Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, KKUP 91.5 FM is the oldest listener-supported radio station in the country.
At KKUP, humans choose the music and human listeners bankroll the whole operation. No secret tycoons underwrite anything. No affiliated college or foundation pulls any strings. Being 100% listener-sponsored gives the station a unique degree of freedom. DJs play music based on their own eclectic tastes and those of their listeners, although it just doesn’t generate any sales-based income.
“You get a different point of view from a corporate point of view,” said Jim Thomas, KKUP’s general manager. “You get people that are passionate about a certain kind of music, whether it’s reggae or blues, or R&B or oldies, or formats that don’t function on commercial radio because they don’t sell soap. But people still like them a lot.”
The station first launched in May of 1972 by leasing an abandoned Cupertino Water Company building at 10075 Pasadena Ave for one dollar a year, in what was then unincorporated Monta Vista. Bay Area Radio Hall of Famer Dana Jang was among the heroes that started the station. This was before Apple and before Vallco—very different from today’s Cupertino.
“At the time, the biggest building there was Gemco,” Jang said.
The KKUP story could only have happened in suburbia. Long before vaulting to glory at classic rock stations like KOME and KSJO, Jang landed his first on-air job when his mom went shopping at the old Mayfield Mall in Mountain View and noticed a radio station broadcasting remotely from the mall. KPSR 91.5 was affiliated with the Pinewood private school in Los Altos and was looking for volunteers.
“My mother brought home the phone number of a woman who worked for the school,” Jang said. “I called her and she said, ‘Come on down.’”
A couple years later, Jang was the equivalent of KPSR’s program director, but the owner of Pinewood no longer wanted the station, so she sent the license back to the FCC. The remaining KPSR DJs then started scheming to get the license back, even though they had no idea what was involved.
The license needed to be issued to an educational organization, so after failing on several fronts, the group secured sponsorship from a quality control outfit at Lockheed called the Assurance Science Foundation. At that point, the chief engineer of KLOK, Dan Ethen, came on board with all sorts of connections, including one to Loren McQueen, who was able to lease the group a transmitter spot in the vicinity of Mount Umunhum for one dollar a year. This was 1970. It then took two more years for everything to get started.
“So, 50 years ago, we went on the air with a 10-watt radio station, but we were on Mount Umunhum, so we were able to cover Monterey and Santa Clara County,” Jang said.
KKUP would relocate a few times over the years. First it moved one block over to Imperial Ave, close enough to an auto repair shop that the radio broadcasts often picked up air wrench sounds from mechanics removing tires. Then the station moved to Franklin Mall in Santa Clara, where any passerby could peer in the window and see the DJs. Drunks from nearby bars often stumbled through the mall and banged on the window. Nowadays, the station resides on Koll Circle in San Jose.
The lasting support for KKUP proves that people still want to hear a live human being with a passion for eclectic music. This especially rang true during the Covid era, when everyone was overwhelmed by news and polarized arguments all day long.
“We actually did better financially during the pandemic than we ever did before,” Thomas said.
Jang said it’s ultimately about human connection: “When you have this trust with people that are presenting the music, you’re part of their tribe,” he said, adding that when one member of the tribe shares enthusiasm, others then feel a sense of belonging. “We have people with passion about the music that they’re presenting, and the community are listeners, they’re supporting us with their donations. And I think that real connection of trust and passion really transforms with community radio.”