In 1991-92, this author lived in a tiny apartment on the backside of the carriage house of an 1870s-era manor at 1725 Fairmount. Known to locals as the Funeral Home (due to a prank that had taken place some years before), this ramshackle Victorian house had been divided up into a dozen or so cheap apartments, most of which were occupied at any given time by students and/or dropouts and/or bartenders from the nearby Kirby's Beer Store.
Among the constantly shifting residents of the Funeral Home were several people involved with local radio, and rumor had it that the first local regular radio broadcast in the city (and perhaps the state), which featured a religious program, had emanated from that very address in the 1920s. This, it turns out, happens to be true.
It is a matter of fact that the first license to operate a radio station was issued March 30, 1922 to C.A. Stanley of 1725 Fairmount, with the assigned call letters WEY. Stanley's religious programming didn't last long, as the May 9, 1922 edition of the Wichita Beacon announced: "The Wichita Beacon Broadcasting Station, 1725 Fairmount, opened operations last week. Market, weather and sport reports are broadcasted every day. The station is in charge of C.A. Stanley, of the Cosradio Company. The Beacon radio signal is WEY."
By the time the Beacon got its station going, however, it already had competition shaping up. The April 25, 1922 Wichita Eagle reported: "Wichita is to have the most powerful radio broadcasting station between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Pacific Coast. It will be located on North Roosevelt between Central and 3rd, and will be owned by the United Electric company of Wichita. The Wichita Eagle will provide broadcasting programs. Work will begin Tuesday on the station and it is expected to be in operation within two weeks. The radio call is WAAP and the transmitter will have 1,000 watts power."
On June 2, the Beacon reported on a third licensed radio station going into operation: "The Wichita Board of Trade Radio Broadcasting Station will begin broadcasting market reports Monday morning with signal letters WEAH and wave length of 360 meters. The aerial is 100 feet long and is supported on the roof of the Wheeler-Kelly-Hagny building by two steel towers 40 feet high."
In this era, radio equipment — both transmitters and receivers — were still reasonably unsophisticated devices, and a 500-watt signal coming from Wichita could be heard over 1,000 miles away, even sometimes causing disturbances in ship-to-shore transmissions in the Gulf of Mexico. The city's three competing signals bled over one another, prompting an agreement among their operators. The July 7, 1922 Beacon noted: "A division of time among the three Wichita radio broadcasting stations, WEY, WEAH and WAAP, has been arranged in order to prevent interference."
On the very same day the Eagle ran an ad for WAAP, showing a photo of the station, "located in a large alfalfa field between Central Avenue and the S.W. Cooper residence on North Roosevelt Avenue."
America was in the grip of radio fever, and Wichita was no exception. In January 1923, the Eagle described "the new Radio apartments now nearing completion at 532 North Lawrence [Broadway]. Every one of the 12 apartments will be equipped with radio outfits." Just one generation before, a person would have been delighted to have an apartment equipped with steam heat or a single electric lightbulb. Suddenly all manner of entertainment and information — music, sporting events, news, comedies, dramas, weather reports and much more — came pouring directly into one's living room out of plain air. It changed our society radically in ways since rivaled perhaps only by television and the internet.
WAAP did not do well, and legendary Kansas lunatic Dr. John R. Brinkley swooped in and bought its license and equipment, moving the entire operation to Milford, Kansas. Dr. Brinkley's entire story is too big for a column such as this, but suffice it to say that the man — famous for his "goat gland" male potency surgeries and patent tonics — was an oddball giant, well-known for all the wrong reasons in the fields of broadcast radio, quack medicine and populist politics.
In 1925, the upscale Lassen Hotel bought WEAH from the Wichita Board of Trade and moved the station to a custom-built facility on the Lassen's 11th floor. On Nov. 25 of that year, the Eagle noted: "The new radio station of the Hotel Lassen was allowed to take the air yesterday with a definite call letter and wave length assignment. The call assigned is KFH, taken from the hotel's motto, 'Kansas' finest hotel.' The letters WKHL (Wichita, Kansas Hotel Lassen) had been sought, but the department of commerce has discontinued issuance of W calls to stations west of the Mississippi. The wave length remains at 268 meters."
In 1932, in the process of moving his radio freakshow to Mexico, Dr. Brinkley sold the former WAAP (operating at the time as KFKB in Milford) to the Farmers and Bankers Insurance Company, who renamed the station KFBI and relocated it to Abilene, Kansas. They opened a remote studio in Salina in 1935, then moved the whole operation into their downtown Wichita office building (catercorner from the Lassen) in 1940. By then, its original 500-watt transmitter had been replaced by a 5000-watt model.
KFBI became popular for its widely varied music programming, featuring everything from classical and jazz to swing and even bluegrass. In 1962, it was purchased by Great Empire Broadcasting, which switched its call letters to KFDI and its format to straight country/western.
By the early 1950s, television was replacing radio as America's go-to medium for home entertainment, and the internet has further reduced its impact on our day-to-day lives. Yet radio continues to prove its resilience, remaking itself repeatedly in the face of all new comers. Today, through all the rampant change of the past century, both KFH and KFDI are still on the air and thriving in the new millennium. As digital radio becomes the norm, it will be interesting to see how broadcasters adapt to the new possibilities offered by the technology.