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The Good Ol’ Days: I Heard You on the Radio

By Staff | Dec 18, 2015

I started to actively listen to radio in 1953 at age five. We had a Crosley desktop radio that plugged into an AC outlet and needed about 30 seconds to “warm up” the vacuum tubes. Today’s radios use transistors and that’s all I know about that stuff.

Channel 13 in Minot came on the air that year and until we bought our first television set, radio was our sole source of broadcast entertainment. All the radio stations were on the AM band and if there were any FM stations on the air, we couldn’t receive them on the Crosley.

I listened to KFYR in Bismarck, which was affiliated with the NBC Radio Network. Radio networks still carried soap operas and game shows and radio dramas. The news broadcasts were at least five minutes per hour and sometimes longer. There were reports from correspondents all over the country and the world.

NBC had a weekend program called “Monitor” that was the forerunner of NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, except it was carried for 10-12 hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. There were other radio networks, but KFYR’s NBC was the best of them. I used to listen to “One Man’s Family”, “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Jack Benny Program”, all of which are now in the Radio Hall of Fame.

“Fibber McGee” had a running gag where he would open his overly-cluttered closet and we would hear the clatter of things falling out. The sound effects man knew how to make it so that each time things would come tumbling down, the result would be slightly different. For a child with an active imagination, listening to it was a lot of fun.

The first time I was on a radio station was in 1960, age 12. I used to listen to an evening call-in show over KOA in Denver. We had an early model electric-but-portable reel-to-reel tape recorder that was the size of a suitcase and very heavy. One night I called in to KOA and recorded the call. People would phone in from all over the West (long distance) and just chat with the host. I got through and he asked me where I was calling from. “Rugby, North Dakota” I answered. “What’s going on with you?” he asked. “Oh, I’m just having milk and cookies,” I replied. Really hard-hitting stuff.

KZZJ’s predecessor KGCA began test broadcasts in the early summer of 1961, a few months before my eighth grade year. My dad and I went out to the station one night and, although it was very bare bones technology, I was intrigued. My goal was now to be on the radio. After teasing us with some more intermittent test broadcasts, KGCA finally went on the air in August of ’61.

I wrote a letter to KGCA’s first general manager asking for a job. I even offered to sweep out the place, anything to get my foot in the door. I received a polite response and was told that my letter would “be placed on file” for future openings.

In the fall of my freshman year in 1962 many of us listened to CKY-AM in Winnipeg, which had a Top 40 format. In addition to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, staples such as Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong and Mr. Frank Sinatra were also near the top of the charts in them days. One night CKY had a contest. If you could identify what world leader was born on October 31, 1887 you would receive a free Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner.

CKY’s weeknight Top 40 show originated from a tiny studio off to one side of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise at the corner of Inkster and McPhillips in Winnipeg. They also featured delivery service with the jingle “Call Spruce 5-0486, Spruce 5-0486, Spruce 5-0486.” Who says advertising doesn’t resonate?

People were calling in (off the air) and guessing Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, some of the Canadian prime ministers, etc. No one was getting it right. I found an almanac and looked up the date. Then I dialed the CKY number and got through to the host (off the air). Although the contestants were supposed to have two nines in their phone number to qualify, I took a chance. “Is it Chiang Kai-shek?” I offered. (You can look it up).

The host was pleasantly surprised that he had a correct answer and asked what my telephone number was. When I told him that I was calling from Rugby, North Dakota he acted like I was calling from the South Pole and when the record ended he went live on the air with me. We chatted for a few moments and he asked about Rugby and I told him that it had 3,000 people, was named after an English city and that CKY was a popular station “down here”. After he concluded our interview he spun another platter and, off the air, told me that someone would mail me a certificate for a chicken dinner. It must have been confiscated by customs because I never received it, but I didn’t care. I’d been on the air!

The next day at school, several people came up to me and said that they had been listening. One of them, the late Daryl Jelsing, said the magic words: “I heard you on the radio.” I was hooked.

I would sometimes recall that episode when I was on the radio (FM) in South Florida in the mid-70s. On more than one occasion I would be in a mall, maybe in a store’s electronics department, and one of their stereo systems would be tuned in to my station. During a commercial break, one of the ads that I had recorded would air. It was a heady feeling, which, along with a dollar three eighty will get you a cup of coffee.

Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He began his short-lived announcing career on KGCA at age 15. Although he now resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.

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