In the beginning
Since the mid 1980s, a lot of radio and television stations have come on the air in North Dakota. And since 2009, the number multiplied with the advent of digital TV and radio. But how about in the beginning? What was radio like in the beginning for residents of North Dakota? As you might imagine, the radio dial was quite different than it is now. You didn’t really need to do any tuning because there was no place else to go.
Here’s something you might find interesting. WDAY in Fargo, which is on 970 on the AM dial today, was the first radio station in North Dakota. It went on the air on May 23, 1922, and was actually one of the first radio stations in the United States. It was less than two years prior, on Nov. 2, 1920, that the first commercial radio station signed on the air in Pittsburgh with the call letters KDKA. It wasn’t until Jan. 31, 1925, that the state’s second station in KDLR went on the air in Devils Lake. The frequencies have changed, but these two original radio stations continue with the same call letters. When WDAY signed on, there was actually another radio station in the area, but it was in Canada. CHAB signed on for the first time in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on April 23, 1922, giving people in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana a “local” radio station to listen to. There were several other stations that went on the air in 1922. There must have been something about that year: WJR in Detroit; WNAX in Yankton, S.D.; KSL, which was then called KZN, in Salt Lake City; and CKCK in Regina.
As this new “box that could snag music out of the air,” gained popularity, people in southeastern North Dakota began listening to WNAX. KGCU, which is now KLXX in Mandan, went on the air in 1926, but it doesn’t list a specific date. From the 1950s to early ‘80s, it was called KBOM. Two more in-state stations would sign on in the 1920s: KFYR in Bismarck and KLPM in Minot. KFYR was granted a license in 1925 and often refers to itself as a 1925 station, but it didn’t actually go on the air until Feb. 8, 1926, from its studio in downtown Bismarck. When KFYR signed on, it was a 10-watt radio station. Car stereos today have more power than that.
KLPM started on Oct. 28, 1929, just one day before the Stock Market crash, and still broadcasts today in Minot as KRRZ. The first FM radio station signed on in Fargo on Nov. 17, 1947. It was called KVNJ and began broadcasting six years after the first FM station in the nation, which was in Nashville. FM radio really didn’t catch on in North Dakota until the early 1960s. Prior to that AM was building, but for many in the rural areas, they purchased radio sets with a shortwave dial that brought a slew of stations if conditions were right.
The benchmark date for radio in the United States is Nov. 2, 1920, but there was plenty of experimentation before that. If you’ll remember your history, Guglielmo Marconi sent a signal from Cornwall, England, to St. John’s Newfoundland in December 1901. It was the first trans-Atlantic radio signal and lasted all of a few minutes. Marconi actually sent a broadcast across his garden in Italy in 1895. But the first known, documented radio signal happened in Brazil in 1893 when Roberto Landell de Moura sent a signal similar to Marconi’s from one point to another in Sao Paulo.
Australia also has claim to early radio signals being on air before the turn of the century. William Henry Bragg, a professor at the University of Adelaide, is considered the first person to broadcast a signal in Australia in 1897. Then, in 1906, a Morse Code message was sent over the air from Queenscliff, Victoria, to Davonport, Tasmania, in Australia. Several others followed suit: Beloit, Wis., San Jose, Calif., Montreal, New York City and Pierre, yes Pierre, S.D.
In 1912, a license was granted to Dana McNeil for radio station 9ZP, which apparently had intermittent broadcasts. In 1927, it became KGFX and still uses those call letters today on 1060 AM.
The first shortwave radio station in the U.S. was actually KDKA using a format we often hear of today; simulcasting. It was on the AM dial for locals in Pittsburgh but started shortwave simulcasts in 1921.
There weren’t a lot of listeners in the early days because radios were expensive. If you could get one in North Dakota, the price was $75, adjusted for inflation is now $1,129.