Berlinda Tyler-Jamison was a co-ed at Marycrest College when she heard about a Quad-Cities radio station playing music made by black musicians who were considered less mainstream than the disco artists of the day.
"They said 'KALA at St. Ambrose,'" she remembered. "And I said, ‘St. Ambrose?' Seriously, that was my response. But I clicked on it and, I'll be doggoned, they were playing music we were not hearing on the mainstream radio.
"We would hear Donna Summers and such on other stations, but we certainly were not hearing the other music that was blowing up in the African-American community. But it was on KALA."
It still is.
Jazz, gospel and blues today remain programming staples on KALA-FM (HD1 88.5, HD2 106.1), just as they were in the late 1970s. The public radio station at St. Ambrose also broadcasts talk radio programs with a minority perspective, such as the Tavis Smiley Show, In Black America and Voces de Nuestro Mundo.
"They were just about ahead of their time and they continue to be," Tyler-Jamison said.
KALA's importance to minority communities in the Quad Cities was recognized in June when operations manager David Baker '88 accepted the Arts and Entertainment Image Award from the Rock Island County Chapter of the NAACP.
"It was the first radio station in the Quad Cities that was really diverse," said Tyler-Jamison, a committee chair for the Rock Island County chapter. "Given its impact not only on African-Americans but on Latinos as well, we wanted to recognize them."
Baker said the radio station is committed not only to providing its listeners entertainment they might not find elsewhere, but also to giving them a voice when they need one.
"We take public service very seriously at the station," he said. "Our stance has always been to be there to announce community events. The music is important and the fact we do minority programming has always been important. But I think the fact that we are willing to lend a hand to events that wouldn't otherwise get a voice is important, as well."
Tyler-Jamison said the local NAACP chapter relies on KALA to share messages with its membership. "It is not just the music," she said of the radio station's importance. "It is the extension into the community here."
Although the advance of technology makes any genre of music available at the click of a mouse, Baker said KALA listenership has remained loyal. He stressed the audience is "wide and diverse and crosses all socio-economic and ethnic platforms."
Still, he said serving the under-served is "important work," and also is in keeping with the St. Ambrose University mission. Doing that, in turn, provides a vital lesson to the dozens of students who keep the station running each year.
"This is not only KALA, this is St. Ambrose lending a hand and helping people who wouldn't otherwise have their voice be heard," Baker said. "That's the key and it helps our students realize they are not just involved with a practice lab. This is real and people count on us to be there."