John Onderdonk worked with Willie Nelson during pledge drive in 1996.
By Sandy Cordell
Radio-television-broadcasting Professor John Onderdonk is described as “the guardian of KSYM.”
“He is the one we go to when the answer can’t be found,” by RTVB sophomore Jacob Sendejo said.
Onderdonk is preparing to retire in May and “do nothing for a while” after 37 years at this college. He has been faculty adviser and general manager of college radio station KSYM 90.1 FM since 1992.
“We are losing a wealth of knowledge for the radio industry,” Judy Kabo, academic unit assistant, said. “The students that were fortunate to have him in class have gone on to do very successful things.”
Onderdonk, along with his wife, Ellen Marshall, professor emeritus of early childhood studies, look forward to traveling, he said in an interview April 22. Marshall retired from this college in May 2018.
“We both traveled a lot in the past,” he said. “We would like to go to Turkey and back to Australia.”
Onderdonk is a “very inspirational person,” broadcast engineer Ruben Rodriguez said. “He taught me that radio can be so much more.”
Without Onderdonk at the station, it will be “a very sad and depressing place,” Rodriguez said
He is “more than a mentor,” music business Coordinator Donnie Meals said. “He shows a high level of maturity and intelligence while still being relatable. Students are comfortable learning new things, the professional way to do radio work.”
He is leaving the station in good hands,” Rodriguez said. “We have a good crew.”
Onderdonk’s replacement as a faculty member and station manager has not been selected.
“We have been promised that this position will be replaced, but I don’t think it will be as hands-on as I have been,” Onderdonk said.
“James has already picked up the bulk of the work, which has been a blessing to me,” Onderdonk said of James Velten, program director for KSYM.
After graduating from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., in 1972, Onderdonk left for Australia to teach.
“The school was about 60 miles from a movie theater. We received a grant to work with media. We received tape recorders, cameras and still photography equipment. I really enjoyed working with media with the students, even though I was teaching English and history,” Onderdonk said.
After five years of teaching in Australia, he returned to his home state of Virginia.
He continued his education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., receiving a master’s in media technology in 1981.
In spring 1982, Onderdonk began teaching courses about library equipment for a degree in library technology.
“I’ve taught just about everything we offer here except audio classes, mostly because I came from TV,” Onderdonk said
In 1992, KSYM was broadcast from the front porch of the Bennett Estate, part of this college’s property at Dewey and Belknap places.
The glass front porch was divided in two. Half was the transmitter and the other half was the control booth. The station had 1,000 watts, “which seemed to only broadcast to the parking lot,” Onderdonk said.
“The biggest changes in the RTVB classes have revolved around the huge improvements in the technology that is not only available to the program but also the technology that is readily available to the students,” Onderdonk said.
“While production quality has skyrocketed, the techniques of visual storytelling have remained nearly constant.”
Needing new equipment in 1994, Onderdonk asked for money from the dean for a new transmitter. The dean could only provide $20,000. A new transmitter cost $22,000.
The first pledge drive raised funds to make up the difference.
After the installation of the new transmitter, the station broadcast signal was boosted to 3,000 watts.
In 1997 with the approval of the Federal Communication Commission, the station increased the effective wattage to 5,700 watts.
“Our current broadcast signal is described as covering San Antonio inside loop 410,” RTVB program coordinator Markene Bennett said. “Once outside 410, to 1604 the signal can be spotty in some areas.”
The station also broadcasts a simulations webcast of the signal on the internet.
Onderdonk came up with the idea of hosting a pledge drive to pay the balance on the transmitter.
“’94 is when I started doing pledge drives,” he said. “We asked our listeners to help support the station. People from local media outlets, students and friends of the station would come on the air.”
The inaugural pledge drive was successful enough to also purchase an automated computer system that would keep the station on the air overnight.
Before the automated computer, he said, “We used to have students on until 3 in the morning, and that was not a good idea. They could never make class the next day. They are having a great time being on the air but couldn’t finish their degree.”
During this pledge drive, the station raised $3,000.
In 1995 the amount doubled to $6,000 and the following year, the station raised $9,000.
“Our record for the pledge drive was the year 2000, when we raised $60,000,” Onderdonk said. “Since ’94, we have raised about $2 million.”
A memorable time during a pledge drive was on July 3, 1996, when the station had Willie Nelson play live his entire album.
“He gave us permission to replicate the album; it was given as a pledge premium,” Onderdonk said.
Onderdonk said the radio station has a duty to the community as well as the college.
“We have always been a department that supplies the local stations. In our field, everyone is ex-SAC or knew someone that took classes,” Onderdonk said.
He said he has enjoyed teaching.
“I get a kick out of being in the class,” Onderdonk said. “I have worked very hard at this. It’s going to be tough, to step away, but it’s time.”