UNLV radio station celebrates 30 years of rock, talk and jazz

It’s hard to decide whether KUNV-FM’s beginnings were merely humble or the makings of an urban legend. But those who were there swear the UNLV radio station began, literally, in a restroom. They even called it KJON.

This month, KUNV-FM 91.5 celebrates its 30th anniversary. And, amid a history that includes being ranked as one of the nation’s top college stations, boasting such celebrity alumni as comedian/talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and enduring the controversial cancellation of the popular alternative music forum "Rock Avenue," it’s the restroom story that comes up whenever alumni meet.

Three years before KUNV hit the airwaves as an FM station, members of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Radio Club created a closed-circuit campus radio station that operated out of an unused restroom in Moyer Student Union.

Tony Cordasco, KUNV’s first sports director and later its program director, recalls that KJON’s station ID was, " ‘You’re listening to KJON’ and, like, a toilet flushing effect."

Because KJON could be heard only in the student union, "sometimes you just did a show for yourself," he says. "It gave new meaning to ‘open format.’ We played everything and anything, whatever records we had at home, whatever records we could scrounge up. Labels wouldn’t send us free music because we weren’t on the air yet."

As primitive as KJON was, running it enabled the staff to "figure out what our format was going to be once (KUNV-FM) got on the air," Cordasco says. "And by the time we actually signed on, we were really a well-oiled machine, I felt."

KUNV began broadcasting for real in April 1981, with John Wennstrom as its first general manager. "I was the only paid person besides the engineer," he recalls, while the rest of the staff was made up of students — many of them older, nontraditional students, including musicians on the Strip who became the new station’s jazz DJs — and community volunteers.

The noncommercial station’s format was as diverse as its staff, with a goal of offering programs and music genres listeners couldn’t find elsewhere. Alternative rock, jazz and classical music, as well as public affairs shows, were primary components of KUNV’s broadcast day. Sports programming was another early staple, with an emphasis on such local events as Lady Rebels basketball and live coverage of a high school football or basketball game of the week.

Although they were more sophisticated by this time, things didn’t always go smoothly. Wennstrom remembers that staffers would have to establish remote links back then via alligator clips and telephone mouthpieces.

Once, during a sports remote, "we tapped into a pay phone," he says, "and 30 minutes later the operator comes on and says, ‘Twenty-five cents more, please.’ We tried to talk to this operator live, on-air, about what’s going on. She listened for about 30 seconds and we got cut off."

KUNV’s roster of alumni includes some recognizable names, among them Kimmel, who did an interview show; Ken Jordan, co-founder of The Crystal Method; and KSNV-TV, Channel 3 traffic reporter Tom Hawley, who served at various times as KUNV’s jazz director, classical music director and acting program director.

"One thing that was spectacularly fun as a college student was, I have no reason why, but for a while we had a remote studio at the Dunes hotel," Hawley says.

"So, in the middle of the day, during our ‘Jazz Progressions’ (show), we’d get in our car and run out to the Dunes where they had a little studio off of the bar, behind one-way glass, overlooking the casino. It was sort of a surreal environment, I think, for a college radio station."

KUNV also found success airing the music of local rock bands and created a popular niche for itself airing music that was then considered alternative.

Brett Greene, who between 1986 and 1990 was a KUNV DJ, "Rock Avenue" music director and program director, signed on as a volunteer when he was 16 and still attending Chaparral High School. On KUNV, Greene discovered "all this alternative British pop and punk and New Age stuff that was very different than KLUC (FM), which was the only thing I could listen to back then."

KUNV soon became nationally known for its rock music programming. Joel Habbeshaw, who worked at the station from 1988 to 1992 and served as music director for a time, says KUNV several times was named one of the country’s top college stations and became a haven for both lovers of alternative music and bands that played it.

In collaboration with venues such as Calamity Jayne’s, KUNV brought to town such acts as Nine Inch Nails, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction, Habbeshaw says, helping to create "this alternative community in Las Vegas."

Key to that was "Rock Avenue." That show’s cancellation in 1998, along with the station’s switch to a jazz format, angers some die-hard fans even now. KUNV Operations Manager Frank Mueller wasn’t around then, but is familiar with what he describes as a "very tumultuous time."

According to Mueller, the demise of "Rock Avenue" was the result of several factors, some of them "almost mundane."

For example, "Rock Avenue" was, during its heyday, "the source for alternative music in Las Vegas you couldn’t hear anywhere else," Mueller says.

"By the time it went off, there were two commercial stations playing alternative music in the valley," he notes, negating the need for KUNV — with its philosophy of serving underserved genres — to continue it.

There also were "some run-ins with the FCC" over language, Mueller says, and "some run-ins with the administration, some requests the administration had made that were not being complied with."

"It was a perfect storm for ‘Rock Avenue,’ " Mueller says. "It wasn’t one certain thing that led to removing it from the air."

Today, as KUNV celebrates 30 years on the air, its programming includes news and information from National Public Radio, an eclectic menu of weekend music programming that includes everything from blues to Hawaiian, and contemporary jazz. Over the years, KUNV’s identity also has evolved, turning from the student-run station it was at its start into more of a standard noncommercial, public radio station.

However, Mueller says the launch last fall of KUNV HD 2, an HD station that features student programming, is part of KUNV’s efforts — another has been the station’s return to the UNLV campus after an absence of about a decade — to revitalize student involvement with the station.

"We have trained over 50 students since launching HD 2, and right now on the HD (station) we have actively on the air or behind the scenes somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 students," Mueller says.

That means today’s student DJs someday may be able to look back on their KUNV experiences with the same fondness that their predecessors do.

"My dad used to ask me how the hell I got up at 5:30 in the morning to go to do something for free when he couldn’t get me up before 9," Greene says. "It was passion."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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