Mid 60's Memories of KDMI 97.3 FM STEREO COMES TO IOWA
by Jim Stimson
This is my story. I lived it. I was not involved in any of the strategic decisions that Im talking about in the following story. I was pretty much a fly on the wall. I was in 9th, 10th and 11th grades when it all happened, more than 45 years ago. The dates are accurate, because, fortunately Ive written about all of the jobs Ive had, including dates and income, in a little book that Ive had all of these years.
I actually began working in radio, though I wasnt paid for it, in September, 1962. I was in the 8th grade. I was very interested in radio. Somehow I had an idea for a student interview program, where a representative from each junior high school and high school in the area, would give a one minute report each week about what was going on at his or her school. My father, who was my co-conspirator in much of this, in that he cheered me on and drove me around as he could, was, I think, a frustrated radio guy. He always, always had a radio on. I remember the first time I acknowledged the existence of radio. My dad was listening to Wally Phillips on WGN in Chicago, from our then-home in eastern Iowa, in 1953, when I was 4 years old. Northwest Orient (GONG) Airlines, the jingle went. Ironically, I went on to create Northwests Frequent Flyer program many years later. My father died in 1980 at age 69.
I phoned KSO, made an appointment with Dick Vance on an August day in 1962, then rode the bus downtown, walked to 19th and Ingersoll and presented my idea to him. He bought the concept. And he named it. The KSO HIGH SCHOOL GOSSIP LINE was born a month later. I called each school and asked for help to locate appropriate students to represent their school. Then, I would go in two or three evenings each week and record each of their reports. They aired in one minute segments, once an hour during Hal Moores 6-9 p.m. show. Hal quit and left for KIOA after one week, and then the Gossip Line became a part of Jim VerHoefs Big Brother Bill Bailey show for one and a half school years thereafter.. I never got to know Hal. Im sure that my arrival on the scene had absolutely nothing to do with him leaving. Im sure that he had been in talks with KIOA for some time.
My show was cancelled when KSO was sold in the first quarter of 1964. The Dick Vance era at KSO came to a close. The rumors were true. He had purchased a silent FM station, KDMI, and was going to put it on the air as one of the nations early FM Rockers. After he left, and as Vances influence waned at KSO, the talent departed... Most went to KIOA with Hal Moore over the next few years. Dic Youngs was the first of the big names to leave, with Vance, for KDMI. Also leaving for KDMI were the final two students in Vances then KSO-based, Iowa School of Broadcasting, Steve Gibbons, aka, Dean Gibson and Billy Williams, aka, Smith Williams. I, too, after five years and stops at KBAB, KCBC and WHO, in addition to KDMI, arrived at KIOA in May, 1969. Ironically I worked one weekend at 8th and Keo, before KIOA moved to 215 Keo. But my next step, after KSO, was where I got my first real chance, KDMI.
Were you the person in Iowa, back in the early 60s, who was interested in listening to Rock and Roll in stereo on the radio and had an FM radio? If you were you can remember that for several months in 1964 and 1965 you could often pick up KDMI-FMs left signal at roughly 10 spots on the FM dial, almost any place in Iowa. The birth of FM Stereo in Iowa wasnt pretty. I think the term herky jerky applies well here. I was there. Im not an engineer, but from what I know, getting those early FM stations on the air in stereo made the Wright brothers feat seem simple.
In 1960 there were two or three monaural FM signals in the Des Moines market, and none of them produced revenue, because none of them had advertisers or listeners. Problem was, there were no radios, other than in Cadillacs and Lincolns and in Grandmas old console entertainment center. Few listened to FM. Some law firms or funeral homes may have piped in the FM stations (illegally) in lieu of Musak, and Im sure there were a handful of classical fans out there, but that was about it. I believe the only FM stations in Des Moines then were WHO-FM, KDPS-FM and WOI-FM. Middle of the road, educational, classical. No commercials. No revenues. No listeners.
KDMI was not intended to be a non profit station. Having enjoyed success selling a few hundred million dollars of intangibles the last 40 years, I know quite a bit about sales. I cant imagine taking on the challenge that Vance took on back then. Ill say it again. There were no FM radios. So, what he was selling didnt, in effect, exist. I knew Dick Vance for eight years, not well, because he was 20 years older than me. But I watched him. And, even then, I learned --- Im sure --- a lot from him. How do you sell something that doesnt exist? Im guessing that youve got to exude confidence at a level that would make the Guinness Book of World Records, if there were a category for oversized egos. You had to believe. You had to make others believe. And spend money with you.
Obviously, simultaneous to the selling of time to generate revenue to pay the bills, there were huge efforts afoot, led by, really, the only people who cared, Dick and Bobbie Vance to get FM radios into automobiles, homes, and into the hands of teenagers, who were the market for the music (and advertising). I remember some of those aftermarket automobile FMs were horrible. They looked terrible, they didnt work and they cost a lost of money. Boom boxes were 25 years away. The only portable, battery-powered radios around were AM only. Table models too. AM only. I know that is hard to believe, in this day and age. It was an AM world.
Was Vances effort ahead of its time? It probably was. Or, better stated, I think somebody had to be first and had to take on the dirty job of getting the awareness for FM out there. It was happening on a national level too, of course. But, probably, with no more urgency that it was in Des Moines. Unfortunately Vance didnt have the deep pockets to allow the wherewithal to withstand a few years of deep, red ink.
But, again, my vantage point was that of a kid learnin the trade. And the situation worked out for me.
KDMI-FM, at 115,000 watts, boomed a stereo signal throughout something like 85 of Iowas 99 counties. It went on the air in the second quarter of 1964, with Dic Youngs, Dick Vance and a few other, mostly lesser known, names. I had just finished the 9th grade and, of course, had no drivers license. KDMIs transmitter site, at E. 44th and Easton could not have been farther from my house in Beaverdale. But I wanted to get on the air!!! After school closed for the summer, I would hitchhike out there almost daily, hang around and tell anyone who would listen that I wanted a chance.
Before the end of June, 1964, we had a plan. Youngsy had left for Florida. Billy Williams, a student at Drake, was signing the station on at 6 a.m, .and playing records for three hours. Then Paul Nelson would come on with his Trading Post program. A fellow whom I never got to know, named Charlie Brown, worked from 12 until 3, then Vance from 3-6. Steve Gibbons, as anybody who has ever worked with him knows, is one nice guy, had a day job for the city, but would do 6-12. Music for three hours, then assist in getting Hawkeye Nightline, with Russ LaVine on the air from 9-midnight. LaVine had left KIOA as the Peter McLane era took hold.
Our plan was that Billy would leave his parents home on Fleur Drive a little before 5 a.m., drive to Beaverdale and pick me up about 5:20 and then we would drive to the transmitter, arriving about 5:50am. (Interestingly, for 20 years, working for a billion dollar marketing consulting firm in Minneapolis, I would visit clients on the east coast a couple of days a week. I would leave my home in Plymouth, MN at precisely 5:20 a.m. en route to catch my plane. I thought of Billy Williams blue 1957 Plymouth convertible every time.) Wed fire the transmitter up and go on the air. He played the music. I did the news. Herbert Hoover was in failing health that summer, and Im pretty sure, as did a lot of more experienced news readers, I mispronounced his name every time I said it. Lots of Heebert Hoobers. I stayed around for 10-12 hours each day, until my father would pick me up after work.
Dick and Bobbie Vance were the sales team at that point. I wasnt yet 15 so I didnt travel in their social circles, but I was always impressed at their appearance. They dressed impeccably every day. They drove a big car, probably a Cadillac, and often towed their boat on Fridays. I knew where they lived and it was nice, far nicer than my parents Beaverdale abode. They would arrive at the top of the morning and go out and sell all day, returning just before he went on the air at 3. Shed write spots while he was on the air. Not to belabor the point made above. But Ive worked in sales and I cant imagine the rejection they must have faced. I cant get your station .why would I advertise? They must have heard 10,000 times. Id guess if you looked up tough sell in the dictionary ..youd find KDMI circa 1964.
The business was converting from commercials on acetate disks to cassette players at this point. KDMI never made that conversion. Rarely Dick or Bobbie would record a spot on the reel to reel in the studio in the middle of the night when we were off the air. And, when they did it was a hassle to find the spot on the tape when it needed to air. Otherwise, we were a live read station. The two reel to reels were in use roughly 2 hours in the morning for paid religious programming. And, heavily on the weekends.
KDMIs transmitter site was basic. It was a cinder block building, unpainted inside or out, with a studio, an office, and a small entry way. There was some kind of potbellied stove, converted to run on natural gas sitting next to the teletype machine, in front of the side French doors, that were probably installed to accommodate the transmitters girth when it was installed. There was a toilet and a sink, with a door that almost closed. Unpainted cement floor.
But, I was learning. I dont know that anyone else was, but I wasnt getting paid at that point. I didnt expect to be paid. I was a kid learning a trade, and was glad to be doing it. But, somebody, eventually told the Feds. Because years (as in many years 10 to 15 years) later I received a few pay checks from KDMI from the Federal Wage and Hour Office.
Earlier I mentioned that the station struggled with the transmission of a stereo signal. This was new stuff! Floyd Bart Bartlett was our engineer. He was about 60 in those days. I knew him only to greet him and cannot speak to his competency. I do know that he had a worried look on his face a good deal of the time, and it was a challenge to keep that left signal honest. We had a glass window three feet in front of the board. There was a hallway and then the transmitter. The transmitter was impressive. It was 115,000 watts. The largest allowed today is 100,000. Once we got hit by lightning and a ball of fire jumped out of the front of the transmitter and bounced off my window. Had it not been there, I would have been on fire. I called Bart and he came out, replaced a couple of things and got us back on the air in fairly short order.
When the summer of 1964 ended I had to leave and start the 10th grade at Roosevelt. But I would be back. Billy Williams, however, wouldnt be so lucky. He was a relatively gifted young broadcaster. He was bright, and had a gift of gab as good as or better than anybody Ive ever heard on the air. His voice was weak, however, and he spoke with a lisp, that wasnt discernable on the air. And he was troubled, very troubled and apparently had issues well beyond what I knew that he was dealing with. He, regrettably, died at his own hand a year or so later. He was one of two or three gifted young broadcasters who worked in Des Moines who met that fate during the era.
By Halloween, KSO had abandoned the 1910 Ingersoll address and moved to their transmitter a couple of miles north of KDMIs. With 1910 Ingersoll becoming vacant, except for the ghosts of Vances legendary success, KDMI rented the building. That move probably cast a devastating financial blow that KDMI was unable to tolerate, and never, really overcame. The move, however, was great for me. Though I still wasnt 16, it was possible for me to hitchhike from school, down Ingersoll and be at the studio by 3 p.m.. They hired me and I worked from 3-6. And, I got paid. Minimum wage. Sitting right there in the fishbowl, where just about a year earlier, on November 22, 1963 I had first spoken live on the radio, reading an announcement that KSO was simulcasting WHOs programming for the few days following John Kennedys assassination. I wasnt supposed to be the one reading that announcement, but, since regular programming was suspended, the regular crew had taken up in the back of the building, complete with a few pizzas, a few beers and a deck of cards. I was the only one around.
Vance bought an AmphiCar., shortly after the move to Ingersoll. It was something that looked like it shouldnt work. (You can Google the word and it will take you to the Amphicar owners club and you can see a photo of one if youve never seen one. On that site, the owners refer to it as a queer duck) And Im not sure it did work very well. Part (British) Triumph Herald, with an aftermarket boat conversion, it was marketed in the US for four or five years in the late 50s and early 60s, mostly, I believe, to Shrine Clubs. Probably fewer than 5000 of them nationally. The concept of being able to putt-putt-putt down the road and then take a quick turn into a lake or river was neat to me. And, I think to a lot of people. Our call letters were painted all over it, and I think it was primarily for use for publicity for parades. It had been there about two days and I found the place where the keys were kept. I wasnt yet 16, but I knew how to drive and that darned AmphiCar was calling to me. Come and drive me, it said. One late fall day, when I was sure that people who might catch me were out of town and that I knew I could not be caught, I put on an album, bolted out the door, started the thing, pulled out onto Ingersoll, south on 19th to Grand, around Grand to Fleur and, as fast as I could, to the old Isaac Walton lodge a mile or so down Fleur. I turned left, started the propeller, and went right down the boat launch. I would be afraid to do that today. I was in the water less than a minute, and ready to turn around, for my essential quick retreat, and the engine stalled. It was a very bad 20 seconds until I got it started again. But I did, and quickly retraced my route, parked the funny looking little machine behind the station, where I took it from, and got inside in time to read my next series of commercials.
I dont recall why, it wasnt the AmphiCar caper, because nobody ever found out about it, I was on hiatus again from late 1964 until the second quarter of 1965. One day, shortly after I left, there was a notice in the paper that somebody had taken a shot at the on duty disc jockey there in the fishbowl. The bullet was found embedded in the back wall.
I turned 16 in March, got my drivers license and by then KDMI had left 1910 Ingersoll, for the transmitter again.
Vance called and told me that Steve Gibbons was leaving and they wanted me to work 6 to midnight. I would play records for three hours, then screen calls, read news and run the board for Russ LaVine. Would I be interested? (Would I ???!!!). I was in the 10th grade.
My given name is James, as was my fathers. He was Jim, I was Jamie. That name didnt fly in a world of Toms, Dicks and Harrys. And, Jamie Stimson seemed impossible for the radio. I had switched to Jim Stimson, but still that didnt have the cache I felt like I needed. I had an afternoon paper route from 6-9th grade. After it each day, I would watch the final few minutes of The Mike Douglas Show. He, like Merv Griffin, was a former big band singer who, somehow, got a syndicated talk show. They competed in the late afternoon, for 90 minutes. Kind of like yesteryears version of Oprah vs Ellen. One day there was a recuperating convict on the show named Bill Sands. He had had a lifetime of runs-ins with the law and finally was sentenced to a long prison sentence for some white collar crime. He had straightened himself out in prison, got an early release and written a book. It was probably the first non school book I had ever read. And I was inspired. So much so, that a few years later, when, in the tradition of radio announcers, I was looking for a cool name, Jimmy Sands was born.
In the fall of 1965, when I returned to school for my junior year, I returned to KDMI, as Jimmy Sands. I implemented the Dial a- DJ request line and was surprised at how many people were listening out there. We began producing a mimeographed Top 40 sheet each week, and for a long time my photo on there was a nut. Until Vance signed up a portrait photographer on a trade out to take my picture.
I think that Vance had begun to use trade pretty heavily during this time. The spot load increased, but the conditions at the station didnt. By this time the water was turned off, so the restroom became the field out behind the building. Reading 23 minutes of live spots an hour for 36 hours a week, for a couple of years teaches you to read. During my non radio career, in marketing, I was often called upon to read presentations, or narrate industrial films. People would always ask, Howd you learn to read like that? And that skill has helped me to this day, because I do a fair amount of voice work. And it isnt for the quality of my voice. Trade outs dont, however, put much revenue toward the bottom line. If a station isnt making its monthly cash flow nut, nothing good is going to happen. The person doing the trading may be able to dress nice, drive a nice car, and go to good restaurants, but if he cant pay the water bill, somethings awry.
Russ LaVine was Des Moines 60s version of Rush Limbaugh. He had a following. They were loyal, intense, and if Russ told them all to go jump into Grays Lake, theyd do it. When Russ left KIOA for KDMI I am sure he, alone, was responsible for the sale of more FM radios in central Iowa than any other reason before or since. He was ultra right wing and would spout out negative comments about The Reverend Martin Luther Cohen, and Senator J. William Halfbright. He practiced the Barry Goldwater form of conservatism which, when you measure it against what the recent White House occupant practiced, made quite a bit of sense. We were in Vietnam and in the early stages of Lyndon Johnsons liberal presidency and had a democratic controlled congress. So, Russ had a lot to talk about. He was, however, pushing a pea up a slippery slope. But he was passionate. His listeners were passionate. Russ was a long-time radio news reporter and a longer-time weapon salesperson to municipalities and retailers across the state. He did well financially. And, I believe, that he sold some of the sponsorships on his program, and, I believe, somehow split the revenues with Vance. I worked hard for the quality of Russ program and he recognized it. He always treated me very well, as did his listeners. It was a pleasure for me to work with him.
Both Russ and I often got frustrated because the equipment was not reliable. Things were always breaking. And, for a long stretch we operated our late night broadcasts with one light bulb in the building. One night, about 11pm, it blew out. We continued on in the dark for about 15 minutes and Russ got angry and announced that we were closing down for the night, because we had no light bulbs. The next night we had a plethora of light bulbs. Listeners had dropped them off and we had enough to last us for several months.
I am a believer that, for the most part, you make your own luck. Ive led a pretty buttoned up life and Ive usually been able to predict the outcome of most anything Ive been involved with. If I dont manage the details, somethings going to go wrong. If I do, it wont. Even back then. But, there was an exception. One evening, in the spring of 1966, Vance called me and asked me to come to work a little early the next day to help him with something. I did. We got in his car and drove to a body shop, where we picked up a perfectly painted LITTLE RED. KSO, for years, had the news cruiser, BIG RED. At one point, KSO had two BIG REDs and one LITTLE RED. But, at this point, under new ownership, there were no news cars flying the KSO call letters. So we had a LITTLE RED, even though, other than the teletype, from which we ripped and read we had no news operation. Im sure that Vance had to have wheeled some fancy trading to get both a car and an expensive paint job. I was sure that wed be reading commercials for that business for a long time to come. No matter, it would be a great marketing tool for the station. I dont even remember the make or model, though I think it was a Volkswagen Beetle. It was nothing short of beautiful! We picked it up, and I was going to drive it back to the radio station at E.44th and Easton. I made it about two blocks and an extra long semi made a right turn from the center lane and dragged his trailer across the front of the car, leaving it about six inches tall. That was a terrible thing to have happen. Little Red was totaled when it was two miles old. Had I been a more experienced driver, I suspect that I would not have let myself get into that position. I felt terrible. Ive often thought that that accident was some form of divine justice in punishment for me joy riding for 10 minutes in the AmphiCar.
In May of 1966 I learned that KBAB in Indianola was looking for a day-time summer-long announcer. The job was 8-5 and it involved playing records and taping and running some pre recorded programs. I could do that. I applied. I got the job. It was fun in that KBAB had more up to date equipment, making it just an easier job. So, for the summer, Id leave home 7am and work at KBAB from 8-5, then drive to KDMI and work 6-midnight. I used my own name in Indianola and, of course, Jimmy Sands at KDMI. I did get the call letters and my name mixed up once or twice.
The experience at KBAB was good in that it allowed me to meet Chuck Hamilton, one of the truly great people I knew in that era. Like another famous broadcaster his age, Peter Jennings, Hamilton was a high school dropout. He had acquired his First Class FCC Engineering license, so he was doing overnights, and later 9-midnight at KIOA in the early 60s. By 1963 he and his father had acquired a license for an AM station in Indianola (KBAB) and an FM in Newton (KUWS). Chuck put them both on the air. His parents ran the Newton station and Chuck ran the Indianola station. Chuck was an interesting guy, very bright, with a models good looks. They sold the stations in 1967 and he went to work as the weather man at WHO-TV. He did that job from 4-10:30. In the daytime he taught at an electronics school in West Des Moines. And, a couple of weeks a year he would, in addition to the two other jobs, fill in on the all night shift for Mike Heuer on Country Music USA on WHO Radio. Add it up. He would be working 24 hours a day. Once, in the middle of that killer schedule, I was on the air on WHO Radio, reading the 15 minute local news, which followed NBC news at 10pm. I took a breath and could hear hysterical laughter feeding softly into my headphones, despite that fortress of a building. I learned later that, downstairs, in the TV studio, the news anchor, Bob Henry, turned, in the horseshoe set they had, to tease the upcoming weather. He looked back, the camera zoomed out, and Bob and the audience saw Chuck, with his head down, sound asleep on the set. Bob had to shake him to get him to wake up. The lack of sleep and the hot lights got the best of him.
A few months later Chuck got his pilots license. He and Channel 13 news photographer Bob Cowan and I all made plans to fly to Amana on a Sunday for breakfast. We would split the rental and fuel bill three ways. Chuck and I met at the station then went to Bobs house to pick him up. We knocked. No answer. Knocked some more, and, finally Bob came to the door. We had awakened him from a serious alcohol induced coma. He had failed his draft physical the day before and had celebrated dramatically that evening. We waited a few minutes, while Bob got ready, then proceeded with our plans. We got in the plane and took off. Bob was in the back. We hadnt been in the air two minutes and Bob was complaining that it was hot and stuffy in the back. Another five minutes and Bob was vomiting like a fountain in the backseat. And he had nothing to catch it, so he took off the sport coat he was wearing and threw up in that. A couple of minutes later, over Mitchellville, Chuck could no longer stand the stench and he started throwing up too. That left me to pilot the plane, which was not a good idea. Three or four long minutes of that, and Chuck had recovered enough to land, fairly immediately, in a pasture on the north side of I-80 near Newton. Not too far, ironically, from where Rocky Marciano had died in a plane crash a few years earlier. We all got out of the plane, got our heads clear and got back in the plane. Bob left his culprit stinking jacket behind. We lined up on the track we had made in the tall grass during our landing and Chuck began the takeoff. We had a difficult time getting airborne and, Im sure, missed the fence, by mere inches. We had been up about five minutes, heading back for Des Moines, when Bob started throwing up again. It was a bad day.
Chuck went on to start an electronics school in the Quad Cities, and he also worked at KSTT there. I was saddened to learn that he died, in a hang glider accident, around the Quad Cities, in the 80s.
The summer of 1966 at KBAB ended and I continued at KDMI in the fall of 1966, as I began my senior year in high school.. Within six weeks KBAB called and asked me to return to do their 6-signoff slot. Their evening guy, Bill Shannon, a recent Simpson College ROTC graduate, had received his orders and was heading to fighter flight school and on to Southeast Asia, where he was shot down and killed before Christmas. The KBAB opportunity was interesting to me, because I felt like I had gone as far as I could go at KDMI. Plus paychecks there needed to be cashed quickly. Hamilton paid me 25 cents more an hour, and the program was simulcast on both Hamilton stations, in Indianola and Newton, so that was intriguing. I left KDMI.
The struggle continued for awhile, but within 18 months, Vances regime at KDMI was over. It became a religious station. I listened to Ray Dennis long interviews with both Vance and Peter McLane on this website. Both were excellent. No question that those two men, in their own time, were the kings of Des Moines radio in the 60s. When Vances legendary time ended at KSO, Peter took the helm, making KIOA a legendary station. Vances attempt to reclaim it at KDMI was ahead of its time. As Peter said in his interview, KIOA didnt want to incur the brain damage to get into FM Stereo early, but rather wait until everybody else tried and broke down the necessary barriers. Then, true to his plan, he would purchase the winner and go from there. Dick and Bobbie Vance, and the whole cast of characters at KDMI tried. But, their place in the race was to break the new ground, to make the mistakes, and --- truly in the case of Dick and Bobbie Vance and KDMI --- they made the market. They sold FM radios. It was probably inevitable that the person taking that position in the race would run out of steam before crossing the finish line. And thats what happened. It was sad, really, for the market to lose someone of Dick Vances caliber. He was talented and a leader. Who would have won had Peter and Vance been on equal footing and required to fight a death match? Well never know.
I stayed in broadcasting after KBAB, with stints at KCBC, WHO, KIOA and KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids. I was recruited away from broadcasting to go into corporate marketing in 1972, just as I finished my BA at Iowa. I enjoyed a challenging and rewarding career in the field for some 30 years. At age 50 I found myself in the enviable position of being able to do whatever I wanted. I persuaded my wife to leave the harsh and unforgiving Twin Cities winters and move to Colorado. We live on the side of a mountain in a tiny resort town.
There are seven radio stations here, owned by three companies, serving the market. Ive worked for all three in the 10 years Ive lived here. It keeps radio front and center in my mind. I am reminded approximately every hour of every day I work how good the Des Moines market was back in the 60s. Huge talent. Great leadership. As I said at the beginning, I was just a kid, trying to learn a trade. Boy! Was it fun!
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