Late one Sunday evening 40 years ago I walked into Studio A in the old KFRU Building on Business Loop 70 and went on the air for the first time. I was 21. A friend told me I needed to work in a real commercial radio station. My KFRU début on Feb. 6, 1967, was marked by talking as little as possible while spinning the stacks of wax, as we used to say, and flying solo during Matinee at Midnight, Music in the Night and the first hour of Morning Country Style.
I felt a little like the captain of a ship once the person I succeeded walked out of the building and left me all alone in charge of the place. Here was an entire radio station—studios, offices, transmitter, tower and plenty of equipment—just like the stations I’d listened to from the time when I was about 6 years old and began dreaming of the day when I would work at this mysterious industry.
I would spend many subsequent hours in Studio A manipulating the controls on the Gates President console to orchestrate a continuous flow of programming from several turntables, various tape machines and many other sources. Those included a myriad of network and remote lines ranging from ABC Radio and the newsroom in the Columbia Daily Tribune building downtown to several churches, MU Tiger sports, Hickman High School sports, St. Louis Cardinals baseball, the U.S. Weather Bureau at the old Municipal Airport and two-way radio links for covering special events. Who in radio then could forget the Teletype machine? Just gazing at this wondrous box spitting out the news at the rate of 55 words a minute meant knowing what was going on before anyone else.
On Feb. 6, 1967, KFRU was a station formatted to offer a little bit of something for everyone. Musically, KFRU was all over the place. A typical day began with four hours of music ranging from ballads to the classics. Morning Country Style followed, and then it was The Musical Clock, Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club from ABC, Party Line, The Farm and Home Hour, the MFA Hi-Neighbors remote, The Mike Friedman Show, Sports Page of the Air, and Top-40-style Disc Derby, to name just a few.
At the time, Columbia was a city of about 45,000 inhabitants that swelled when you counted heads at the University of Missouri and the two colleges. The geography of Columbia was strikingly more limited. Going south on the old Providence Road, one would exit the city limits about where the Stoney Creek Inn sits today, and once you reached Green Meadows Road, you were out in the country. Educators were speaking of the need to build a second high school, Boone County Hospital was hiring consultants to plan future expansion, and the big deal in shopping was the Parkade Plaza.
When I started, audience surveys showed that almost 70 percent of the area’s radio listeners were tuned to KFRU. Other stations vying for attention included Top-40 formatted KXOK, St. Louis, and WHB, Kansas City; country-formatted KFAL, Fulton; and KCGM, Columbia’s only other station. Ironically, within hours of my début, KCGM became Top-40 KTGR and quickly gained a large audience of among the area’s younger listeners.
Not many listeners knew about FM radio 40 years ago. Growing up in an AM-FM household, I brought FM with me to college and was challenged every day receiving Kansas City and St. Louis stations on a hit-or-miss basis. It was an adventure receiving those elusive signals out here in the far fringe area. There were good days, and there were bad days, but ordinarily, the FM dial was awash of anything to listen to.
I was a freshman when I visited KFRU and found the station had no interest in FM because Jefferson City’s KWOS had surrendered its FM license in 1958 after giving it a try for about a decade. What KWOS foolishly relinquished could have become a giant FM station, made all the more ironic because the same family also owned KRCG-TV. Channel 13’s 1,000-foot tower would have brought thunderous coverage to KWOS-FM, 98.5 had the station been allowed to survive.
Over the years, I’ve always cited this stupid, impatient business decision to defend the need for investors to wait out technology and not give up on a project when things aren’t going according to some short-sighted business plan. New thinking was already beginning to take hold when I began my professional broadcasting career 40 years ago, and now the FM band is chock full of stations.
On this little personal anniversary, there’s no need here for bands, parades, proclamations or any thunderous applause. After all, it was almost an accident that I decided to move here to begin with. Still, those early years when I was permitted to struggle with my ascent into radio will always be cherished with all the memories of the years I spent in the confines of the old KFRU Building at 1911 Business Loop 70 East. The tales of my own subsequent entrepreneurial experiences—both FM and AM—will have to wait for another time.