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A history of KJZZ 91.5, Phoenix's NPR member station

Did you know KJZZ reaches hundreds of thousands of listeners every week?

But it wasn’t always that way.

“The first time the audience was measured, it said we had 5,000 listeners a week — a week,” said Carl Matthusen, the station’s former general manager.

And it wasn’t always KJZZ, either.

As KJZZ celebrates its 70th year in operation, here's a look back at the history of the station.

How long have you been listening to KJZZ? Share your favorite driveway moment with us on Twitter, Facebookand Instagram using the hashtag #KJZZ70.

Humble Beginnings

In February 1951, a new station hit the Phoenix airwaves, operating at just 10 watts. FCA’s signal reached a radius of just a few miles around Phoenix College near 15th Avenue and Thomas Road, where the station was based in the college’s physics department .

KFCA was 88.5 on the FM dial. An Arizona Republic clipping boasts KFCA as Phoenix College’s new frequency modulation radio station — with two hours of programming between 4-6 p.m. on schooldays.

For a few years, the student-run broadcasts ran for an hour or two a day, up to four or five hours daily. In 1958, the station aimed at expanding its programming from private record collections to college news, sports and creative writing, although it was still only broadcasting a few hours a week. 

In the mid-1960s, KFCA began shaping its future as a public radio station. Programming throughout the decade saw music, news, interviews, sports and specialty programs focusing on agriculture and more. In 1967, the station’s frequency was increased to 50 watts, and it moved to 91.5 FM on the dial. By late 1968, KFCA was broadcasting from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and for 10 hours on Saturdays.

When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) launched in 1968 to support public broadcasting in the United States, KFCA was one of the stations to receive funding. In 1971, KFCA joined the newly formed National Public Radio network as a member station.

Around the same time, KFCA became KMCR — which, in itself, was an issue because listeners didn't know what the call letters stood for.

“Maricopa County Radio, Maricopa Community Radio — nobody knew! That was part of the problem!" Matthusen said in an April 2021 interview.

At that time, KMCR had an audience of about 5,000 listeners a week.

“I could have gone out in the street for 15 minutes and had that many contacts. It was just horrible,” Matthusen said.

Downtown Blues

Spurred on by the CPB’s support and looking to expand its location, KMCR left Phoenix College for downtown Phoenix in 1972. The new office near Fifth Avenue and Washington Street had three radio studios, according to Matthusen. A year later, the station was run by eight full-time staff and 85 students studying mass communication at Phoenix College.

By 1973, the station was operating at 100,000 watts, the most powerful educational station in the United States, according to an article by the Arizona Republic. KJZZ still operates at 100,000 watts today, the maximum power permitted by the Federal Communications Commission.

By the mid-1970s, KMCR was airing a wide range of content that included live hearings from the Arizona Corporation Commission and other community events, U.S. Senate and House hearings carried by NPR and weekly original programming, with shows like “State Capitol Forum” and “Got a Gripe?” It also aired college courses recorded by community college instructors for students taking correspondence courses.

→  Q&AZ: Why Are There 2 KJZZs?

Though larger in square footage, the downtown property brought some challenges for KMCR. Matthusen said the station received little funding from the Maricopa County Community College District and was unable to properly renovate the once-vacant office space.

“The roof leaked so bad that on weekends that we suspected it was going to rain … we would put trash cans up over the desks and things with the plastic liners so that it would catch the water,” Matthusen said.

And while downtown Phoenix is prime real estate today, back then, the location was putting a wrench in KMCR’s plans to grow. The CPB was buying each member station a satellite dish, but KMCR didn’t have a location with a clear signal that was close enough to South Mountain. So, in 1980, KMCR packed up its operations in Phoenix and moved to Mesa Community College. By that time, the station was operating as part of Rio Salado College, MCCCD’s distance learning college that was established in 1978.

“We came under Rio because they really didn’t know what to do with us,” Matthusen said. “And Rio had a lot of things that other people didn’t know what to do with.”

Finally KJZZ

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the little station that started off as an experiment with the Phoenix College physics department finally settled on the call letters listeners know today.

Matthusen said KMCR added jazz music to its programming after another Valley station, KXTC, changed to a disco format in the late 1970s and donated its jazz music library.

"I was looking for [call letters] besides KMCR, something that would work for us," he said.

Matthusen got word that a Tacoma, Washington, station was changing formats and about to give up KJZZ. 

"As soon as [the call letters were] available, we wanted them," he said.

KMCR officially became KJZZ in January 1985.

Another Move And Continued Growth

In the late 1990s, the station launched a version of a website that would become KJZZ.org. The news site now serves an audience of hundreds of thousands each month who visit the site to stream KJZZ live and read the latest news and interviews.

In 2001, the Friends of Public Radio Arizona was incorporated as an Arizona nonprofit charitable organization. The board of volunteers works in partnership with the Maricopa County Community College District, Rio Salado College, staff at KJZZ 91.5 and KBAQ 89.5, and Public Radio Partners/Market Enginuity in a coordinated effort to support public radio in Arizona.

KJZZ remained on the campus of Mesa Community College until 2002, when it moved to its present location at Rio Salado College in Tempe. The station has translators in Globe, Tucson and western New Mexico, and now reaches more than 300,000 listeners a week.

In 2007, KJZZ launched its Teen Radio Project, which sent journalists into Valley high schools to teach at-risk students useful media skills. The project became SPOT 127, a youth media center teaching high schoolers multimedia production, through a collaboration between KJZZ, Friends of Public Radio Arizona and Rio Salado College in 2012.

In the past 20 years, KJZZ’s newsroom has expanded from a handful of employees to more than 25 full-time reporters, producers, hosts and editors, covering the Phoenix metro area, the state, the border region and Mexico, Arizona's largest trading partner.

In 2010, KJZZ partnered with other NPR member stations, including KPBS, AZPM and TPR, to create Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, a $2 million Local Journalism Center project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By 2014, the initiative moved wholly under KJZZ, funded by the station's listeners. In 2016, the Fronteras Desk expanded yet again with the opening of its first foreign bureau in Mexico City.

In 2015, KJZZ added the Arizona Science Desk, a partnership between four Arizona NPR member stations that was funded by the Arizona Community Foundation and the CPB. Grant funding ended a few years later, but KJZZ continues to report the latest in science, health, technology and innovation news around the state.

KJZZ is also home to the news magazine, The Show, which began weekday production in 2017. It features stories and interviews from metro Phoenix, the U.S. and abroad.

KJZZ operates within Rio Salado College’s Division of Public Service Community Outreach, which includes classical station KBAQ 89.5 FM, reading service Sun Sounds of Arizona and Hear Arizona, a podcast initiative dedicated to addressing important issues in the community.

As the station looks to the future, the award-winning newsroom will continue to bring listeners all over the Southwest the news and information they rely on. Listeners can support the effort by making a contribution at donate.kjzz.org.

KJZZ's Sky Schaudt contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the funding sources for the Arizona Science Desk.

Christina Van Otterloo was an assistant digital editor at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.