South Dakota Broadcasting Pioneers

South Dakota Broadcasting Pioneers

South Dakota's First Radio Stations


The first KGDA "studio" was in the rear of the Home Auto Company garage at 329 Third Street, Dell Rapids. No official station records could be found, but the station probably went on tile air in 1925 or 1926. It operated from the garage for more than a year. after which Nelson built a second studio in a building across the street. Dieson recalled that after one of his commercials he received a response from a resident of Willmar, Minn.. a community approximately 120 miles northeast of Dell Rapids. Nelson's niece, Mrs. Loyal Erikson, recalls that her uncle went on the air for a test broadcast at two o'clock one morning, and asked for listener response. One card came from California, indicating that KGDA had excellent range.

James Nelson's brother, David Nelson, doesn't recall that the station did much broadcasting during the week, but does recall that the station had very popular live music programs on Sunday evenings. Among the performers were "The Happy Jack Band" from Yankton, Max Nawroth, an accordionist from Colton, a quartet of gospel singers, and a girl singer known as the "Lark of the Dells." In 1930, Nelson closed the station in Dell Rapids and moved to Mitchell, where he engineered another early station. After about a year in Mitchell he returned to Dell Rapids and opened a radio sales and service business. He died April 7, 1947.

Alfred Nelson built the pioneer station in Oldham. Lou Loesch, 84 year-old resident of Oldham, may have been one of the first sportscasters in South Dakota. He recalls that the Oldham station was built "before the bank closings"—probably 1928. He doesn't recall the station's power or frequency. but the call letters were KDGY. It was financed by two brothers, John and William Loesch, who owned the Oldham Pharmacy. The first studio was in the rear of the pharmacy. The motivation for building the station probably was twofold—to provide a radio service for the people of the area and to promote the sale of radio receivers. The Loesch brothers sold Majestic radios from their drugstore. Lou says that Alfred Nelson worked in a local hardware store and was "the best mechanic we ever had in this cockeyed town."

As to programming. Loesch says the station went on the air about 2 o'clock each afternoon, and signed off around 6 p.m. unless the local high school had a basketball game scheduled. The station broadcast most of the high school games. both at home and away. Lou did the play-by-play announcing of the out-of-town games and co-owner of the station, William Loesch, announced the home games. Lou had this to say about other programming:

"A bunch of Swedes out east of town had an orchestra two violins. a banjoist and a drummer. They used to come in and play. They were called the Erickson Brothers Orchestra. We also played a lot of music records—polkas, mostly—and my brother used to play the piano once in a while. I don't recall that we had any news programs. The only advertiser on the station was the drug store, except for times when some of the farmers would go broke and advertise an auction sale."

At the time that KDGY was on the air—from about 1928 to 1930—the population of Oldham was about 500.

The Stations That Went Away

Some of the most interesting radio stations in South Dakota are those that went out of business. A number of small communities—Dell Rapids, Oldham. Brookings. Mitchell, and Huron—had early radio stations in this category. The first radio station in Sioux Falls, WFAT, operated for only two years—from 1924 to 1926. Brookings had a station, KGCR, from June 7, 1927, until March, 1929 when it was moved to Watertown. In both Huron and Mitchell there were radio stations from 1930 to about 1936, when they ceased operation. New stations have been established in Brookings, Huron, and Mitchell to replace those which were closed.

James R. Nelson, KGDA, Dell Rapids.

Two of the earliest commercial radio stations in South Dakota were "hand made" by two cousins, both of whom were excellent auto mechanics. The men were James R. Nelson, who put a station on the air in Dell Rapids in the mid-20's, and his second cousin, Alfred Nelson, who built a station a few years later in Oldham, a community of about 500 population a few miles southwest of Arlington.  James Nelson was born in Trent, S. D., August 14, 1879. When he was 32 (1911) he moved to Dell Rapids and opened the Home Auto Company in partnership with J. T. Cone. They had the dealership for the Apperson, Hupmobile, and Overland

automobiles. Harry T. Dieson, who operated a department store in Dell Rapids, recalls that Nelson was a "darn good mechanic," and remembers the beginnings of the radio station. Dieson, in fact, may have been one of the first merchants in the state to go on the air to advertise his store products in his own voice..
The call letters of the Dell Rapids station were KGDA, and Nelson would identify the station as follows: "This is KGDA Kind Greetings; Dells Announcing."

Central South Dakota

The broadcast pioneers in the central part of the state were Dana McNeil, a railway conductor, and his wife, Ida A. McNeil, of Pierre. McNeil started ex-perimenting in "ham radio" prior to the first World War, and received a U. S. Department of Commerce Class 5 (Special Amateur) license on June 6, 1916. The original call letters were 9LP. These later were changed to 9CLS, and in 1927 to KGFX.  After the McNeils were married (1921) Mrs. McNeil learned to operate the amateur radio equipment so she could chat with her husband while he was on his train rims to and from Rapid City. At this time the studio was in the McNeil home at 504 West Pleasant Drive, Pierre. In 1923 the McNeils moved to 203 West Summit Avenue, and again operated the radio station from their home. KGFX continued to be based in their residence, with a power of 200 watts, until 1962.

After Dana McNeil died in 1936, Mrs. McNeil continued as the station owner and licensee. She became well-known in her home area and nationally. She was featured in an article in Coronet Magazine (March, 1947) and received the McCall Magazine "Golden Mike" award in 1956.  Mrs. McNeil's style was warm and friendly. One of the most useful and appreciated programs of the station included a feature of Public Service Announcements, given in third person as news notes, taking into account the rules of the F.C.C. against point-to-point contact. The article in Coronet Magazine gives this example:

During World War II, a Pierre girl was planning to marry a soldier in a home wedding. At the last moment, the soldier's leave was shortened to such an extent that he couldn't get to Pierre for the wedding. The plans were changed and; the bride-to-be was to take a train to her fiance's army base to be married there. Her parents took her from their ranch home to the railroad station in Pierre, and on arrival there she realized she had left some of her apparel at home. Her mother had the solution call Ida McNeil. Mrs. McNeil broadcast the following news story.  "Gladys Schmidt arrived in Pierre this morning, but left the slip to her wedding gown at home." This "news announcement" saved the day for an apprehensive Gladys Schmidt. Her brother, at home on the ranch, heard the announcement, went into his sister's room, found the slip, and drove the 40 miles to Pierre to deliver the property to his sister just as the train was about to pull out. At a period when many rural areas of South Dakota had no or few telephones, Mrs. McNeil's radio station provided valuable services. She established a policy of calling the local hospital each day for routine news of admissions, births, releases, and deaths. An announcement stating that Bill Jones would be released from St. Mary's at 3 o'clock that afternoon was a clue to Mrs. Jones to come in from the ranch to pick him up. When ranchers were stranded in town by blizzards, Mrs. McNeil would broadcast their names so their families would not expect them home until the weather cleared.

McCall's Magazine, honoring Mrs. McNeil in 1956, stated: "Station KGFX, Pierre, South Dakota, which for the past 41 years has been synonymous with the name of its owner, manager, and broadcaster, Ida A. McNeil, winner of McCall's Award as 'the executive performing the greatest service to her community?" Mrs. McNeil has two sons, Col. Robert James McNeil, a West Point graduate and career army officer, and Richard Dana McNeil, a graduate of the Naval Academy, now professor of electrical engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. She sold KDFX in 1962.

Mrs. Ida A. McNeil, KGFX, Pierre
Mrs. Ida A. McNeil, KGFX, Pierre
Dana McNeil, KGFX, Pierre
Dana McNeil, KGFX, Pierre

Dr. Koren, a physician, was instrumental in starting other early stations in Huron, Watertown, and Mitchell. He also assisted in the activation of KABR. Aberdeen, which went on the air in September, 1933. There was a station in Watertown as early as 1929. This was KGCR, which had been moved to Watertown from Brookings. The Watertown license was issued on April 29, 1929 under call letters KGCR. These were changed to KWTN in 1934, but this station's license renewal application was denied and the call letters deleted by the FCC as of November 6, 1939. The oldest Watertown station in current operation is KWAT. The construction permit for this station was issued on Decemher 22, 1939, with 250 watts of power at 1210 kilocycles. On January 1, 1950, KWAT went to 1000 watts at 950 kilocycles.

KORN, Mitchell, and KIJV, Huron, both went on the air in 1947. A year later, KSDN started operating in Aberdeen, being the second station in that city. Almost all of the communities over 3,000 population now have standard AM stations. These include Brookings, Lemmon,
Madison, Mobridge, Redfield, Vermillion, and Winner. Two communities Yankton and Pierre have two stations. The second Yankton station, KYNT, started operating in 1955. The second station in Pierre, KCCR, went on the air in 1959.

WNAX- Yankton

The small town of Yankton, in the southeast corner of South Dakota, spawned one of the most distinctive and most spectacular radio stations in the United States. The station was WNAX. This is the station which at one time refused to sell air time to merchants who wanted to advertise; the station which was primarily responsible for the success of a young and hungry Lawrence Welk; the station which pioneered in direct sales to customers on a mail-order basis; a station which as early as 1928 had its own concert orchestra acclaimed as one of the finest in the country ; and a station which helped elect one of its managers to a two-term seat in the U. S. Senate. Two men fresh out of army service in the first World War—were responsible for starting WNAX. They were E. C. "Al" Madson, and Chan Gurney, whose father was president of the Gurney Seed and Nursery Company. These two men started "playing around" with radio in 1921. Madson had studied engineering at the University of Minnesota, and following his war service returned to Yankton to start the Dakota Radio Apparatus Company, distributors of Crosley radios. A close friend was Chan Gurney, who was working for his father and uncles in the nursery business. The two men developed a rather crude broadcasting station by combining some Condensers, batteries, and wires strung across the roof of Madson's warehouse on Walnut Street just north of Third Street. For a microphone, Madson used a "morning glory horn" which had been removed from an Edison phonograph. This first studio was one floor above a small restaurant. Madson and Gurney placed a test radio receiver in the restaurant one evening while working on their transmitter, a while later, using their improvised microphone, they ordered sandwiches and coffee. The cafe owner came up a few minutes later to deliver their order, and this was their first evidence that the contraption worked.

Sen. Dan Gurney, WNAX in 1928.

The station was first licensed in November, 1922, with Madson as president and chief engineer. The station sold no air time, so had no revenues. After about three months on the air, WNAX ceased operations and put the equipment in storage. Madson went back to his regular business, and Gurney went on to become secretary and treasurer of the seed and nursery company. WNAX might never have been revived except for an incident which occurred in 1927. The Henry Field Seed Company, strong competitors of the Gurney Company, had purchased time on KFNF, Shenendoah, Iowa. Field went on the air each day to talk about the merits of his grain seeds, and the farmers bought. Gurney sales were deteriorating, and Chan Gurney thought that their competitor's use of radio was the reason. He went to his father and suggested that the company buy Al Madson's license and do the same thing. The Gurneys paid Madson $2,000 for the license, with its frequency of 570 kilocycles. The contract also called for the Gurney company to buy any new equipment which might be needed and that Madson was to be responsible for setting up the studio and transmitter. The studio was built in the home of D. B. Gurney. The station returned to the air in 1927—probably in March or April. Chan Gurney, later to become U. S. Senator from South Dakota, was the station announcer all day and every day for the first few weeks. All programming was live, with local singers, musicians, and guitar players. All of the advertising messages concerned Gurney products.

The station was an immediate success, and the Gurney business curve started upward again. By the fall of 1928, the station had a staff of 25 to 30 salaried musicians. Gurney's Concert Orchestra received a plaque from Radio Digest magazine as the most popular radio orchestra in America in 1927-28. In addition to the staff musicians, WNAX gave air time to traveling groups of musicians who passed through the area on small-town dance dates. One of these five-piece orchestras was headed by a young accordionist from North Dakota named Lawrence Welk. He played often on WNAX, and his appearances on the station gave him the public exposure he needed to get well-paying dance jobs in the Middle West. The station's power gradually was increased though the purchase of a 1,000-watt Western Electric transmitter in 1928. The station went to 5,000 watts in 1933.

WNAX in this early period was a "mail order" station. The staple business continued to he seeds and plants, but the company also advertised and sold, through the mails, numerous other products for the farm and home, including baby chicks, hog feeds, overcoats, overshoes, radio sets, Gurney tires and automotive supplies, and many other items. In addition, the company developed the WNAX Gasoline brand name, and at one time had 578 gasoline stations throughout the upper Midwest. During the noon hour each day, D. B. Gurney would go on the air to chat with farmers about crop conditions, farm economics, and farm politics. He also would editorialize on these matters, expressing his personal viewpoint. For example, he was dead set against the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine, which competed against the butter being produced by dairy farmers in his listening area. This editorial campaign was a success, as indicated by the fact that the South Dakota legislature passed a special tax on the sale of oleomargarine in the state. The law has since been reversed.

The mail order concept of broadcasting remained in effect at WNAX until the fall of 1932. At that time, a disagreement developed in the family-owned business relative to the sale of air time to other merchants and services. Chan Gurney wished to continue the release of CBS network programs, but retain most of the other broadcast hours for the advertising of seed and nursery products. His father, D. B. Gurney, who was company president, felt the company should serve other com-mercial interests. As a result of this difference of opinion, Chan Gurney sold his interests in the family enterprises and went into private business and later politics. He served as U. S. Senator from South Dakota from 1939 to 1951. During the following 14 years—from 1951 to 1965—he was a member of the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington. He now is retired and living in Yankton. The Gurney company continued to operate WNAX until November 1st, 1938. when the station was sold to the Cowles interests of Des Moines, Iowa.

The "Happy Jack" orchestra, 1928-1929, WNAX
The "Happy Jack" orchestra, 1928-1929, WNAX
The Rosebud Kids. WNAX stars of the late 20's.
The Rosebud Kids. WNAX stars of the late 20's.

Sioux Falls First Radio Stations

The first radio station in Sioux Falls was WFAT, built and owned by the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader in 1924. About a year after this station went. on the air, the newspaper donated the station and all its equipment to Columbus College, a parochial school in the city. The college (no longer in existence) operated the station until 1926, when it went off the air.  The oldest continuously operated station in Sioux' Falls is KSOO. It went on the air in 1926 from studios located in the Manchester Biscuit Company plant; now the site of Raven Industries. The original owners were B. M. "Bram" McKenzie, who had the distributorship for Crosley radios, and Cy Rapp. The station had 100 watts of power, but later increased its output to 2500 watts and in 1951 to 10 kilowatts.

Since 1927, KSOO has been managed by Joseph Henkin and his son, Morton H. Henkin. The elder Henkin went to Sioux Falls in 1927 after purchasing a major interest in the station. Prior to that, he operated a clothing store and amusement park in Madison, S. D., and had been a city commissioner there. In 1937, Joseph Henkin and a partner, Sam Fantle, started KELO, the city's second radio station. At that time, KSOO and KELO operated joint studios at 315 South Phillips Avenue. In April, 1946, Fantle bought controlling interest in KELO and started construction of new studios at the corner of Eighth and Phillips. The new studios were completed in May, 1947.

KSOO and KELO were the only radio stations in the city until KNWC went on the air in 1946. KISD was the next station, inaugurating service on May 6, 1948. KSOO and KELO also were the pioneering television stations in the eastern part of the state. Joe Floyd of Sioux Falls, and Eddie Ruben and N. L. Bentson, both of St. Paul, Minn., purchased KELO (the radio station) on May 1, 1952. Ruben and Floyd had been in the theater business in Minnesota and South Dakota. Bentson was operating WMIN radio in St. Paul. Floyd was named president of Midcontinent Broadcasting Company, the new owners of KELO-AM.

Soon after the change of ownership of KELO radio, Midcontinent applied to the Federal Communciations Commission for permission to construct a television station. The construction permit was granted on November 19, 1952, for KELO-TV, channel 11. The station went on the air on May 19, 1953, providing television programs for homes in South Dakota, northeastern Nebraska, and the adjoining areas of Iowa and Minnesota.  KELO-TV was one of the few stations in the nation to go on the air without TV cameras. At the outset, the station used only syndicated films. All local programs were produced on 16 millimeter film. In the next four years, Midcontinent built two satellite stations to serve additional areas of eastern and northern South Dakota. KDLO-TV went on the air in September, 1955, in Florence, to serve Watertown and other communities in the northeastern corner of the state. The second satellite, KPLO-TV, started operating on channel 6 from Reliance, in July, 1957. The stations carry CBS programming. KSOO-TV brought NBC programming to South Dakota, with inauguration of service on channel 13 starting July 31, 1960. The only other commercial stations in the eastern part of the state are KCOO-TV (originally KXAB-TV) in Aberdeen, and KORN-TV, Mitchell. John Boler, a North Dakotan, put KXAB on the air November 28, 1958, with studios in Aberdeen and transmitter at Conde, SD. This station was sold to KSOO-TV in 1969. Its call letters were then changed to KCOO and it became a satellite of KSOO, Sioux Falls.

Ray V. Eppel, president of the Mitchell Broadcasting Association, owners of KORN radio, started KORN-TV. This station, carrying ABC programming, went on the air June 12, 1960.

Joseph Henkins, KELO and KSOO.
Joseph Henkins, KELO and KSOO.

The Hill Country

We have no evidence of radio stations in operation in the Black Hills area in the early period of broadcasting. The first station of current record was KOBH which went on the air on Thanksgiving Day—November 26—in 1936. The station was financed by the Tri-State Milling Company, Rapid City, with Robert J. Dean as the station manager. The station went on the air with 250 watts, with studios in the Alex Johnson hotel. The call letters have been changed to KOTA and the power increased to 5,000 watts.

There is now a new station with KOTA's old identification of KOBH. This development was led by Fred Walgren. who put the new KOBH on the air from Hot Springs on July 4, 1958. The Daniels brothers, Eli and Harry, have major radio and television interests in the Black Hills area. They started KDSJ in Deadwood in 1947 and then put KRSD on the air from Rapid City on September 26, 1953. They also pioneered in the development of television in that area, with KRSD-TV (channel 7) starting operations in Rapid City on January 22, 1958, and KDSJ-TV going on the air from Lead two years later. Duhamel Enterprises own the oldest continuously operating radio station in the area (KOTA) and also put the first TV station on the air. This was KOTA-TV. which started programming on July 1, 1955The Black Hills area is well served by several other AM and FM stations in Belle Fourche, Rapid City, Sturgis, and Hot Springs.

The New Sound-FM

When World War II came to a close, broadcasters all over the country started thinking about FM frequency modulation. This new form of transmission, providing wider frequency ranges and elimination of most forms of static, held interest for broadcasters as well as listeners.

The pioneer FM station in South Dakota was KOZY-FM, Rapid City. The owners were Mrs. Helen Duhamel, Abdnor George, and Robert J. Dean, with the latter as station manager. It first went on the air in May, 1949, from studios at 1819 West St. Joseph Street and affiliation with NBC. This station ceased operations five years later—in May, 1954. During the following nine years, 1954 to 1963, there were no FM station in the state.The oldest FM station in continuous operation in the state is KOBH-FM. Hot Springs. This station went on the air in December, 1963, with studios in the Ponderosa Broadcast House, Wind Cave Road.

Four FM stations went on the air in 1967. The first of these was KESD-FM, operated by South Dakota State University, Brookings. It started operating with watts, in July of that year from studios in the basement of Solberg Hall. Other stations with 1967 starts were KVRF-FM, Vermillion : KUSD-FM, University of South Dakota, Vermillion ; and KJAM-FM, Madison.
Since 1967, new FM stations have been started in Brookings, Rapid City, Sioux Falls (three stations) and Watertown (two stations).

College and University Broadcasting

South Dakota institutions of higher education were among the pioneers in the field of broadcasting in the state. The University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, and the South Dakota School of Mines all started experimentation in wireless transmission prior to World War I, and all three schools put standard radio stations on the air in 1922 and 1923.

Station WEAJ (now KUSD) evidently was the first radio station in South Dakota—commercial or educational. It started broadcasting from the Science Building, on the campus of the University of South Dakota, Vermillion. in May, 1922, with a 50-watt power output. When the station's license was renewed on August 23, 1923, the power was increased to 200 watts. It is probable that Dr.' E. 0. Lawrence, later to become famous as an atomic energy pioneer (for whom the Lawrence Radiation Laboratories were named) had some part in the development of the radio station at Vermillion. He was then on the staff of USD, and was active in the wireless field.

About two months after WEAJ went on the air, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology started broadcasting from their campus in Rapid City. The Vermillion station opened in May, 1922, and WCAT, at the School of Mines, went on the air in July of that same year. The station had a power of 750 watts on 483 meters. Evidently the only broadcasting done in the early period consisted of weather in-formation. WCAT continued to broadcast from the Rapid City campus until 1953, when the station went off the air. An article in a school publication indicated that school administrators were unable to get adequate funding to replace obsolete equipment and pay a staff. In Brookings, South Dakota State University received a broadcast license from the Department of Commerce on March 27, 1923. Professor B. B. Bracket, head of the department of electrical engineering, installed the equipment. The station had 50 watts of power on a frequency of 360 meters. The first day of formal broadcasting was April 5, 1923, the inaugural program including military band music and the girls glee club. The call letters were KFDY. The station evidently was well received and had good range. This is indicated by a letter received following the Junior-Freshman Ball, which was broadcast on November 13, 1923. The letter read that "twelve people danced in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the music broadcast by Bruns' Orchestra playing for the Ball." Letters also were received from New York, Boston, New Orleans, and San Antonio.

In the fall of 1923, KFDY established a school-year broadcast schedule which included one night each week for music, one night for lectures, market and weather reports each noon (with a cowbell as the identifying theme), and a Saturday night program of dance music. In addition, the station had an ambitious schedule of sports programming, broadcasting the college football and basketball games as well as the Hobo Day events. In September, 1925, KFDY broadcast the World Series in cooperation with the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader.
The station's power was increased from 50 watts to 500 watts in October, 1926. The SDSU station went off the air in 1941 for budgetary reasons.  South Dakota colleges and universities also have entered the FM and TV fields. South Dakota State University inaugurated FM service in July, 1967, when KESD-FM (10 watts) went on the air at 88.3 megacycles. The University of South Dakota put KUSD-FM into service on October 1 of that same year. Several other schools in the state, including Augustana College, Northern State College, Segthern State College, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, plan to start radio stations in the near future.

The two major universities in the state SDSU and USD— also have educational TV stations. KUSD-TV inaugurated service on channel 2 from Vermillion on July 5, 1961. The Brookings school started broadcasting from channel 8 (KESD-TV) on February 6, 1968.

Additional South Dakota Broadcasting Pioneers Pages:

Ida McNeil