COLUMBIA — Steve Donofrio’s first memory of KOPN/89.5 FM was in the mid-1970s waiting outside the station on Broadway to buy tickets for an Ozark Mountain Daredevils concert.
After he began volunteering at the station as an audio engineer and eventually a program host, Donofrio took over a program called “Rootin' Tootin' Radio” in 1985.
Since then, Donofrio has made the program his own and has become known to listeners as the "Radio Ranger." He prefers to play CDs on his show rather than program the music on his iPod or laptop. He still remembers when the station played exclusively vinyl records.
“There’s a certain energy that comes from programming a show live,” Donofrio said. “It feels like it flows better, both timing and musically.”
Since its first broadcast in March 1973, KOPN has sought to maintain the goal of providing open access to the airwaves for community opinions and music.
Sunday marks the station’s 40th anniversary. KOPN will host an open house for the public Sunday afternoon with tours of the station downtown at 915 E. Broadway and a ceremony with refreshments from 2 to 3 p.m.
'A voice for all of us'
KOPN's first board of directors in the early 1970s intentionally chose the station’s call letters “OPN” to stand for "open access," to provide a voice to members of the community, station manager David Owens said.
John Betz has tuned into the station since 1973, volunteered since 2007 and served as president of the board of directors the past 18 months. Betz also hosts a science show the second Tuesday of the month called "Skeptical Eye."
“This is a voice for all of us,” Betz said. “The reason I’m here, the reason I love this place, is if we don’t have access to the print media, if the system is set up to be very complicated and you don’t have access to the airwaves, then where’s democracy? Isn’t access to the airwaves and print media a part of what democracy’s all about? And that’s worth your time.”
KOPN has grown in the past four decades not only in the amount of programming offered, but also in broadcasting power from an initial 10 watts to 40,000 watts in 1975. The increased power extended the station's reach from an area of just five miles in downtown Columbia to a roughly 70-mile, nine county radius. Listeners can also stream the station's programs online.
KOPN operates as a community radio station, the sixth oldest of its type in the U.S. As a community station, it relies on listeners to pay the majority of its expenses. Programming is primarily original and hosted by volunteers in the community rather than hired staff.
Additional funding comes from the state and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, though state funds have dwindled in light of recent economic conditions, Owens said. This year, the station received about $72,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and has an annual budget of nearly $300,000. Listener contributions account for about two-thirds of the budget, Betz said.
The station holds pledge drives every quarter, with an estimated 1,200 people who pledge from year to year. The most recent drive, held in early February, resulted in pledges that averaged $120, Owens said.
“When your listeners support you to the best of their abilities and state and federal funding runs thin, it does make it difficult,” Owens said.
A showcase of diversity
Regardless of the programming offered at any given hour on KOPN, listeners have continued to tune in over the last 40 years to hear the music and opinions that make the community of Columbia diverse.
“The station pretty much remains doing what it’s doing,” Donofrio said. “It’s grown into being a community radio station as other stations become more and more niched into what they are. People look at it as a tapestry of stuff that makes it up. My three hours is different than the three hours before or after me.”
Before they begin hosting a program, volunteers go through training and orientation and are granted free reign over their program’s content and delivery, within Federal Communications Commission limits, Betz said.
The station also airs National Public Radio morning programs Monday through Friday, including “Fresh Air” and “The Diane Rehm Show.”
On a given day, the program schedule features an array of local opinions and personalities. Content ranges from a music show called "Blues on Broadway" to a program called "Arab Music, Arab Culture".
Jill Sheets hosts Penguin Tracks from 4 to 6 p.m. Fridays that's geared toward young girls and women ages 8 to 18. Sheets said she brings local musicians into the studio and strives to feature talk segments that cover topics girls and young women are confronted with every day: bullying, eating disorders and depression.
"There really are not many programs geared toward that age group," Sheets said. "I try to play singers who are younger so that listeners can hear that and realize if that's something they want to do, they can accomplish that, too."
As station manager, Owens shares the same philosophy as the station's mission: To offer a voice to all. "You don’t have to have the same values, he said, "but you have to realize you’re part of a diverse community.”