The Broadcasters' Desktop Resource

The Broadcasters' Desktop Resource

KQNT (KHQ) Part 2 – Spokane Legend

Donna Halper
[June 2022] This spring, we have been spotlighting stations that have been on the air for 100 years. Some have turned into 50 kW, some have moved to another state and back, and some have been key local stations for many years. This is Part 2 of the story. Part 1 is located here.

In late 1925, broadcasting was still a Wild West of new stations trying to get on the air and be heard – with so many stations “sharing” frequency, conflicts were not uncommon.

In Spokane, KFPY’s station manager Ed B. Craney accused KHQ of “hogging the air on KFPY’s time,” and complained to the Radio Inspector, Otto Redfern, who supervised all the stations in the 9th Radio District (which included Washington).

Of course, this was not the only such problem in the mid-1920s. Some stations just did not respect time-sharing arrangements that were made. Other practiced “wave jumping” and turned up any place they thought they could prevail. A race to higher powers started. And for listeners, things did not improve much until the creation of the Radio Act of 1927.

A group calling itself “Spokane Radio Listeners” joined the discussion, but the best that they could arrange in Spokane was a sort of “truce” where KHQ vowed to be more respectful of its competitor’s broadcast times.

Listeners, who liked the programs that both stations provided, were encouraged by the news. But there were other problems that persisted. Some were technological—signals that faded out, or static that suddenly interrupted the programs. But others were caused by the refusal of some stations to maintain their assigned frequency—a practice that came to be called “wave jumping.” At each subsequent meeting of the Spokane Radio Listeners, the number of members increased, and more radio listeners kept asking for something to be done; unfortunately, not much would change until the creation of the Radio Act of 1927.

PROSPERING

During 1926, KHQ continued to be a major force, well-known for how far its signal went, and for the popular artists who performed from its studios.

With his sales background, Wasmer had little trouble finding local businesses to sponsor new programs – some informational, like talks by local educators, or farm broadcasts from the U.S. department of agriculture; some entertaining like comedians, dance bands, or radio actors and actresses; and some inspirational, like talks by local clergy or events that supported local charities.

And as KHQ prepared for its first anniversary – a “dusk to dawn” broadcast –the editorial page of the Spokane Chronicle said KHQ had “established itself as one of the leading broadcasting units of the country,” and praised Louis Wasmer for his “energy and foresight” in turning KHQ into a “station [that] is a credit to Spokane and the Pacific Northwest.”

WORKING BOTH ENDS OF THE STATE

Meanwhile, Wasmer still maintained his ties with Seattle radio.

In early September 1926, he and Archie Taft, a sales executive with the Seattle sporting goods store Piper & Taft, put KGCL, a low-powered (15-Watt) station on the air. Soon KGCL became KPQ, at 50 Watts. Then, when the Rhodes Department Store decided to sell its station, KFOA, Taft and Wasmer took over, renaming that station as KOL.

Meanwhile, Wasmer was busy expanding the programming at KHQ in Spokane. By mid-1926, the station was on the air with local programming for several hours in the afternoon and several more in the evening, in addition to several hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Then, in late 1926, when the National Broadcasting Company made its debut, Wasmer saw a chance to expand even further with nationally-known entertainers that would likely never visit Spokane.

Although NBC did not fully reach the West, Wasmer’s station would join the new NBC Pacific Coast Network (better known as the Orange Network). KHQ was now able to expand coverage of current events, which fit well with the station’s latest slogan, “KHQ Tells the World.” For example, KHQ was able to broadcast the early June 1927 reception for aviator Charles A. Lindbergh after his transatlantic flight. Listeners also heard important events like political conventions, the World Series, and more.

Moving into the new year, Wasmer even arranged for a “mini-network” between KHQ and KOL in Seattle to broadcast concerts from Mahlon Merrick and others.

Then, in late July 1928, KHQ moved to a new and more modern location: the top floor of the Standard Stock Exchange Building, at the southwest corner of Sprague and Post. The building housed a state-of-the-art Western Electric transmitter (it costs about $30,000 – half a million dollars, today), and an office suite that including a reception area, business offices, rehearsal rooms, and several broadcast studios—one of which could accommodate as many as 35 musicians; the new facilities cost another $15,000.

SOME INTERFERENCE RELIEF

With the creation of the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the FCC) in 1927, listeners finally were hopeful that the wave-jumping, interference, and other problems would finally come to an end.

In Spokane, KPFY was finally given its own channel, which meant it no longer had to share time (or complain about other stations hogging the airwaves). As for KHQ, it was moved from 810 to 920 kilocycles. (In 1929, it would be moved again – to 590 kilocycles.)

The Commissioners told reporters they were convinced the new allocations around the country would lead to improved reception. But listeners were taking a wait-and-see attitude.

TROUBLED TIMES

The end of 1929 brought the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression.

As the troubles from Wall Street reached into the Inland Northwest, building permits nosedived and new construction was almost nonexistent. Farmland lay fallow due to foreclosure. Businesses went bankrupt and jobs disappeared.”

Throughout this difficult time, radio became a source of comfort (and escape) for millions and Spokane was no exception. Station personnel tried their best to boost the area’s businesses and encourage people to think positive – KHQ also did its part: the station hired (and paid) numerous local musicians to perform on the station.

LEGAL HASSLE

But, then, in August 1931, Wasmer found himself being sued for something that was said over KHQ. He did not say it, but it still caused a controversy. And since he owned KHQ, the person suing him said he was responsible for the content it broadcast.

It all started when William H. Castner, editor of an anti-Prohibition newspaper, wrote an opinion piece that was then read on air by one of KHQ’s announcers. The piece accused the Spokane County sheriff, George C. Miles, of corrupt practices in his enforcement of Prohibition laws. Miles was offended and sued the station for libeling him.

Wasmer was surprised at the suit and did not believe he was responsible in any way: Castner had purchased the time and hired the announcer to read the opinion piece. But the judge allowed the case to go forward. This was of great concern to broadcasters nationwide: were they to be held responsible for something someone said on their station, even if the person saying it did not work there and had paid for the time (much like a commercial advertisement)?

Unfortunately, the courts believed Wasmer was indeed liable for defamatory statements made on his airwaves, whether he said them or someone else did. In April 1933, he was ordered to pay damages in the amount of $1,000 (about $22,000 in today’s money) to Sheriff Miles. And broadcasters were reminded to be more cautious about what guest speakers said on their stations.

BUSINESS IS GOOD

One thing Louis Wasmer had become known for was his ability to make money.

Despite the Depression, KHQ was doing well financially, and so was Wasmer. In 1936, he invested in installing a new and even taller steel radio tower (planned for 793 feet, at an estimated cost of $80,000 – something like $1.5 million today).

In addition to KHQ in Spokane, he still maintained part-ownership of a station in Seattle (he owned 42% of KOL), and he had purchased KUJ in Walla Walla, which he subsequently sold in 1934. In addition, in mid-1933, he entered into a lease agreement with another station in Spokane, the financially-troubled KGA – he agreed to operate the station, and even moved it to better facilities in the Standard Stock Exchange Building, where he had moved KHQ back in 1928. By 1935, he had arranged for KGA to become part of the NBC Blue Network (KHQ now was affiliated with NBC Red). Given all the money he spent on making improvements to KGA, local newspapers were certain he would soon purchase the station outright, but that did not happen until November 1939.

A NOTABLE LOCAL PERSON

Wasmer himself was also frequently in the news for his hobbies.

In his younger years, his first love (in addition to radio) had been motorcycles. Now, he took flying lessons and purchased his own airplane, which he used for going on business trips.

And he maintained an ongoing love for new cars: when he bought a new Ford V8 in 1933, he parked it right near his plane. It would be one of many times when local newspapers reported on his newest purchases, some of which were unique to the Spokane market. Among the high-end cars he owned over the years were a Jaguar, a Cadillac, a Rolls-Royce, a custom-built French luxury car called a Talbot, and a Corvette.

But Wasmer did not just spend money on himself.

He was known for paying his employees good salaries, and he also made sure they received something extra at Christmas. In 1940, for example, he handed out “bonuses amounting to several thousand dollars” to nearly fifty of his KHQ and KGA staff.

BUILDING BETTER AM

He also continued investing making improvements to KHQ, and now, KGA, upgrading their equipment frequently – by the early 1940s, KGA was operating with 10,000 Watts.

Interestingly, while he always wanted his stations to be state-of-the-art, Wasmer failed to see the possibilities in a new technology then known as “frequency-modulation broadcasting” (Yes, FM).

In mid-1941, he told a sales conference that FM, marketed as “static-free radio,” might be useful in big cities where noisy reception was still a problem for listeners, but he doubted there would be much need for that type of station in the west, where AM reception was generally good.

TROUBLE AT THE FCC

Meanwhile, the fact that Wasmer was operating two stations in the same city caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission.

While today, broadcasting chains are allowed to operate numerous stations in one market (for example, in Boston, iHeartMedia runs eight stations), in 1940, the so-called “duopoly rule” meant one owner was only allowed to own one station. Wasmer was told to get rid of either KGA or KHQ, since he could not operate both.

Never one to avoid a challenge, he filed a protest with the FCC. In addition to pointing out that he believed the current rule was unfair, he noted that his situation was different from some other owners – while he had owned KHQ since its inception, he had not gone out and tried to buy another station. He had been leasing KGA, and it was NBC that encouraged him to purchase it when KGA’s original owner had gone out of business in 1932.

While he was waiting for the FCC to make a decision, he continued to run both stations, assisted by his station manager Harry Lantry, who often served as chief announcer. Wasmer was known for being promotion-minded, and the station sponsored contests and community events that gave listeners a chance to have fun in difficult times. In addition to national hit shows, listeners heard many local performers, including Ben Lindberg, known for his repertoire of cowboy songs, in addition to programs with shopping tips (very useful with wartime rationing), and inspirational talks from local clergy of all denominations.

Among the most appreciated by listeners was programs featuring the latest news: veteran network newscaster Sam Hayes was one of the most popular voices on the station.

POLITICAL AMBITION

Louis Wasmer in 1944During the war, Wasmer helped to raise money for war bonds, and he also entered the military, serving as a radio engineer with the Army Air Corps for several years.

(Left: Louis Wasmer in 1944)

Then he decided that he wanted to enter politics. Local reporters believed one motivation was that he had never gotten along with Washington’s current governor, Arthur B. Langlie, and in mid-1944 he believed he had enough support to mount a serious campaign. Owning stations in Seattle and Spokane gave him a definite advertising advantage. Positive publicity also came from professional trade publications: Broadcasting did an effusive profile about him in May 1944, in which he was referred to as “a pioneering broadcaster,” someone who was “never… content to accept things as they are,” a true innovator who “has always gone out to meet the future, and in many fields has helped bring it into the present.”

Unfortunately for Wasmer, despite the glowing tributes, there did not seem to be as much dissatisfaction with Governor Langlie as he had believed. In the primaries, Langlie had no trouble defeating him and gaining the Republican nomination: Wasmer only received 47,697 votes, compared to the 187,627 votes the incumbent governor received.

SELLING AN ASSET

With his brief venture into politics at an end, Wasmer returned to running KHQ and KGA.

Eager to put his disappointing loss behind him, he focused on his next project: applying for a television license. But before he got one, he had to first address the fact that the FCC was unwilling to grant any exceptions to the duopoly rule: like it or not, he could not own two radio stations in the same city.

Thus it was in April 1945, Wasmer announced he would sell KHQ and focus his energies on KGA. At first, he reached a tentative deal to sell KHQ to Strauss & Blosser, a Chicago-based investment banking firm, for $850,000, plus liquid assets. But that deal did not go forward. So, he announced a new deal, for William H. Cowles Jr., owner of the Spokane Chronicle, to purchase KHQ, for the same price. Wasmer’s wife Florence said her husband had been determined to find a local buyer, rather than one from another city. That was why “…he was delighted when the Cowles people bought it.”

There was controversy because Cowles already owned both of the daily newspapers in town, the Chronicle and the Spokesman-Review. Three local organizations objected to Cowles now acquiring a powerful radio signal – it might enable Cowles’ management to suppress opinions or use their media outlets to influence the public’s perception of issues. In the letters they sent to the FCC, the groups stated that giving so much control to one company would not serve the public interest.

However, the FCC disagreed, and when no other companies came forward to offer competitive bids for KHQ, the sale was finalized in early February 1946; in the end, Cowles paid Wasmer $1,295,000 for the station he had put on the air in Spokane in 1925 for about $30,000.

CHANGES

For the first time, KHQ was not owned by Louis Wasmer – but the public probably did not notice any changes.

The new KHQ president and general manager was Arthur L. Bright, a veteran Spokane radio executive. Bright had assured the staff at KHQ he did not anticipate any personnel changes in the near future, an d chances are most listeners were unaware of any ownership change.

Meanwhile, making the transition to only running KGA was not that difficult for Wasmer: he had worked with everyone there since the mid-1930s. But there was one difference now: KGA had been an NBC Blue affiliate since 1935, but as of 1943, NBC Blue was no more. Like Wasmer, David Sarnoff of NBC had run afoul of the FCC’s Duopoly Rule – the FCC finally decided that he could only own one network. Sarnoff sold NBC Blue to business executive Edward J. Noble, who eventually renamed it the American Broadcasting Company.

Wasmer ran KGA until the summer of 1949, when he sold it to Gonzaga University in Spokane for $425,000. But he was not yet done with radio – in early 1950, it was announced that he would soon be taking over the operation of one of Spokane’s oldest stations, KFIO. It had been on the air since 1922 owned and operated by Arthur L. Smith, who had decided to retire. Within two years, Wasmer, the man who had once dismissed the importance of FM sold KFIO it in favor of Spokane’s first FM radio station (KREM-FM) and the possibility of putting a TV station on the air.

Louis Wasmer, who did so much to put Spokane radio on the map, died on August 24, 1967, at age 75. He left an estate of more than $3 million, with instructions that a portion of it be used to fund scholarships for students who wanted to study broadcasting – especially those who wanted to become engineers or announcers.

KHQ POST WASMER

As for KHQ, it was owned by Cowles till 1986.

The station continued to broadcast a full-service format, with NBC network news, augmented by adult contemporary music and local features in the 1950s and 1960s. The KHQ call letters were also put into use when television came along: KHQ-TV, channel 6, made its debut on December 20, 1952, Spokane’s first TV station. And Cowles also got into FM broadcasting in February 1961, when KHQ-FM debuted.

In Spokane radio today, the heritage KHQ call letters have long since vanished: after selling the stations to Home News, a company based in New Jersey, in January 1985, KHQ-AM became KLSN, and KHQ-FM became KISC-FM. The call letters were changed again, and KLSN became KAQQ in August 1986. Triathlon Broadcasting (later merged into Clear Channel/iHeart) bought the station in 1997. It broadcast an adult standards format until 2002, when, like many AM stations, it changed to a conservative talk and news format using the call letters KQNT.

KQNT logo

Today, the former KHQ remains at 590 AM, the same frequency it has had since 1929; it is currently owned by iHeartMedia.

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Donna L. Halper is a media historian, educator (Associate Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Lesley University), and radio consultant.

She is the author of six books and many articles about the history of broadcasting. Contact her at: dlh@donnahalper.com

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