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El Paso Broadcasting: The Stories Behind the Call Letters
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Erika Lynne Witzke
The year was 1921. W. S. Bledsoe's experimental radio station, KFXH at Five Points, gave El Pasoans their first taste of radio. He was broadcasting with homemade equipment and a whopping 50 watts of power.
Photo courtesy of TMS Radio and TV
Not too many heard those first broadcasts, though, as radio was in its infancy. Those who had radio receivers were few. The majority were hobbyists or in the radio business. That would soon change.
In June of 1922, El Paso's first licensed station, WDAH, began transmitting from the Mine and Smelter Supply Company on San Francisco street. Programming was minimal, consisting mainly of community information but was reborn a week later when Trinity Methodist Church bought the station to broadcast church services and prayer meetings. In June 1929, Eagle Radio Broadcasting Companies, Inc., a broadcasting chain that owned several stations in Texas, took over WDAH to broadcast regional programming with the agreement that Trinity Methodist's church services would still be broadcast.
A brand new station, KTSM, arrived on the scene in August 1929. It was owned by Tri-State Music Company and W. S. Bledsoe. KTSM was licensed to operate on the same frequency with WDAH, a practice known as time-sharing. Because programming schedules were still relatively minimal in those days, it was not uncommon for stations to share one frequency.
The new station broadcast primarily local programming by local artists, including Karl Wyler singing with his ukelele, Mrs. C. J. Hatchett playing the lead role in the drama "Ole Meg," and Van des Autels as "The Funnypaper Man," a children's program. Although WDAH continued to broadcast regional programming as well as church services for a time, in future years KTSM absorbed WDAH and retired the call letters.
In 1934, KTSM affiliated with World Broadcasting System, a transcription service providing a greater variety of programming, including music, comedies and dramas to El Paso listeners. One year later, KTSM also broadcast the city's first radio news program, "Newspaper of the Air."
In February 1936, Dorrance Roderick, publisher of the El Paso Times applied for and was granted a permit to begin operation of radio station KROD. KTSM protested the application, and a hearing was set to hear the arguments of both parties before the FCC in Washington, D. C. Initially scheduled for May, the hearing was postponed until December, at which time the FCC again recommended that Roderick's permit be granted. Tri-State Broadcasting appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals on the grounds that El Paso was economically unable to support two radio stations and the loss of revenue would seriously damage KTSM's service to the community.
In March 1938, the court reversed the FCC's action on a technicality. The FCC yet again approved KROD's construction permit in June of the same year and Tri-State Broadcasting again appealed. Finally, on November 13, 1939, after an almost four-year delay, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dorrance Roderick.
On June 1, 1940, after a long, hard struggle, CBS affiliate KROD was on the air. Programs now available to El Paso listeners included "Amos and Andy," "European War Broadcast," the "Don Ameche Variety Show" and "Hedda Hopper on Movies." Just two years earlier, in 1938, in the midst of the KTSM/KROD "radio war," KTSM affiliated with National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and brought network programming and big stars to El Paso radio.
In New York, an amazing new invention was unveiled at the 1939 World's Fair -- television -- but it would be thirteen years before El Pasoans would be able to experience it for themselves for two reasons. The country's immediate focus was on World War II, and the FCC imposed a freeze which prohibited any new stations to be built.
During the 1940s, radio stations flourished as the population grew and the public became increasingly dependent on radio for information and entertainment. This era, the 30s, 40s and 50s, has become known as the "Golden Age of Radio." And that it was. Stars like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen with his dummy Charlie McCarthy, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were just some of the great stars of radio.
The true impact of radio was not really known until CBS Network's "Mercury Theater of the Air" broadcast the radio play "War of the Worlds" in 1938. The great Orson Welles recreated the H. G. Wells novel in which Martians landed in New Jersey, destroying everything and everyone in their path with a lethal gas. Widespread panic occurred even though the program was identified as fiction four times during the broadcast. The confusion arose because the play was in the form of special reports interrupting regularly scheduled programming. Listeners had become so accustomed to getting most of their news and information over the radio that many believed what they were hearing.
If the impact of radio was as yet unknown at that time, there was no question afterward. Radio was an extremely powerful, effective medium and would in the future be more closely regulated to ensure that similar incident would not recur. Although El Paso did not yet have a CBS affiliate in 1938, "War of the Worlds" could still be picked up here from CBS affiliates in Dallas and Louisiana. A that time, since there was a limited number of stations on the air, it was not usual to receive signals from great distances.
In 1944, with the help of KTSM, the Texas College of Mines (now UTEP) became one of the only three colleges in the country to offer radio as a major course of study. KTSM provided the training facilities, instructors and annual scholarships to those students interested in radio as a career.
In the late 1940s, stations KELP, KSET and KEPO arrived in the Sun City. KSET and KEPO were network affiliates. KSET was the Mutual Broadcasting System affiliate and KEPO, the ABC affiliate. Well-known network news anchor Sam Donaldson began his career at KEPO. A greater variety of programming was now available including soap operas ("Guiding Light" and "Ma Perkins"), dramas ("Perry Mason" and "The Shadow"), news ("Edward R. Murrow" and "Meet the Press"), game shows ("Beat the Clock" and "Winner Take All") and musical/variety programs (the "Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra" and the "Ozzie Nelson Orchestra"), to name just a few.
Gordon McLendon, lauded in many mass communications college textbooks as a pioneer in radio formatting and known in the industry as "The Old Scotsman," brought KELP radio to El Paso. With KELP, it is said, he began to perfect the idea of the top-40 format and also broadcast baseball games "live" by monitoring the game's progress via Western Union and re-creating the play-by-play over the air.
In July 1949, KSET went off the air, citing financial difficulties, but returned to the air later that year. All radio stations were still AM at this time. Although the technology was in place, FM didn't arrive until the late 50s and early 60s.
It was December of 1952 when El Paso got its first television station, CBS affiliate KROD-TV. Three weeks later, NBC affiliate KTSM-TV also went on the air. KTSM began broadcasting in color as early as 1953. Most of the great players of radio had moved or were moving to television by this time. Among those were Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle and Jack Benny. In order to survive, radio had to find a new niche, and it did so with music.
Television, meanwhile, took off in the 1950s. Not only did El Paso get the CBS and NBC affiliates during this decade, but also the ABC affiliate, KELP-TV, originally owned by broadcasting great Gordon McLendon. It went on the air in September 1956. These were the days before the advent of videotape, so most programs, including commercials, were done live. Retired executive vice-president of KTSM, Jack Rye, recalls an incident involving media personality Ted Bender. Bender was demonstrating a new pogo stick on the market, and while showing how easy and how much fun it was to use, he fell into the television camera.
Radio personality Roy Chapman, who also played KTSM's "Funnypaper Man," remembers another live television moment. While broadcasting a commercial for Price's Creameries and intending to demonstrate the safe operation of the company's vehicles, the oh-so-safe vehicle crashed! On yet another occasion, Betty Furness, while attempting to show off the wonderfully spacious, new Westinghouse refrigerator, went to open the door only to find it stuck. The joys of live television!
Many changes have occurred since those early days of radio and television. FM radio has exploded from its initial days in the late of 1950s. Many stations (both radio and television) have changed ownership and still do at a rapid rate. KSET-AM is now KVIV, KEPO is KHEY, KROD-TV is KDBC and KELP-TV is now KVIA. El Paso has acquired public television, a new FOX affiliate, and three other independent UFH television stations -- KINT-TV Channel 26, KSCE Channel 38, and KJLF Channel 65. Technological advances such as FM stereo, videotape, cable, VCRs, and compact discs have had a significant impact on the broadcast industry.