and three students) in collaboration with then station manager, Brad Schwartz, outlined a new format.

Rather than all free-form all the time as KJHK had been, beginning in the spring of 1988, KJHK would switch to the following format, as detailed in a KJHK Board meeting in November of 1987:

 “The 40-50 most popular albums as reported by the major trades…and groups and music as identified in station-specific, sponsored research of KU students…This rotational music would be supplemented by other categories, ‘Hot up and comers’ and ‘KJHK Classics.’”

Max Utsler, the chairmen of the Radio-Television department at KU at the time and member of the KJHK Board, said the station was alienating listeners by tossing albums out as soon as they gained popularity. 

“‘As soon as somebody got to be good, you dumped em!'” Utsler recalls trying to explain to KJHK leadership. “‘Well you can hear U2 on any channel.’ Yeah, but not in the context that you guys could present it.”

The format change in early ’88 was met with some grumbling by DJs and listeners, but nothing significant. More extreme changes happened the following semester under the direction of Station Manager Jerry Howard. 

Howard pulled around 300 thrash records from the studio shortly after a late-night, thrash show jock allegedly yelled some obscenities on air.

Utsler was driving home from Kansas City after the Jayhawks won the 1988 NCAA National Championship. Journalism students covered the game, the celebrations in Kansas City and the post-win festivities on Jayhawk Boulevard. All of this aired on KJHK.

Conveniently, there is no record of what the DJ actually said following the game coverage, just a collective memory. Utsler remembers the jock yelling “F*** you Billy Tubbs” repeatedly before playing a violent Thrash song. Tubbs was the coach for Oklahoma’s basketball team whom Kansas had defeated in the final game earlier that night. 

Janet Cinelli, then a KJHK DJ and journalism student representative on the KJHK Board, remembers the jock saying, “this one goes out to Billy Tubbs” before playing a thrash song with the lyrics “F*** you, F*** you…” 

Minute details, but, inappropriate on-air behavior from a trained DJ. The incident is cited as a catalyst for Howard’s aggressive means for change at the station, which included tearing down posters from the walls in addition to the removal of vinyl.

Jeffery Morrow, a graduate student at the university, a KJHK DJ, and local business owner at the time, remembers the incident as a visual representation that the journalism school did not see a place for alternative music at KJHK. 

 “The brand of KJHK is now being replaced with the new Max Utsler-Jerry Howard brand,” Morrow said. 

Those opposed to the changes at KJHK made similarly visual attacks as well. Cinelli recounts the frequent personal ads in the Kansan reading “MAX U.: HOW DO YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT?”

Cinelli said while no one is certain who paid for these ads, most believe that it was the work of Steven Greenwood. Greenwood was a longtime DJ at KJHK who is largely attributed with putting KJHK on the map as a cutting-edge alternative station. 

Part of Utsler’s fight against the station involved the removal of jocks who were no longer students. There were several individuals who were no longer students at the university yet they held prime-time DJ slots on KJHK and they had for years. Steven Greenwood was one of these individuals.

Music and programming director at KJHK in 88 and 89, Bruce Rowley, agreed with Utsler’s changes and said they mostly centered on removing the “townspeople” from their shifts at the student run radio station.

If we’re a student-run radio station, how come we have all these shows every night being run by non students?” Rowley said. 

Morrow and Cinelli disagree, saying only a couple of jocks actually fit this category. Cinelli herself said she was no longer allowed to DJ even though she was still a student.

I was told that I was not going to be allowed to be on KJ for the following fall because I had too much experience and they wanted a more professional sound for KJHK,” Cinelli said. “Okay, what the hell does that mean?”

Utsler noted Morrow as one of these “townspeople” still on the air. Morrow was a part-time, graduate student at the time, but agreed he was a jock the Board wanted to remove.

Old timers that were holding onto the spots and not giving them up?” Morrow said. “One of them would have been me. I believe during that whole time, I maintained at least six credit hours… As a business owner, I went part-time cause that’s all I could afford to do, time wise.”

Utsler and Rowley said a large portion of the people who were upset were not students, but people from the Lawrence community.

Morrow said he had strong ties to the community, especially those who supported KJHK, through his work with the Committee for Preservation of Wild Life in Lawrence. The committee itself is a different story, but represents the community support for KJHK as a forefront in alternative music and Lawrence culture.

KJHK was part of the lifeblood of Lawrence as Lawrence was known, and all of a sudden, it became different; Sickly and needed attention,” Morrow said. “And everybody sat up and paid attention.” 

It seems like the on-paper format change likely went undetected by most as it really only resulted in more organization for jocks. What listeners probably perceived as a format change, were the visual attacks, like the removal of records, and the loss of some of their favorite DJs like Matt Moore and Greenwood who had become staples of the station. 

The Board also made new policies regarding student involvement. Under the new rules, students who were not a part of the School of Journalism would have to sign an agreement contract to comply with KJHK policies and submit an audition tape. Editorials about the policy in the University Daily Kansan argued that the policy was put in place to dissuade non-journalism students from becoming jocks.

Students were also expected to submit written playlists for approval before their sets and it was not promised that they could ad-lib on air during their sets.

Frustrated, Cinelli wrote an editorial which was published in the Kansan, citing the board as unfair to student representatives like herself. 

“ We had no say at all,” the editorial reads, “Instead, the journalism school faculty wrote the qualifications and they became law….I was told we would discuss the Student Sentate recommendations. Instead the faculty’s response was thrust upon me. I had no vote. I had no say.”  

Cinelli remembered the lack of student representation on the Board as being one of the things that bothered her most. Especially because the Board would always announce decisions as being anonymous. Cinelli said people would accuse her of making these decisions and being on the Board’s side even though she was trying to represent both sides.

“You can’t even imagine the contentiousness of this,” Cinelli said. “For two years I would go out in Lawrence and everyone would see me and dive-bomb to me: ‘Janet what’s going on with KJHK?’ I couldn’t have a single other conversation for two frickin’ years.” 

One of these heated Board meetings Cinelli remembered was regarding the renewal of Howard’s position for the spring semester of 1989.

Cinelli remembered a long, contentious KJHK Board meeting ultimately deciding that Jerry would not be the station manager in the spring semester of ‘89. Utsler said Howard’s position was supposed to turn over at the end of the semester anyway, so that wasn’t a problem, yet UDK articles say Howard had reapplied. Regardless, the board appointed Michael Ulin, and Howard was offered a position the board created for him, which he then turned down. 

This is the closest thing this story has to an end. Somehow something that was seemingly so heated, fizzled out so quickly.  

“Yeah it did, it really did just all end,” Cinelli said,  “It is funny about that. I never really thought about that until just now.” 

Looking at it all now, the whole thing probably didn’t actually end  until the journalism school was able to get a news station, and when the Kansas Union took control of KJHK in 2004. It wasn’t until that point, that both factions truly had what they really wanted.

If the music never really changed, and KJHK perseveres today, why does this story matter? It matters because people care about this tiny station, and without that fight, maybe it wouldn’t persist today.





KJHK 90.7 FM