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The Good Ol’ Days: FM Coming to Town

By Staff | Feb 12, 2016

When I read that Lila Harstad and Rugby Broadcasters were bringing an FM radio station to Rugby, I was absolutely thrilled. It’s one of those “I remember where I was when…” moments and is long overdue for the area. I’m happy for and grateful to Lila and her colleagues for doing what needs to be done to bring FM to Rugby after a half-century wait.

When I worked part-time at KZZJ’s predecessor KGCA in the 1960s, the station had a subscription to “Broadcasting” magazine (now called “Broadcasting & Cable”) which is the industry’s principal weekly trade journal. It also publishes an annual “Yearbook” that is the size of a Monkey Ward catalog and contains a massive amount of information about all the radio and television stations in the U.S., Canada and even Mexico. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for assigning FM frequencies (also called “channels”) to communities around the country. Many of these channels were just coming into use in the 60’s, as FM radio was still in its early stages.

In 1964, Rugby had an allocation for a medium-power channel that was intended for local community service. At that time, there were no FM stations in North Dakota, although there were over a thousand in other states.

Until Congress mandated that the FM frequency band (87.5-108.0) be added to all radios manufactured and sold in the U.S. after a certain date in the ’60s, there was not much reason to obtain the rights to put an FM station on the air. In the 50s and 60s, almost all FM stations that did go on the air were owned by companies that already had an AM station. Before the 70s, a stand-alone FM station in a sparsely-populated area was rare. However, long-time KGCA manager Dale Moldenhauer came to Rugby in 1963 from Plentywood, Montana’s KPWD-FM, where he had worked for a few years after graduating from the Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis.

I never asked whether KGCA’s ownership was going to get an FM station. It was all they could do to make the AM station profitable, especially because it was still “labor-intensive”, meaning that there was no satellite stream or automation equipment to be able to cut down on costs. No one else seemed to be interested in getting the FM license and it eventually was purchased by someone and moved away from Rugby. Lila and company got it back and will do great things with it.

I don’t remember the first time I picked up an FM signal (or where I was at the time), but it may have been while driving through Fargo in 1965. Our home radio receivers didn’t have FM on the dial, but some of the older sets did. The big black Zenith Transoceanic radio that we had at the Gronvold Motor Company could probably pick up FM, but Parts Dept. Manager Christ Heintz and the rest of us kept it permanently tuned to the Twins baseball AM frequency, at least during the season.

My grandmother had a Crosley “home entertainment center” from the 1930s that featured a fold-out turntable and a multi-band radio receiver. It had short wave, long wave, medium wave, AM and FM, but no FM signals could be heard. We kept it tuned to KGCA so that Grandma could sit next to it like Whistler’s mother and crank up the volume to hear the Sunday Bethany broadcast, complete with that service’s bulletin, thanks to Kent Kjelstrom who brought them over on Saturdays..

I had a blue 1966 Chevrolet Impala 2-door hardtop with an AM/FM radio when I went to my first year of college in Minneapolis. Down there they had several FM stations, including my favorite KQRS, which played an eclectic mix of light jazz and light rock, including Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s “Mas Que Nada”. National Public Radio was years away at that point.

When I transferred to Miami the following fall, I drove the Chevy southward via Minneapolis in early September of 1967 and had little success in receiving FM stations enroute. Whenever I did connect, I would look to see if the little “Stereo” light came on, which was seldom.

The interstate system hadn’t yet been completed and one still had to drive through cities. One rainy afternoon I was at a stop light in Shreveport, Louisiana listening to an FM station. My wipers were on intermittent and Peggy Lee was on the radio. As I waited for the light to change, I looked to my left at a gas station on the corner. On the side I noticed three restrooms, labeled “Women”, “Men” and a hand-lettered sign that said “Colored”.

“How can this be? I wondered. “Congress passed the Civil Rights Act three years ago!”

When you look up the word “Naive” in the dictionary, you will see my picture. Discrimination of that sort wasn’t exactly illegal, just bad business. It took years to change. Perhaps a generation or two, just like it took several generations to get an FM station in Rugby. Look up “determined”, “persistent” or “goal-oriented” in the dictionary and you’ll see the same picture for all three: Lila Harstad. Well done, Lila!

Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.

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