Monday, February 12, 2018

DJ Frederick McKinley Jones


The first African American to build a radio station was Frederick McKinley Jones. He hailed from the small town of Hallock, MN. How small?  The population was 981 at the 2010 census. It's population probably peaked around 1960; the census that year put the population at 1,552. It's so far into north west Minnesota that it touches both Canada and North Dakota. The movie Fargo was filmed there. So it is unclear why Jones, a man born in Cincinnati would move over 1,000 miles arriving next door to nowhere. More here.

Most biographies of Jones point out that he was orphaned at age nine, and had little formal education. The details are a little uglier. He was born in 1893 to a white father and black mother. His mother deserted him, and at the age of 7 he was sent to live with a priest in Kentucky. His father died when he was nine. At the age of 11 he ran away and went back to Cincinnati and worked odd jobs. He turned out to be a mechanical genius, and became foreman of an auto-shop. In 1912, he landed in Hallock, Minnesota where he obtained a job as a farm mechanic. He was 19.

After serving in the army during World War I, he returned to Hallock, MN and this is where his career intersects with radio. Every biography mentions that he became interested in radio and built the first radio station transmitter in Hallock. Today there are zero radio station in Hallock. The nearest audible station is 950 CFAM-AM; 50 miles away in Altona, Manitoba, Canada. The closest US station is 1340 KXPO-AM in Grafton, ND. It might be audible when the weather is just right... So what station was this? The book The Entrepreneurial Spirit of African American Inventors by Patricia Carter Sluby adds a little detail.

"He began to invent things such as an improved microphone, called a 'condenser type' and fiddled with wireless transmitters. Jones and a friend built a powerful 500-watt radio station that aired short programs three days a week."
Unfortunately, Sluby doesn't name the call letters. But if you browse through old radio guides there was only one radio station in Hallock: KGFK. In 1929 the Radio Service Bulletin lists it as owned by R. W. Lautzenheiser and O. R. Mitchell. The frequency was 1340 kc operating at 50 watts. Earlier sources list the station as owned by Kittson County Enterprise the frequency as 1200. By June of 1930 the station changed hands and moved to Moorehead, MN, licensed to Red River Broadcasting and moved to 1500 kc at 200 watts.

So if we follow the timeline, Jones founded the station sometime after WWI. By the mid 1920s it was owned by Kittson County Enterprise newspaper publisher. By 1928 it was in the hands of  R. W. Lautzenheiser and O. R. Mitchell. But in March of 1929 Radio world lists the partners as O. R. Mitchell, J.E. Bouvette, and N.L. Cotter. Regardless the partners sold the station to Red River who took the license to Morehead. White's radio guide lists it operating in the Fall of 1927, But it's also in the CKLC Radio log in an undated edition that is believe to be from 1926.

In 1934 Red River began the process to move KGFK from Moorhead to Duluth. Despite a legal challenge they succeeded. [SOURCE] The FCC decided that the primary service from WEBC was adequate and granted the move in 1936. Red River already got a CP for KDAL-AM in 1937 which also in Duluth on 1490 which may be why it moved to 610 in 1941. Or it may be that they are the same station. The Federal Communications Bar Journal of 1938 clearly notes:
"In December of 1933, the majority stockholders in the Red River Broadcasting Company entered into a contract with Dalton A. LeMasurier and Charles LeMasurier. The contract provided that the licensee of KDAL (formerly KGFK) would apply to the Comission..."
A 1940 FCC report further notes:
"The application for the removal of Station KGFK from Moore- head to Duluth was originally granted without a hearing by the Federal Radio Commission on January 30, 1934... Thereafter the application was heard and this Commission, by its decision adopted February 26, 1935, 1 F. C. C. 215, granted a permit to construct the station at Duluth... When the station was constructed at Duluth, Minnesota, its call letters were changed from KGFK to KDAL."
This confirms that the first radio station built by the first black radio engineer is still on air in Duluth today as KDAL. It is unclear why their official history omits this. Today the old KGFK call letters live in nearby Grand Forks; though it's a different station. They began broadcasting in 1959 under the call sign KRAD. Jones went on to co-found Thermo-King, and consult for the U.S. Department of Defense. He died in 1961, and was posthumously awarded the the National Medal of Technology in 1991.