"Small but Mighty"
1390, Des Moines
By George F. Davison, Jr.
Feisty is the best way to describe KCBC. It came on the air with a great deal of fanfare as a Mutual network affiliate. When a more powerful station came on the air, KCBC lost the Mutual affiliation. KCBC had to figure out how to survive in a market populated with stations that had 5,000, 10,000 and 50,000 watts on more favorable frequencies. KCBC innovated and called attention to itself as "Small, but Mighty".
Work to bring the station that was to become KCBC to life began shortly after the end of World War II. A group of Des Moines businessmen headed by George O'Dea organized Capital City Broadcasting Company. Sidney J. Pearlman was Vice President and General Manager of the station, while Hugh N. Gallagher was secretary and treasurer. In 1941 O'Dea and Gallagher had helped to form Iowa State Bank, an east side Des Moines financial institution that continues in business today and champions its independence.
One story is that the founders of KCBC had a choice of frequencies:
940 kHz was a Canadian clear channel frequency and offered the possibility of relatively high power and good daytime coverage. A directional pattern would be necessary to protect the Canadian clear channel station, especially at night. During the day, the combination of frequency and power would cover almost the entire state of Iowa. At night, however, the signal could not go no further north than Ames. The closest Des Moines area station below 940 kHz was WOI in Ames at 640 kHz. 50,000 watt WHO at 1040 kHz was the next station above 940 kHz.
1390 kHz was a regional frequency. It, too, would require a directional pattern. The pattern KCBC had to use all the time was focused east and west. Power would be 1,000 watts. The advantage was the frequency was right between KRNT and KSO. The thinking was that listeners would hear the station as they tuned between 1350 kHz and 1460 kHz.
The 940 kHz frequency would require a six-tower array to afford protection to the Canadian clear channel station, as well as for a station that was planned in Mexico on the same frequency. Engineers report that the pattern required for 940 kHz was difficult to maintain. The lower frequency required tall towers and a larger grounding system. This would cost more money. The founders of KCBC may have been financially pragmatic when they decided to use 1390 kHz.
KIOA came on the air in 1948 on 940 kHz. KIOA was founded by another group of Des Moines area investors. They began their work to found the station during World War II.
The men who put KCBC on the air saw their station as serving Des Moines. They were not concerned with wide coverage, and so they selected 1390 kHz as the frequency for KCBC, anticipating that Des Moines residents dialing between KRNT and KSO would hear the station, stop, and give it a listen. Over the years, many Des Moines residents did just that, and KCBC developed a loyal following.
KCBC signed on the air on March 13, 1947. KCBC was the Des Moines affiliate for Mutual. Before KCBC began operations, some Mutual programs were heard on KRNT and WHO. The 1946 World Series for which Mutual had radio broadcast rights was carried by KRNT, at the time the city's ABC affiliate.
KCBC signed on with several familiar radio voices from the Des Moines market. Glen Law was KCBC's newscaster. Law had been with KRNT where he had delivered newscasts for several years. To help KCBC gain audience and a following, Law did the station's main evening newscast at 9:30 PM, followed by a 15-minute sportscast delivered by another KRNT veteran who joined KCBC, Gene Milner. KCBC in its early years also carried Chicago Cubs baseball play-by-play delivered by Bert Wilson on the Midwest Baseball Network.
KCBC's transmitter and four tower directional array were on Des Moines' east side just north of Dean Avenue in the Four Mile Creek bottom. The same pattern was used day and night. It was a four-leaf clover, with the main lobe focused more or less east and west over Des Moines. The station used a 1,000 watt Raytheon transmitter. First Class Radio Telephone Engineers had to be on duty at the transmitter site at all times while the station was in operation to assure that the directional pattern was properly maintained.
The station's offices and original studios were at 2323 Grand Avenue, just west of downtown Des Moines.
After KIOA signed on the air in 1948, Mutual terminated its affiliation with KCBC. Station management was faced with a dilemma. This was a time when a network affiliation was very important for the programming that it provided. Without a network, management had to find something to put on the air. As a smaller station, KCBC needed to keep the costs down. KCBC became a music and news station. It was the first station in Des Moines to use the music and news format, and one of the first in the nation to do so. Also, KCBC was the first Des Moines station to be on the air 24 hours a day. For the next three decades, music and news, along with minor league baseball, Drake University sports, and coverage of other local activities, would be the forte of KCBC.
To deal with the potential economic problems created by the termination of the Mutual network affiliation, a studio was constructed at the transmitter site. Engineer Fred Kuntz who joined KCBC in September 1948 built a temporary control board for the transmitter studio using a Collins remote amplifier and installed turntables for transcriptions. Later, a studio control board was installed. Kuntz, and several other KCBC engineers, not only manned the transmitter, but they also served as disc jockeys. Kuntz recalls that during the night he would play as many as 125 records during his shift.
There were specific turntables and tone arms to handle the various types of transcriptions, including 78-RPM records, and the newer 33 1/3 RPM and 45 RPM records. Commercials were recorded on 16-inch acetate discs, and then played back on a turntable, or they were read live. Many of the commercials were recorded at the 2323 Grand Avenue offices and then brought to the transmitter studio for use on the air.
In 1949 KCBC-FM came on the air at 94.1 MHz. At first, the transmitter, antenna and studios were at KCBC's 2323 Grand Avenue offices. KCBC-FM was targeted at the Des Moines bus system. FM receivers were installed in busses, and the station featured music to entertain the bus riders. In 1950 WHO-FM moved from the top floor of the Equitable Building. WHO-FM had a new 50,000 watt Westinghouse FM transmitter and 12 bay FM antenna (giving the station an effective radiated power of 400,000 watts) installed at Mitchellville (site of the WHO transmitter and antenna). It was part of a renovation of the WHO transmitter and tower. KCBC-FM acquired the former WHO-FM transmitter and transmitting site on top of the Equitable Building in downtown Des Moines. This gave KCBC-FM better coverage, but the idea of a commercial FM station providing music for bus riders apparently was not profitable. KCBC-FM left the air in 1953. The FM transmitter was given to the Des Moines Public Schools and was used to put KDPS-FM on the air.
The KCBC sales and general offices at 2323 Grand Avenue were in a three-story farmhouse. A barn on the back of the property was used for a time as the location where FM receivers were installed in busses. Later, the barn became a popular gathering spot for KCBC's general manager, Rollo Bergeson, and some of Des Moines' most notable business leaders.
2323 Grand Ave -studios and offices
Before he joined KCBC as its general manager Bergeson was Iowa Secretary of State between 1947 and 1949. He reportedly resigned his Statehouse job because the position with KCBC paid $2,000.00 a year more. Bergeson was noted for his ability to recruit and retain good people and for his connections within the Des Moines business community. Bergeson led the station until the station was sold to a group headed by John Fletcher. At the time, Fletcher was associated with Home Federal Savings and Loan in Des Moines. He also had interests in KPIG in Cedar Rapids. The Fletcher interests owned KCBC until the late 1960s. Bergeson went on to become President of West Des Moines State Bank (now known as West Bank). He was instrumental in establishing Living History Farms, and before his death, he was actively involved in a number of Des Moines area philanthropic efforts.
During Bergeson's tenure as general manager a number of notable persons worked for KCBC, including sales manager Claire Grant (who eventually became general manager of the station); Mary Jane Chinn (now Mary Jane O'Dell, who was a Channel 8 television personality and Iowa Secretary of State); Myron J. Bennett who became a popular announcer/disc jockey in Los Angeles; Don Purdy who was a popular KCBC personality for many years; Bob Dawson who was morning man on KCBC in the late 1940s and early 1950s and who went to the original Channel 17 as its newscaster; and John Carl who went on to own his own radio stations in Newton, Iowa.
KCBC was not afraid to call attention to itself. The station had a 1950 Crosley automobile. It carried signs for KCBC that read, "Small, but Mighty".
In the mid-1950s the sales and general offices for the station moved to a modern, one story building at 3512 Ingersoll Avenue. Again, at 3512 Ingersoll Avenue, there was a recording studio where commercials were cut. KCBC continued to use acetate discs at a time when many other stations were switching to audiotape for commercials.
3512 Ingersoll Ave today
For a while in the 1950s KCBC was the Des Moines ABC radio network affiliate. In 1958 Paul Harvey made a visit to Des Moines. Prior to Harvey's arrival a letter was received from his secretary with a number of conditions and details that Mr. Harvey required. KCBC's general manager Claire Grant responded to the letter in a humorous manner. Harvey's visit required that KCBC install the Associated Press wire service at its Ingersoll facility and to install telephone lines so that Harvey could deliver his news and commentary from Des Moines to the ABC network. After his noon broadcast, Harvey, Grant and Bob Bunce walked to Bauder's Pharmacy for ice cream. Bauder's was the local sponsor at the time for the Harvey noon newscast.
Bob Bunce joined KCBC in 1952. He was a junior at Drake at the time. He had a family and needed to make some money. General Manager Rollo Bergeson interviewed Bunce, asking whether or not he could type. Bunce could. He was hired and went to work typing commercial copy for the KCBC sales staff. After graduation, Bunce continued to work at KCBC writing copy, selling time, and hosting a nighttime music program. Eventually, Bunce was making more in sales commissions than in salary from announcing. He focused his attention to sales full-time.
Around 1968 Bunce had an opportunity to purchase KCBC. The Stuart stations, a group owner from Lincoln, Nebraska, wanted to acquire KCBC. They were offering $350,000.00 for the property. The owners told Bunce they would sell the station to him for $300,000.00. Bunce says that he did not have that kind of money, but he knew a good banker. He went and talked with John Fitzgibbons, then the head of Iowa-Des Moines National Bank. With a loan from the Iowa-Des Moines National Bank, Bunce purchased KCBC for $300,000.00. Bunce and his wife operated the station for the next seven years. It was some of the most exciting times for KCBC.
In the late 1960s, KCBC's new owner was convinced by Dallas, Texas, business Ray Johnston that KCBC should be the play-by-play voice of a Triple A baseball team Johnston located in Des Moines. The Iowa Oaks were affiliated with the Oakland Athletics. None of the other Des Moines stations were interested. WHO at the time was broadcasting Minnesota Twins games from the WCCO, Minneapolis, network. KIOA and KSO were engaged in a battle for rock and roll supremacy. KRNT preferred to focus on its middle of the road format. KWKY was committed to a religious format. The city's FM stations were only beginning to emerge from the shadows of the AM giants.
Bunce was able to find four solid sponsors for the baseball games, including Iowa-Des Moines National Bank and Iowa Power and Light Company. Play-by-play broadcaster Steve Shannon who was at a station in Lima, Ohio, was hired. Shannon would do live broadcasts of the Oaks games from Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines. When the team was on the road, Shannon recreated the games from the KCBC studios using information relayed from the remote site. This arrangement lasted one year. Then, Shannon went on the road with the team, broadcasting live all the Oaks games, both home and away.
The decision to broadcast minor-league baseball and to hire a full-time play-by-play announcer presented Bunce with a challenge. He needed to keep Shannon busy in order to justify his salary. Bunce negotiated an exclusive contract with Drake University to do their football and basketball games. For Bunce, it was a stroke of genius, because at the time, the Drake basketball team was one of the best in the country.
Bunce believes that Steve Shannon was one of the best play-by-play announcers to work in the Des Moines market. To reinforce that observation, after he'd been in Des Moines for two years doing baseball, football and basketball at KCBC, Shannon was hired to do color commentary for the Denver Broncos. The man Shannon beat out for the Denver job, Loren Brown, came from Peoria to Des Moines and handled baseball and other sports for KCBC.
During the time that Bunce owned and managed KCBC, he moved the station's offices to a business complex at 70th and University in Windsor Heights.
In 1975, Bunce sold KCBC to Black Hawk Broadcasting, an Iowa group owner that at the time had stations in Waterloo (KWWL-AM, KFMW, and KWWL-TV) and Cedar Rapids (KLWW). Black Hawk wanted KCBC to create a presence in Des Moines and to provide a base of operations for coverage of state government.
Bunce agreed to sell KCBC to Black Hawk in March 1975. At the same time, Bunce entered into negotiations with Paul Lunde, the owner of KLFM, a 100,000 watt FM station at 104.1 MHz with studios in Ames. Bunce's sale of KCBC to Black Hawk and purchase of KLFM closed in October 1975.
Initially, Black Hawk was aggressive with KCBC. It created a six-person news department and revamped the format. It did not work. KCBC became KC-14, the album station with album oriented rock. That drove away the loyal KCBC listeners and sponsors. The format didn't work, and Black Hawk decided to stop the hemorrhaging. KCBC went through a series of owners and studio locations. For a time, it had the call letters KMRY and featured big band music. It, then, landed in the Fuller-Jeffrey camp as KKSO (after Stoner dropped the KSO call letters for 1460 and began to simulcast KGGO). KKSO simulcast Fuller-Jeffrey's country formatted KJJY.
After the Federal Communications Commission authorized the expanded AM band between 1600 kHz and 1700 kHz, the 1390 frequency was eligible for migration. 1700 kHz with 10,000 watts day and 1,000 watts night and an omni directional pattern became the new home for what had been KCBC. The station that occupies 1700 kHz is today known as KBGG. One of the original KCBC towers is used by KBGG. The other three towers from the old KCBC four-tower directional array have been taken down.
The KCBC call letters remain in use, but not in Des Moines. Today's KCBC is at 770 kHz, with 50,000 watts and a three tower directional pattern. KCBC is licensed to Oakdale, California. Ironically, KCBC, Oakdale, California is owned by Crawford Broadcasting Company, which at one time owned KDMI-FM (97.3) in Des Moines. KDMI-FM is now KHKI-FM. KHKI-FM and KBGG are sister stations and are operated by Citadel Broadcasting Corp
KCBC Picture Galleries
Early KCBC pictures
1976 Windsor Heights studios
KBGG transmitter site today (exterior)
KBGG transmitter site (interior)
Interior floorplan diagram
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