Thursday, August 16, 2007

FM in Houston - Early Developments

Perhaps the earliest mention of an FM in Houston came in a brief story on page 1 of the Post on February 19, 1942. The Houston Printing Co., owner of the Post and KPRC, had filed for a permit for a frequency modulation station on 46,500 kc (46.5 mc). There was no further detail of the technical specifications but the very brief mention did indicate the coverage area would be about 10,500 square miles serving an estimated population of 722,600 and there was a brief explanation of the difference between FM and standard broadcasting.

This application is also found in a list in FM Magazine in February 1942. This was a list of ‘CPs filed and authorized by the FCC up to February 17, 1942,’ but there was no indication of the construction status of this station. The FM band was between 42 and 50 MHz at that time (or, as it was designated then, mc, for ‘megacycles.’)

The FCC was experimenting with the use of alphanumeric calls for FM stations but none had been assigned for this station. Based on the system in use, the calls would have been K65 followed by a 2 letter code to signify Houston such as HO or HT. In other words, both the frequency and city of license was built into the calls. Experimental stations would have an X in their calls. Both the public and broadcasters did not like this system of assigning calls and it had obvious limitations and was dropped in November, 1943, and stations were allowed to choose their own calls. Most early FM licensees were also AM licensees and they chose to simply add ‘FM’ to their AM calls. The only other station in Texas on the list of February 17, 1942, in FM Magazine was in Amarillo and it also was not on the air.

So far as is known, this early Houston FM never got on the air. There was a wartime freeze on civilian construction, a shortage of necessary equipment, and a controversy over where the FM band should be. As of June 17, 1945, the FCC resolved that question and designated the frequencies between 88 and 108 MHz for FM. A list of new assignments for existing FM stations moving up from the lower band issued September 12 of that year had no Texas stations on it, so if K65HO (or whatever) ever made it on the air, it didn’t last. Twenty nine more stations were added to the new FM band by the end of the year but a list from the Broadcasting Yearbook, published January 1, 1946, indicated there were still no FM stations authorized by the FCC in Texas. In addition, over the years the Post published several retrospectives on Houston radio and particularly its own involvement, notably when KPRC-FM first signed on and when KLEE-TV became KPRC-TV, but none of these ever mentioned this early FM so I have concluded it never got on the air.

Some FM operators continued to use the lower band for several years. Belo Broadcasting (WFAA, Dallas Morning News) operated an experimental FM in Dallas, W51XC at 45.2 mc in the fall of 1945 (and a high frequency amplitude modulation station in 1939) but the FM is not on the aforementioned list of stations moving up from the lower band so the experimental station may not have been on the air long in 1945.

Belo also claims to have put the first FM in Texas on the air, using the calls KERA-FM (later WFAA-FM) and broadcasting on 94.3 mc, at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas as of October 5, 1946 but a Houston station was to beat this date by six weeks.

The first application for an FM in Houston in the higher frequency band may have been made by Lee Segall in late 1945 or early 1946 but an exact date has not been determined. In reporting Veterans Broadcasting’s application for a station to replace KTHT at 1230 kc when it moved to 790 kc, the Houston Press reported on December 18th, 1945, the new station would be Houston’s fifth so presumably Segall’s applicaton had not been made before then. Segall was a Houston advertising executive, President of Segall Weedin, and had created the radio show Dr. IQ on KTRH in 1937.

The Press reported on April 26, 1946, that Segall Broadcasting Co. had been granted an FCC license for an FM station but no other details were given. Besides his FM permit, which was apparently never acted on, Segall was also an applicant for the station on 1230 kc that was to replace KTHT-AM when it moved to 790 kc but lost out on that competition. He also had applied for a station on 790 but withdrew that application. By 1947, he had relocated to Dallas and put KIXL-AM and FM on the air in Dallas in a partnership with several show business personalities. The ‘Good Music’ format on KIXL was one of the first of its kind and inspired Gordon McLendon’s programming on KELP, El Paso, in the mid-1950s and later his famous KABL, San Francisco. It also possibly was the model for KCOH-AM, Houston, when it went on the air in 1948 and countless early FM stations. By the time of his death in Dallas in 1984, Segall’s connection to early Houston radio had been forgotten.

On May 4, 1946, the Post reported that the previous day its parent company had been granted a ‘final Construction Permit’ for an FM station on 99.7 mc with 19.6 kw power and an antenna of 497 feet. The call letters were to be KPRC-FM. Station GM Kern Tips touted the static free reception of FM and noted it was particularly suited for symphonic broadcasts. KPRC-FM was to make it to the air just before the end of 1946 but was not to be the first Houston FM.

For those interested in reading more about the development of FM broadcasting, Jeff Miller's History of American Broadcasting has a section devoted to FM.

Radio Histories - Other Cities

This Kansas City Radio history website is maintained by Mark Roberts, who worked at KTRH in the 1980s.

The Puget Sound Radio Broadcasters Association website includes a market history prepared by Eric Dawes, who got his start in radio at KLYX-FM, Clear Lake:

I discovered the New Orleans Radio History Shrine when searching for information about William John Uhalt, who put KTUE on the air in 1926 (now KXYZ). He had helped his brother put a NOLA station on the air before coming to Houston and there have been other connections between Houston and NOLA broadcasters over the years.

The Bay Area Radio Museum covers San Francisco. covers New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia

The Chicago Radio Time Capsule and Chicagoland Radio Call Sign History websites cover Chicago.

There are three sites devoted to Dallas-Fort Worth radio and television.

Chris Huff’s DFW Radio Archives is a huge collection of the ratings history of the market plus other great information.

Mike Shannon’s History of Dallas-Fort Worth Radio and Television

and Steve Eberhart’s History of KLIF, Gordon McLendon’s flagship station.

I discovered all three of these several years ago and they inspired me to attempt something similar for Houston. I may even have stolen a few ideas and facts from these guys.

These Dallas sites are among the very best broadcast history sites on the web, standards to which all others can be compared. It’s apparent they’ve been hard at work on these for years and years.

The History of KLIF site contains a few mentions of KILT, McLendon’s Houston station.

To be continued. While there are few radio stations which maintain histories on their websites, there are many privately maintained websites devoted to individual stations; Google on the call letters and ‘history’ if you’re interested in a particular station. I’ll add some to this list soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The 1940s - Part 1 - NARBA and other dances up and down the dial plus a 50 kw blowtorch

The decade of the 1940s was to be a very busy one for Houston broadcasters and prospective broadcasters though the action really didn’t pick up until after the end of World War II. The decade of the 40s rivals the early 1920s in terms of activity except in one respect: the survival rate of new stations started in the 40s is much, much better than for those started in the 20s. This is particularly true of the new AM stations though there were a number of early FM stations that did not survive.

There had been only three radio stations in Houston since August, 1932, and it was not until 1944 that a new station signed on; after the middle of the decade there was a flood of new stations.

But first things first: a story in the Chronicle on March 2nd, 1941, announced that Houstonian Lee Segall had just sold his third program to a radio chain (network). Segall, then of Segall Weedin Advertising, had sold ‘What’s Your Idea” to NBC, to be produced in Chicago. According to the article, the program invited audience members to share their ideas for a radio program. ‘The Handbook of Old-Time Radio’ by Schwartz and Reinehr lists the program ‘What’s Your Idea?’ as a 15 minute morning talk program hosted by Imogene Walcott on MBS from 1943-45; it’s not known if this was the same program sold by Segall. The Chronicle story also said Segall had sold two famous coast-to-coast programs previously, Vox Pop, which the article claimed he developed with Parks Johnson, and Dr. I.Q., which was then airing on 91 stations. In addition, another Segall show, ‘Sing for Dough’ was said to be airing weekly locally. The source noted above also shows a program by that name was on the NBC Blue network in 1942-43, an audience participation program hosted by Lew Valentine who had been the first network Dr. I.Q.

Segall was to continue to be active in Houston radio and advertising until after the middle of the decade.

On March 29, 1941, as a result of the North American Radio Broadcast Agreement, 90% (802 out of 893 or 795 out of 883, depending on who's counting) of the radio stations on the air in the United States changed frequency at 3am ET. This historic agreement allotted radio frequencies between the US, Canada and Mexico. For all three Houston stations it meant moving up the dial 30 kilocycles: KPRC moved from 920 kc to 950 kc, where it has been ever since, KTRH moved from 1290 kc to 1320 kc and KXYZ moved from 1440 to 1470 kc. Down in Galveston, KLUF moved to 1400 kc, the frequency it has occupied ever since thru subsequent call letter changes.

A year and 9 months later, on December 16, 1942, KTRH and KXYZ moved again, the former to 740 kc and the latter to 1320 kc, where they have both been ever since. There were notices on the front page and radio page in the Chronicle leading up to the switch but I have yet to find an article that explains why these moves were made.

That same day the Chronicle also reported that ‘Houston radio man Lee Segall’ had reported for duty at the headquarters of the 8th Service Command, assigned to the public relations branch in Dallas as a civilian under the War Department. It was during his military stint that Segall was to meet show business personalities, some of whom would be his partners in putting radio stations on the air in Dallas in 1947.

The day before NARBA took effect the Chronicle had reported that Greater Houston Broadcasting Co. had been chartered by the State of Texas and filed with the FCC for a non-network station to operate on 1230 kc in Houston. The principals included H. R. Safford of Ritchie Safford Advertising Co., President and GM, W. H. Atchinson, 1st VP, J. H. Chew, 2nd VP, Thomas D. Anderson and Forest Lee Andrews. They were to have a formidable competitor for the license.

In 1940 Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz had formed Texas Star Broadcasting with oilmen J.R. Parten, Hugh Roy Cullen, and W.N. ‘Dick’ Hooper as his partners and filed for a construction permit for a station on 1230. The initial application was stalled by the onset of WWII and when Parten and Cullen wanted out, Hofheinz bought their shares and became 75% owner of Texas Star. The next section of this chronology of the 1940s will deal with Texas Star’s radio station, KTHT.

According to information from an FCC microfiche of records relating to KTRH shared with me by Barry Mishkind of The Broadcast Archive, KTRH boosted its power to 50, 000 watts in April, 1943, but I have not had time yet to research that time period in the local papers for further information. That KTRH microfiche, however, also claims that April, 1943, was when KTRH moved to 740 kc, which is not true.

Another new feature

Another new feature has been added. A new archive on the side-bar will be labeled Stations and will include articles about various stations with information not included in the chronology. Some of the articles will appear there without first appearing on the main page of the blog which I like to reserve for the 'big stories.'

Some Early KPRC Performers

Frank Tilton

Twenty-two year old blind pianist Frank Tilton showed up to perform on KPRC just days after it signed on. His concert included a time for requests at the end. Tilton’s playing so impressed station officials and the listeners that he quickly became a regular on the new station, appearing daily almost without fail and sometimes filling 2 and 3 program slots a day. He might give a midday concert, then return for an early evening concert from 5 to 6, then be on after the main program of the day, starting at 10pm or later, playing into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, he was the main programming of the evening, starting around 8 or 8:30 and playing for 2 or 3 hours. The Post-Dispatch quickly dubbed him ‘Wonder Boy.’

Tilton was to be a staple of the Houston airwaves for over a decade. In 1932, he was a regular on KPRC’s sister station KTLC when it folded and his concerts were sometimes carried simultaneously on WRR, Dallas. In 1938, he had a regular program on KXYZ sponsored, ironically enough, by an optical company.

He drew lots of fan mail. The Post-Dispatch for years printed features about the fan mail received by its radio station and the performers. In the early days these appeared daily in the paper and might stretch over several columns with additional comments received by phone, post card, wire and letter used as filler between other stories. On at least one occasion, the paper pleaded with readers to use post cards rather than letters to help cut down on the time necessary to read all the mail that was received.

Many of the compliments were for the station itself, as the Post-Dispatch helpfully summarized on May 20th, “Ether devotees without exception expressed amazement and delight at the ease with which the powerful KPRC waves penetrated to distant parts of the continent, defying static and other atmospheric handicaps.” In just the first week, letters had come from as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia, Havana, Cuba, and Puerto Barrien, Guatamala.

It was apparent from the number of compliments that were reported that Tilton drew the most fan mail of anyone on KPRC. Some of the letters were very moving. One came in on behalf of a blind girl in Indiana who had been furnished a radio by the American Foundation for the Blind. She had discovered Tilton and regularly tried to tune him in as she found he inspired her both with his success story and his playing. Another came in from the Prisoner’s Committee of the Louisiana State Prison at Baton Rouge. The prisoners, confined to their cells with lights out by 8pm each evening, had asked for donations to buy a radio. So much money was collected a radio was also bought for the prison at Angola. Though there were radio stations on the air in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport and Beaumont, the prisoners voted repeatedly to listen to Frank Tilton on KPRC whenever he was on and the broadcast could be picked up. The concerts were said to be particularly appreciated by some of the older prisoners, some of whom had lost their eyesight in prison and were confined to their cells all day long.

Another letter came from a listener in New Orleans who stated his only complaint about KPRC was that it signed off so early, to which the Post-Dispatch replied the correspondent must be quite a night owl, since KPRC was frequently on the air past 1am. Often that would be Frank Tilton playing requests but other musicians who appeared on the schedule might also extend their concerts, such as the Tokio Royal Orchestra from the Gardens of Tokio in Galveston, whose leader told the Post-Dispatch the boys in the band were always willing to pack their instruments into the car for the 4 hour trek to Houston to appear on KPRC.

Tilton played serious as well as popular music; some of his concerts were planned in advance but almost always they included time at the end of the concert to take requests and many of his concerts were all-request.

In 1929, when KPRC was moving to a new transmitter at Sugar Land and the Post-Dispatch published a special section covering the upgrade in the station’s facilities, the newspaper’s radio editor, Milton G. Hall, wrote that Tilton’s name was known coast to coast from his KPRC concerts and no other performer in the history of the station had ever received more fan mail.

Unfortunately no where have I encountered any good statement of just what his appeal was. Given how long he was a staple of the airwaves it certainly wasn’t just out of sympathy for his disability that people wrote and listened, but what was there about his style? Did he have an amusing patter to accompany his playing, a la Victor Borge?, or some dramatic flare, a la Liberace? Or was it simply that he took requests and was able to play a huge variety of tunes? He survived into the era when the stations would have had electrical transcription devices and would have been able to record his concerts and re-air them, but whether any have survived is not known, nor, for that matter, if anyone might have thought to take him into a recording studio and make some phonograph records.

The Microphone Performer

If Frank Tilton received the most fan mail he may have exceeded that received by announcer Alfred P. Daniel by only a little bit. There were frequent mentions in the Post-Dispatch’s reports on fan mail received by the station of the excellence of ‘the microphone performer,’ who was called ‘the best in the air’ and ‘better than all the rest.’

Alfred P. Daniel had been familiar to Houston radio listeners for years from his broadcasts on WCAK and WEV and his amateur stations. Born in 1889 in Austin, his family moved to Houston in 1893 and he always lived in the part of town now known as Midtown. He was a life long bachelor.

As a lad he had climbed a tree in his yard and seen an antenna being erected on the north side of Buffalo Bayou. Pedaling his bike over to investigate, he met representatives of Lee DeForest’s American Wireless Telegraph Company who advised him to learn about wireless. He built his own equipment and, like other boys his age, was fascinated by the new ‘science.’ In at least 2 retrospective articles published over the years, it was claimed he was the first person to ever transmit voice in Houston, on September 1, 1921, and also the first to ‘broadcast’ a ‘program,’ but there are competing claims for both accomplishments and the former is actually rather late. It has also been claimed that the home-made equipment he used for that episode in 1921 was the same he used in putting KPRC on the air 4 years later!, which is extremely improbable.

Enlisting in the service in World War I, he was sent to school at UT, Austin, to learn wireless, then returned to Ellington as an instructor. While there, so another retrospective article claimed, he had his fortune read by a palm reader who foresaw a long life in radio for him.

He was the first (and only) announcer on KPRC in 1925 and served as Program Director until the late 1930s. He worked for the company until just a couple of months before his death at the end of January, 1955, and came to be acknowledged as the Dean of Houston Radio.

Daniel persevered in the radio business not only through the era of electrical transcription devices but also wire recorders and reel-to-reel tape recorders, but whether any recordings of his voice have survived is unknown. I have found only one clear indication of what he sounded like – his voice was described as homey – but another reference seems to indicate it was actually thin and reedy, which might have been an asset, given the equipment in the early days.

Uncle Judd

Another qualifying comment: if Tilton and Daniel were the recipients of the most fan mail it may only have been because many of the ‘ham-fisted’ fans of Uncle Judd Mortimer Lewis had to depend upon their Mommies and Daddies to pen their fan mail for them. Judd Mortimer Lewis had been born in New York and came to Texas where he eventually wound up working for the Post-Dispatch. He was much in demand as a story-teller, entertainer of children, and poet. He appeared on KPRC on the first evening’s broadcast and had a daily 7pm slot for Uncle Judd’s Kiddie Hour which became one of the most popular regular features on the station. As one correspondent put it, “The twilight program at 7 o’clock with the new feature Uncle Judd’s Kiddie Hour, with Uncle Judd and his fairies, princesses and bears, left the children delirious with joy.”

When Uncle Judd was away from the microphone on a personal appearance, his daughter filled in for him.

When the Texas Legislature created the post of Poet Laureate of Texas in 1932, Judd Mortimer Lewis was named to the post first.

Judd Mortimer Lewis in the Handbook of Texas.

A website devoted to the poetry of Judd Mortimer Lewis by his great grandson, Judd Perry.

Eugene Davis, Psychic

A few days after the station signed on, the Post-Dispatch carried word in its daily report on the station that something new was going to be tried - the services of a psychic were going to be engaged and the readings and prognostications broadcast for all to hear. Listeners and readers were invited to send in their questions by mail and the mail poured in.

When Eugene Davis appeared for the first time, the response was overwhelming and she was so taxed (Eugene was a woman) that she withdrew from the program before the allotted time was used up, claiming that peering into the future for so many had exhausted her and she could not go on. Those who heard her were very impressed, however, and on the 29th of May, as part of a half-page article summarizing mail that had been received, it was announced that Eugene Davis would be appearing regularly on KPRC.

To Be Continued

Galleries Posts

This link will bring up all posts on the blog labeled Galleries, in reverse order as posted. The same collection can be accessed by clicking on 'Galleries' in the Labels at the bottom of posts.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

"Through the blue and grey ether, a long, deep, resonant...

...steamboat whistle penetrates....

And the announcer’s voice comes through with something like “Good Evening everyone. This is KTRH, the station owned and operated by the Rice Hotel, Houston’s welcome to the world.”

So began a feature article in a November, 1930, issue of Radio Digest, the nation’s premier radio periodical, entitled ‘Steamboat Whistle is Station Call of KTRH.’ The article goes on to explain the relevance of the steamboat whistle, i.e., Houston’s Ship Channel, which has made the port one of the most important in the world and the city the second largest in the South. The article says station owner Jesse B. Jones ‘needs no introduction to Radio Digest readers,’ he who had brought the Democratic National Convention to Houston in 1928, built the ‘gigantic’ Sam Houston Convention Hall and ‘miles of skyscrapers’ in both Houston and New York City. It also notes the hotel sits on the site of a one time capital of the Republic of Texas.

Peeking into a studio with the article’s author you may believe you have been transported to Mother Goose Land as you see an Old Woman in a Shoe, surrounded by so many children she doesn’t know what to do. It is Aunt Pat - real name Margaret Britton, twenty-something assistant program supervisor of KTRH - who is equally adept at entertaining young children or playing an adult role in a KTRH production, sometimes taking on more than one role in the same production.

There is Guy Savage ‘young and blond’, known as the Whispering Tenor, who hosts the station’s morning program including The KTRH Mother’s Program, one of the most popular features on the station, which airs dedications to ‘your mother and mine,’living or dead, and draws heavy mail. The program features the ringing of an alarm clock every quarter hour followed by the strains of Reveille to help get listeners out of the sack.

The staff also includes soprano Mary Carson who studied at La Scala in Milan and has performed in all the major cities of England, France, Germany and Italy and was most recently with the Boston Opera.

The article notes “The Texas oil fields have also contributed to KTRH two harmonizers of the first degree who have won a wide following by the perfect blend of their voices." Sloan and Threadgill - Jerry and Frank - Brunswick Phonograph recording artists - who both work at Baytown and when a harmony team is needed, a wire is dispatched to Sloan and Threadgill, Baytown, and they come post-haste. They have been performing together since 1913 and they sing ‘Countryside style songs.’

I am indebted to Mike Henry of the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland for sharing this article with me.

I have mentioned Guy Savage before on this blog. There was a later Sports Director of KXYZ and KTRK-TV by that name who died in 1969 but his obit did not indicate he had ever worked at KTRH.

This Frank Threadgill is apparently no relation to the famous Kenneth Threadgill of Austin.

August Anniversaries

August 4, 1968, marked the launch of KFRD-FM, Rosenberg on 104.9 MHz, although whether that’s the actual launch date or the date of the permit I don’t know. The station on that frequency now is KPTY-FM licensed to Missouri City.

The 15th will mark the 36th anniversary of Channel 26, originally launched as KVRL-TV in August, 1971, Houston’s 6th oldest surviving television station.

Coming up toward the end of the month the 22nd will mark what would have been the 61st anniversary of the first FM station in Houston which also happened to be the first FM in Texas and first sustaining FM anywhere. The station lasted only a few years - FM was way ahead of its time - but it was an important milestone in Houston radio history. There will be another post documenting the achievement as the date approaches which will serve to launch the FM Chronology section of this blog.

August 24th marks the 81st anniversary of KXYZ which launched on that date in 1926 as KTUE.