On a good day, remembers Gene Pack, "we could broadcast to 7th East."
Pack is talking about the early days of KUER radio when the station's transmitter looked like a refrigerator and the signal could reach about a mile tops. That was 1960, when the "E" in KUER definitely stood for "educational." Those were the days when the programming included lectures and local actors reading Dickens on the air.
This year, KUER turns 40. The station is kicking off its yearlong celebration with a gala dinner on Friday, Jan. 28. Guest speaker will be Susan Stamberg, "the founding mother" of National Public Radio.
NPR hadn't even been invented yet when KUER first appeared at the left-hand side of the radio dial at 90 FM. The station was launched by University of Utah icon Keith Engar. One of his first hires was a recent graduate named Gene Pack, who had volunteered at the station even before it went on the air.
So KUER's 40th anniversary is Pack's, too. "Isn't it wonderful to be excited about something after 40 years?" he asks. Now 67, he still hosts his classical music program each weekday morning and says he has no plans to retire.
Although Pack's original audience in 1960 was basically just the neighborhood, it now reaches the entire state and into neighboring states, thanks to 32 "translators," the relays that send radio signals over mountain ranges.
Philosophically, too, the station is now reaching further afield. Last week, it launched Radio West, a twice-weekly half-hour news magazine. The show may eventually air every weekday evening.
Radio West is a reincarnation of Friday Edition, which passed away in December 1998. Like Friday Edition, Radio West is hosted by Doug Fabrizio, whose quiet intelligence gives a depth missing from most other local radio news. Fabrizio's debut essay about what it means to live in the West explored the effect of landscape and vista on our collective psyche.
KUER's audience, says station general manager John Greene, sees its neighborhood as not just the Wasatch Front or even Utah but as the Western region, so the show will touch on issues from surrounding states as well. The show will also air stories filed electronically from other Western public radio stations.
"We'll be able to download the story and see if it has legs locally," Greene explains. "A water story from Las Vegas, for example, or the Rockies." Similarly, stories produced at KUER will air on stations in Nevada and Colorado.
"It's a glorious time" to be a public radio listener, says Greene. Before the advent of satellite-delivered programs, he recalls, tapes of shows produced outside the state had to be mailed to each station. Satellites and audience interest have lead to an explosion in programming available to local stations, from networks such as National Public Radio and Public Radio International.
Salt Lake City, like most midsize or small U.S. markets, has more public radio stations than big cities such as New York or Chicago, he adds.
So that also means more choices for Utah listeners.
"It's really heaven here" for the listener, says Greene. But that also makes it harder for the stations, who have to provide the increasingly finicky listeners with exactly what they want.
As a result, KUER has been looking into offering a second station, says Greene. One station, for example, might offer just music and the other just news and information.
Utah's public radio cornucopia is especially evident this week. On Thursday evening, rival station KCPW will host the first appearance of NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" before a live audience.
And on Friday, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg will bring her wit and distinctive voice to the KUER 40th anniversary gala.
The dinner will also include music from Utah's Kirkmount, a Celtic ensemble that won A Prairie Home Companion's "Talent from Towns Under 2,000" contest" in 1997.
Gene Pack will also be honored for his 40 years of broadcasting.