Answering the call of the airwaves

Kerry Swanson, of Pullman, stands next to one of five Porsches he owns and displays at car shows throughout the Northwest.

It’s been more than 36 years since Kerry Swanson answered “a higher calling.”

No, Swanson didn’t enter the ministry or even a career in the health care field, though both could have been on his radar as his father was a Lutheran pastor and his mother a registered nurse.

Instead, he followed his early fascination with radio — a fascination that continues to this day in his role as station manager for Northwest Public Broadcasting on the Washington State University campus in Pullman.

Craig Clohessy: What made you decide to go the public versus commercial broadcasting route with your career?

Kerry Swanson: I’ve always been interested in broadcasting. Even as a child I remember building my first AM crystal radio set at 6 years old and just marveling at the sound of a distant voice talking directly to me. ... Something about that human interconnection always resonated with me, which is odd because I am by nature a real introvert.

I had the opportunity to help out with my girlfriend’s father — later my father-in-law — on the hydroplane races in the Tri-Cities. He worked at KONA (radio) in the Tri-Cities at the time — this was in the early ‘80s. Mostly I was the guy ... pulling cable and wiring for the announcers. It was fun to be around that and watching the people along the sidelines listening to the announcers as the boats went around and getting that human connection again with people and watching them enjoy something.

I had the opportunity to go to Pacific Lutheran University. They had an NPR affiliate there. I begged and got an overnight job there, 12 in the morning, running tapes and doing announcements. ... During the summers I would also have the opportunity to work in commercial radio, a little station in Ellensburg, Wash. I was a country disc jockey and had a lot of fun with that.

I had the opportunity to go into commercial broadcasting as a career after college, but I was enjoying being in public broadcasting. I think it was because there was just a different mission there. For most commercial broadcasting, the bottom line is the money you make, it’s the revenue, it’s all based on that. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think because of my upbringing ... there was just a public service aspect in me.

Public broadcasting seemed to have a higher calling, a higher mission. That’s what drove me toward continuing to stay in public broadcasting. ... Most public broadcasting is rooted within higher education — college and university — and education is an important part of my life as well.

CC: What’s changed in the field since you first started?

KS: When I first started, we were using records, 45s, spinning discs that way. Reel-to-reel tape was the medium that we used to edit. So it was all very analog. Soon that started changing as digital came along.

I still remember editing on reel-to-reel tape. Sometimes you had to be really quick because you had to get that edit and get it on the air as quickly as you could. I have a scar on my left index finger where you’re cutting the tape with a razor blade and sometimes you’d miss and you’d hit your finger. ... They used to call me the blade master.

(Everything) started changing with digital and all of a sudden, just like a word processor and typewriters, digital audio allowed us to be much more nimble and have higher standards.

Around the mid-1990s, the internet was starting to come out and I was one of those that was really early on saying, “Hey, this is going to change our world in ways that we just don’t understand right now.”

I was at KPLU at the jazz station at the time and I said, “You know, someday this internet is going to make us reach out to audiences that don’t even know we exist here in the Seattle-Tacoma area. There are going to be jazz fans from all over the world and someday we’re going to start seeing people supporting us from all over the world.” In the late ‘90s, I developed ... an all-jazz stream and it was one of the first successful online streams at the time, it was the third most listened to in the world. ... Instead of radio in a small physical community, all of a sudden the internet was allowing us to find communities of interest.

A lot of the stuff I see NPR and PBS doing today, I can trace back to some of those early things that we were thinking about and trying out at the time. Back then there was not even a word to call podcasting, but the concept was already there. Through my work, I got involved with a colleague and we started producing audio content, now you call them podcasts, but it was for a small company called Audible, a startup company (that has since been acquired by Amazon). I want to clarify: I didn’t found the company. I just got involved with it and helped produce content.

CC: What are your top career accomplishments so far?

KS: I have been very lucky to be a part of growing public media in Washington state and the Northwest. Putting on new transmitters in western Washington, and then when I got here to Northwest Public Broadcasting, increasing our audience signals with the transmitters into places that had not received service in the past.

I (served for a time) on the board of National Public Radio. That was extremely rewarding and exciting and it was probably some of the hardest thinking that I had to do because now we’re talking about the complexity of an entire national media network and a $260 million budget and trying to help them navigate through things like podcasts and station relations and the growth and fall of different revenues. That was exciting and I still am in touch with a lot of my NPR colleagues from working there through that time.

CC: Every now and then you hear those on the far right of the political spectrum threatening to cut off government funding for public broadcasting. Isn’t it the case that such funding is a relatively small percentage of your overall budget?

KS: It is. Most public funding for radio at Northwest Public Broadcasting (comes) from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is less than 7 percent of our overall budget.

CC: In your free time, you collect vintage Porsches. How many do you currently own and do you have a favorite in your collection?

KS: Asking if I have a favorite is like asking me if I have a favorite child. No, it’s whatever car I’m driving at the time is my favorite.

I spent a lot of time as a kid growing up on our family’s farm. My uncle and aunt and my grandfather are orchardists in the Yakima Valley. (In) farming life, you have to fix what you have. ... I started getting that mechanic’s bug in me. When we were in high school, my brothers and I got to use my dad’s Volkswagen Bug. We had to fix the thing, we had to get it running, change the oil, tune it up, all the things. And during all that time, I marveled at how simple German engineering is. My next logical thing was Porsche, the same kind of German engineering.

I convinced my wife that I was going to buy this old Porsche 911 and the price was right. ... Now I have five different Porsches in my garage and I tease my wife now that the kids are out of college, I should be thinking about a sixth.

Not only are they fun to drive, but I like to work on them and I like to show them. I take them to various car shows around the Northwest.

I’m really proud that one of them won a national award. That’s kind of like winning a national championship, being recognized that you take that kind of care in how to show your cars was an exciting thing to me.

CC: Which one of your cars won the national award?

KS: It’s a 1989 Porsche 944 Turbo. You don’t see many of those anymore because most of them have been well used and, well, this one has been well taken care of.

CC: Anything else you’d like to add?

KS: I just really enjoy the Northwest. My wife and I both grew up here and raised our kids here and we had the opportunity to live in larger cities, in Atlanta, and we spent a lot of time in Seattle, but there’s just something about being part of this community, it’s just really special.

Clohessy is managing editor of the Lewiston Tribune. He may be contacted at or (208) 848-2251.