KROC-AM Celebrates 80th Anniversary
(The following story was written by TODD KOSOVICH who has assembled a collection of 80,000 radio broadcasts covering 1923 until today. He lectures regularly on radio history topics and is writing a book "Minnesota Radio Stations 1912 to 1962.")
On September 30, 1935, KROC-AM Rochester signed on the air with a fanfare accompanied with a flourish of publicity. The station was started by KSTP’s Stanley E. Hubbard, President and part owner of the Southern Minnesota Broadcasting Company. Gregory Gentling was part owner and the first station manager. KROC-AM is the 11th oldest continuously licensed AM broadcasting station in Minnesota.
The dedicatory program was held at the Rochester High School and opened with a fanfare played by the high school band. The station went on the air at 8:15 p.m. KSTP announcer Brooks Henderson was the Master of Ceremonies. The Dick Hess Ensemble played from the High School. Governor Floyd B. Olson sent greetings to the station. From 9:15 to 9:45, KSTP provided programming from St. Paul, including world news. At 9:45, WCCO provided a friendly welcome to Minnesota’s newest station. At 10:00 p.m., Rochester Mayor W.A. Moore and Chamber of Commerce President Dr. G.P. Sheridan commented. Finally, at 10:25, WEBC Duluth provided a classical music program.
KROC also arrived in a flurry of publicity. Rochester businesses held “Radio Days” in October, 1935. The biggest gimmick was the radio controlled “Phantom Truck”. KROC advertisers Lawler’s Cleaners, Texaco Service Stations and the Chateau Theater plugged the Phantom Truck in their newspaper advertisements and were rewarded with “inspection visits”.
KROC had only 100 watts of power its first years on the air. There were far fewer electrical appliances in 1935, so the KROC signal carried for about 90 square miles. However, 100 watts was not enough power to attract a national network, so KROC relied on local talent and programs pre-recorded on 16-inch electrical transcription discs. The October 1st schedule reveals about 6 hours of recorded programs and 11 hours of recorded programming. KROC was a charter member of the NBC Thesaurus transcription service which provided NBC programming to stations not affiliated with NBC. The World Broadcasting Service also provided many hours of KROC programming.
In the first year, KROC programming included Breakfast Bell, Morning Moods, Shopping with Sally and Your Neighbor, Mrs. Page. KROC evening hours were filled with big bands. KROC was on the air from 6:45 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. each day.
KROC innovation marked its early years. Broadcasting magazine noted that KROC was the first radio stations to broadcast swimming lessons in July 1936. KROC’s Sports Editor Einar “Butch” Morgenson and Rochester swimming instructor Vane Baatz put on the program three days a week. In December, 1936 Broadcasting carried a story how a Rochester insurance agency bought an ad to be run whenever there was a fire in town. When there was a fire call, KROC would sound a “fire siren” sound effect followed by an ad advising people to get themselves and their property protected. On July 24, 1937, KROC put a portable transmitter on the balloon of Dr. Jean Piccard when it lifted off from Rochester’s Soldiers Field, and carried on a two-way conversation on the air.
KROC’s biggest promotion was probably Rochester Chick Day. Rochester businesses agree to give away a baby chick with each purchase over one dollar. KROC provided the first 5,000 baby chicks to the businesses. The June 15, 1937 Broadcasting magazine reported that “considerable time” was purchased on KROC by local businesses and more than 5,000 chicks were given away.
In 1937, KROC “The Voice of Southern Minnesota” was purchased by Gregory Gentling and station power was increased to 250 watts daytime and 100 watts nighttime. Power was increased to 250 watts day and night in 1939.
KROC conducted itself as a regional radio broadcaster, opening a studio in Owatonna in early 1939. Regional sports were covered and broadcast by Walt Bruzek, “The Old Bear,” and high school sports and events were reported by Bruzek each Sunday morning from the Owatonna studio. Home Town Slant featured programs involving 20 different communities, with Holty Holton, Dwight Merriam, and Jerry Wing. Merriam was also the KROC pianist, always on standby when technical difficulties prevented a scheduled program. The 1939 KROC Spelling Bee included 5,500 students from southeast Minnesota.
KROC was also linked with regional networks for broadcasting Gopher Football Games and Minnesota related programming, such as broadcasts of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and regional sportscasts with Halsey Hall.
On March 6, 1939, KROC joined the National Broadcasting Company. NBC operated two networks, the Red (now NBC) and the Blue (now ABC). KROC carried mostly Blue Network programming until April, 1942 when the US Government ordered the two RCA owned networks to split. KROC became a full-time NBC Red station and carried some of the most popular prime time programs on radio: Jack Benny, Fibber McGee & Molly, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Amos & Andy, Red Skelton and George Burns & Gracie Allen. Even after the Golden Age of Radio ended in the mid-1950s, KROC stayed with NBC longer than any other Minnesota affiliate, 60 consecutive years. In 1990, KROC joined the ABC Radio Network.
KROC remains as it was intended, a regional powerhouse providing news, sports and entertainment for southeastern Minnesota.