Monday, November 08, 2010

The Seedlings of Radio

In 1924 radio was very early in it's game. Programming was eclectic to put it nicely. But it was that no-standards environment that brought out some really odd programming.  It's in a situation like that where risk is trivial, where programmers really can take chances.Strangely It was in the small town of Shenandoah Iowa where that sort of thinking built not one, but two radio stations run by seed barons.

920 KFNF-AM was founded by Henry Field, owner of the Henry Field Seed Company in 1924. They shared time with KUSD and WILL.  He hated that new "jazzy" music and started the station to sell goods, and to air old time music and hymns. He had been printing a seed catalog since 1899, and after sprinkling it with short articles, moved up to a full magazine in 1913  called "seed Sense" which published quarterly. Despite criticism, it was a moderate success. By his own accounting in 1927 he sold: 55 carloads of tires; 60 carloads of paint; 490,000 pounds of coffee; 44 carloads of field seeds; 20 carloads of dried fruit; 51,000 radio tubes; 204,000 yards of dress goods; 60,000 pairs of ladies' hose; and 21,000 suits.  More here.

But it was not the only radio station selling seeds. The Earl May Seed Company can trace it's roots to 1915 Mr. May moved to Shenandoah, IA and connected himself to the Mount Arbor Nursery then struck out on his own. Then in 1919 he took over the old Armstrong Seedhouse. In stead of starting a radio station, Earl started a program on WOAW-AM in Omaha. It was probably the first gardening program ever aired. It was about about planting, landscaping, caring for ornamental trees, fruit trees, and flowers. At first he trekked to 590 WOAW to do the program.  Later, in 1924 he built a special studio in the May Seed Company building and through the Omaha station transmitted his programs sixty-six miles by wire.

He branched out into selling dry goods on his program: dried fruit, canned fruit, frozen fish, and citrus. Things went so well he decided to start his own radio station.On August 12,1925, operating at that time on a wave length of 252 meters with a power of five hundred watts, 960 KMA-AM broadcast its initial program. It did so well, that he began building a proper studio. It was finished in the fall of 1927, its auditorium seated one thousand people.It was called "The Cornbelt station in the Heart of the Nation."

These men had had a bit of a rivalry in business and in broadcasting of course. but over time KFNF withered and KMA thrived. KMA grew to 5,000 watts. KFNF was still only 1,000 in  the 1950s. Eventually KMA-AM became a business concern in it's own right, and a member of the NBC Blue Network and a Mutual Broadcasting affiliate. Things changed. In the 1950s KFNF was the Mutual affiliate, KMA moved on to ABC.  Earl May died in 1946, but his family took over operation of the station. KFMF was already in private hands. Today KMA's  license is held by KMA Broadcasting, which is still in the family. KFNF wasn't as lucky, it's calls changed to KYFR in 1977 a religious sat-caster, one of seven "family" stations in the Midwest.