Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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RADIO

Radio has played an important role in Oklahoma's communication history. The first voice that came over Oklahoma's airwaves was probably broadcast from the military radio base at Post Field in Lawton shortly after World War I. At this time, returning soldiers brought with them a knowledge of radio and started experimenting with tubes and transmitters. Earl C. Hull was one of those young men. Joined by H. S. Richards, he began an experimental station known as 5XT in a garage on Oklahoma City's southwest side. By spring 1921 they were regularly broadcasting market reports, weather, music, and news. Funding for their operation came from the sales of receiver sets rather than from advertising. In January 1922 there were thirty receiver sets in Oklahoma City. By the spring of that year the federal government had assigned the call letters WKY to the young station. In 1928 Edward K. Gaylord purchased the facility for five thousand dollars and immediately began an upgrade. After that, WKY continually enhanced its operation with the latest technology, opened studios in the Skirvin Tower in 1936, and sent programs over the NBC network. In January 1924 a second Oklahoma City station, KFJF, went on the air. Unable to compete with WKY, it was sold in 1931 to Southwestern Broadcasting Company and acquired the new call letters KOMA. WKY and KOMA remained long-time rivals.

By May 1922 the Midland Refining Company, organized by William G. Skelly, was broadcasting entertainment on its station, WEH, in the Tulsa area. The equipment had originally been started to provide communications for Midland. In fact, communication businesses, such as local newspapers and telephone companies, began a rapid pace of radio station start-ups in 1922 all around Oklahoma. KFRU went on the air in January 1925 from studios in Bristow. Owned by oil millionaire E. H. Rollestone, the station thrived by broadcasting live, local talent. Crowds gathered to watch through the studio's numerous windows. One of the first stations to provide country music for its listeners, KFRU showcased such groups as Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys. In 1926 the call letters KVOO were assigned to the station as it improved its plant and added studios in Tulsa. KVOO officially moved to Tulsa in January 1927 and was purchased by Skelly in June 1928. He continually upgraded the broadcasting equipment through the years, and it reached a full-time signal strength of 50,000 watts in 1943. After a short stint on WKY in 1934, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys moved to KVOO, beginning one of the longest-running radio programs in the state's history.

Campus radio stations were popular from the beginning of broadcasting. In early 1922, 5ZG went on the air in the basement at the house of a University of Oklahoma (OU) electrical engineering student. By fall of that year, 5ZG became WNAD and on October 4 broadcast an OU football game for the first time. In May 1923 OU became the licensee, and the station became a part of the engineering lab. The Oklahoma College for Women (now University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) at Chickasha purchased station KFGD in 1924 to broadcast educational programs. J. T. Griffin bought the station in October 1931, moved it to Tulsa, and changed its call letters to KTUL. Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University, OSU) sent programs out over KVOO in an arrangement with that station until FM (frequency modulation) radio emerged. Then KAMC-FM went on the air in December 1955, eventually becoming KOSU in 1959.

In October 1937 WKY began a contract with OU to provide professional broadcasts of its football games. A young man, named Walter Cronkite, just getting started in broadcasting in Texas, was brought in to give play-by-play commentary. He was hired because he was good at reading game descriptions provided by the wire service. When he called that first "live" game between OU and the University of Tulsa, the results were less than desirable, but he improved. He finished the season and soon moved to Kansas City, covered World War II as a war correspondent, and later anchored the CBS evening news on television.

In the 1930s and 1940s radio provided programming with dramatic presentations as well as the news, weather, and music. Full-production studios such as WKY in the Skirvin Tower and KVOO produced numerous local programs. However, they also provided network feeds to the rest of the nation. Special events were sent out over the network lines, for example, the broadcast of the Charlie McCarthy Show in 1946 from the Oklahoma City Municipal Auditorium. Gov. Robert S. Kerr made a special guest appearance on that show, and crowds poured in to see the cast of this nationally popular program.

Experimental FM radio began with W5XAU at WKY prior to World War II. The first three FM stations went on the air in 1947. KWGS-FM was an educational station signing on May 6, WKY-FM went on the air July 1, and KSPI-FM in Stillwater began November 1. In 1958 KLBC-FM went on the air in Durant, KMOD-FM began in Tulsa in 1959, and KATT-FM began in Oklahoma City in 1960. Not until the 1960s, when stereo made its appearance, did FM radio become accepted by the public.

Radio has gone through several changes through the years, filling the needs of Oklahoma citizens. Beginning with recorded music and news, it evolved into dramatic programming and live musical performances. When television became popular, radio again changed to a "top 10" format. When cable television threatened, talk programs were expanded to keep AM radio alive. Radio has always provided an identity for rural towns as well as urban areas in the state. It is often considered to be the voice of the community.

SEE ALSO: OKLAHOMA PUBLISHING COMPANY (OPUBCO), TELEVISION, WKY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Gene Allen, Voices On the Wind: Early Radio in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1993). Walter Cronkite, A Reporter's Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). "Radio Broadcasting Oklahoma" and "Radio Stations Oklahoma," Vertical Files, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Bill Moore

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