Liberation Frequency: 90.9 The Bridge set 20 years of local bands free to fly
Almost 20 years ago at the University of Central Missouri, The Bridge hit the airwaves for the first time.
The station made its way out of Warrensburg 12 years later, heading 60 miles down the road and setting up shop in Kansas City. Once it settled into its new digs, 90.9 The Bridge sprung to life, giving the mic to Kansas City’s local music scene both on the air and in person at live shows.
The station is still doing it today and they’re loving every second of it. But for station founders Jon Hart and Byron Johnson, the earliest days weren’t always easy.
Hart had been working in commercial radio for most of his career when he arrived at The Bridge—which wasn’t The Bridge as we know it. At the time, the Warrensburg-based station KCMW was happily bumping jazz, and it had played classical music before that. He was ready to shake things up.
Hart took a look at the station’s history and it became clear to him that it would have more success as a noncommercial Triple-A or “adult album alternative” station. Triple-A radio, a format originating from the 1990s, takes on a broader range of genres than other radio formats and usually includes tracks beyond an album’s singles.
He pitched this transition to the university. Hart considered this to be a bold move, he says, and he wasn’t all that sure that it would be given the green light. But it was, and The Bridge still uses that format today.
“Noncommercial Triple-As are where a lot of acts that become really big across multiple formats get their start,” Hart says. “I really wanted to have that service element and feel like I was doing things for an audience as opposed to doing things for a corporation.”
The station changed formats with relative ease, but the next matter was expanding what the station could play. The Bridge’s repertoire originally consisted almost entirely of music from Hart’s personal library, and it was important that the inventory grew before the audience got bored. Step one was sending the signal out to record companies that the station had—and also needed—something new to offer its audience.
“We could not get record companies to acknowledge the fact that the station even existed or had an audience that they needed to serve,” Johnson says. “We clawed and scratched for everything we could get. And it wasn’t until we had really pushed hard that the record companies finally began to filter a little music to our needs.”
The station relaunched on the air as The Bridge on Aug. 19, 2001, right as students were returning to campus.
In those early days, UCM students played a big part in making The Bridge what it was. At least an hour each day went to student airtime and they were there to learn. When students weren’t on the air, they were out at venues, setting up tables at live shows, and getting the word out about what The Bridge was up to.
Despite their excitement to be a part of their school’s new station, Hart says he anticipated some concerns about making the station too student-dependent and taking away from its professionalism.
“My belief at the time—and I think it really proved to be true—was that if you want people to respect things, you respect them,” Hart says. “We had literally next to no problems with student employees, which, as heavily as we used them, was kind of surprising.”
Sarah Bradshaw was one of those undergraduates. As a broadcast student in Johnson’s audio class at UCM, she became familiar with The Bridge and started volunteering there in 2004.
“I had always been extremely interested in radio,” Bradshaw says. “I actually continued on to get my master’s so that I could keep working at The Bridge.”
Students came through for The Bridge in other ways, too. Before recolating to Kansas City, whose listeners became 85% of the station’s financial support through memberships and yearly pledge drives, they primarily received funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When The Bridge faced the early stages of possibly being defunded by the organization, things kicked into high gear.
“We as a group just didn’t feel confident that if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding [allocated toward The Bridge] went away, that the radio station would survive under that,” Hart says. “We had to get good, and we had to get good fast.”
Keeping the station up and running came down to a matter of $60,000 at one point, which the station worked hard to raise through a pledge drive. The Bridge had never raised that much before, Hart says, but the community was motivated to save the station, and kept the momentum going until they were just $10 from their goal. Then one student reached into his pocket, pulling out the $10 needed to push them over the top.
It’s a story that Hart says he can barely tell without crying, but it also signaled a need for change. Although The Bridge kept their CPB funding, Hart knew that they still faced difficulties going forward. The station’s signal could reach Kansas City all the way from its Warrensburg home, and the team became responsible for providing music to listeners from 60 miles away. Yet, they didn’t have the benefits of operating fully as a Kansas City station.
As The Bridge prepared to move to KC, Hart called Bradshaw and asked her if she’d like to apply for the station’s new open position. She said yes, and then suddenly she was back on the team as the music coordinator, doing everything from interviewing artists and speaking with record labels to overseeing The Bridge’s specialty shows.
Bradshaw says the move made a huge difference from what she’d known before. The reach of the station and the diversity of its library continued to expand.
“We just had a bunch more resources at our disposal than we had when we were in Warrensburg,” Bradshaw says. “Being in the city and only 10 minutes from venues and things of that nature—honestly, location helped a lot.”
Following its move, The Bridge continued to grow as a station that serves an audience interested in music discovery and understanding the artist they’re listening to, Hart says. Rather than keeping a tight rotation of familiar music that works as background noise, The Bridge has made a point to introduce its listeners to music they might not have heard before.
“Music is one thing that can reach out and touch just about everybody,” Johnson says. “Not everybody is going to like the kind of music that the station plays, but that’s what we’ve tried to do—get as many people involved that didn’t know that [kind of] music even existed, and grow that audience.”
Today, at any given time, 15 to 20% of The Bridge’s playlist highlights Kansas City musicians. For Michelle Bacon, the station’s function as a connection point to local music compelled her to join the team. As a longtime musician herself, she says she appreciates the way The Bridge has illuminated Kansas City through its music and the stories of locals who create it.
She began writing for The Bridge as a freelancer in 2015 and became the station’s content manager in 2018. During her time at The Bridge, she’s made a point to spotlight the behind-the-scenes lives of local musicians, including through a web series called “Turning the Tables KC.” The series looked at the lives of local female artists and their experiences that might not typically be brought to light, such as gender disparity in the music industry.
The Bridge’s core goal is serving and supporting Kansas City’s musical artists, Bacon says, and she’s enjoyed getting to be a part of that through her work.
“I think that’s something that will never change,” Bacon says. “That drives our mission to the community, wanting to not only be like, ‘Hey, you should check out these artists at this show,’ but also, ‘Here are their stories, here’s what makes them who they are and what drives their creativity.’ I find a lot of value in being able to help tell those stories.”
Right as Bacon took on her new role in 2018, Bryan Truta fulfilled a longtime goal of joining The Bridge’s team. He started listening in 2001 when he first found out a radio station that played Ben Harper existed. He was sold.
He spends his mornings in what he calls his “hours of Zen,” waking up Kansas City with The Bridge’s morning show. Truta also oversees the station’s wide range of programming, which includes everything from the weekday’s typical rotation to specialty shows like Saturday’s “The Z Show” and recent hip-hop addition “GO DJ!” Between the two hats he wears, no one day of Truta’s job is the same.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Truta says. “This is the first station I’ve worked at in my career where my personal music [taste] matches up with what we play.”
When they aren’t reaching listeners through the airwaves, The Bridge’s staff and its volunteers are out supporting Kansas City’s local music community at concerts and events. Elevating that community isn’t something The Bridge can do alone, Hart says—it’s a team effort involving everyone, from promoters and club owners to artists themselves.
The Bridge’s ability to build up the city’s music scene up-close diminished for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, there were no concerts on the calendar, and the disappearance of live music took a toll on The Bridge’s revenue. But listeners understood Hart says, and they stepped up by becoming members and upping donations to The Bridge’s pledge drives.
For The Bridge’s hosts, closets and basements became recording studios. They traded studio interviews and sessions with artists for Zoom ones. Hart says they were met with increased availability because musicians were all of a sudden at home, not on tour.
They no longer had to wait for a particular artist to come to town either—all of a sudden, the station’s reach was nationwide—sometimes even further. This year, Truta reached Amsterdam-based artist Nana Adjoa from the Netherlands, and also interviewed The Avalanches from their apartment in Australia.
Through these interviews, Bacon says she connected with artists in a new way while discussing how it felt to not be on tour. She saw parallels between these conversations and what The Bridge staff was feeling. Just as musicians were forced to take a pause in doing what they did best, Bacon says this year forced their team to stop and consider their higher goals, and how they could best serve the city.
For example, they found ways to support political movements from a distance, such as implementing programming about relevant social issues. The team also provided free underwriting to Asian-owned businesses in May for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Black-owned businesses in February for Black History Month.
It’s been a challenging year, but The Bridge persevered. In fact, the station is up for Station of the Year from the Missouri Broadcasters Association. Throughout all of it, Bacon says The Bridge’s membership and community support has kept a steady incline.
“There’s so much happening in the world and so many people that need relief,” Bacon says. “It was really heartening to see that people still found the value in what we were trying to do.”
They made the best of their time at home, but The Bridge is ready to get back out into the world. The station’s calendar has already begun to fill up with concerts, and getting in front of people again, Truta says, is the final puzzle piece in completing an evolution that The Bridge started undergoing during a time of social unrest last year.
“The thing that we’ve all tried to hold onto is just the heart that we brought into it,” Hart says. “Radio can be a fairly ego-based business. It doesn’t take much to imagine that. This is the type of radio that I think is at its best when you put your ego aside and understand that it’s not about you, it’s about the listener. It’s not about ‘Do I like the record,’ it’s about, ‘Do we think the community wants to hear this record?’”
If you listened back to The Bridge’s first-ever show on the airwaves and compared it to what The Bridge is playing today, the difference would be stark, as the station has worked to stay current and inclusive. But the passion that The Bridge staff has for the music is the same.
Like a car’s motor relies on fuel, without that music, radio wouldn’t be there in the first place, Hart says.
“I think the important thing for me about The Bridge is approaching it with a servant’s heart,” he says. “It’s a small staff trying to do big things. We all have to multitask and we all have to have motors. And we all have to really care.”