The Faces of Radio: Behind the KMBC Microphone

In 1935, KMBC was blooming into a Kansas City media empire under the direction of Arthur B. Church. Though a few years before the advent of the Brush Creek Follies–a program that would become one of KMBC’s staple programs–the station was already proving to be a fruitful grounds for talent of all varieties.

Listeners of KMBC mostly knew the voices of the radio talents: the wisdom of Uncle Ezra and the folksy organ-backed tales of Ted Malone; the radio-drama, Life on the Red Horse Ranch, and the songs of Herb Kratoska and Tex Williams. But in 1935 the station produced a film reel to give the public a chance to view the faces behind their favorite programs.

The reel, “Microphone Personalities: Camera Flashes of Program Features that have clicked with millions of Columbia Network Listeners” was a feature designed to sell KMBC programs to other networks. And it appears in the Marr Sound Archives from the Arthur B Church video collection.

Uncle Ezra Butternut of the Happy Hollow program is one of the first personalities to face the camera. He claims to be no actor, just a man with some opinions, and that much is evident from his odd stares into the lens. Similarly, Ted Malone and his organist are backlit silhouettes, not facing the camera for their demonstration.

The musicians, however, seem to have an easier time with the visual medium. Tex Williams appears decked out in cowboy regalia, custom made chaps with “TEX” applique-d on the leg. Herb Kratoska’s easy-going jazz guitar and vocalizations bring more energy, but eye contact still seems to be an issue. If there’s a fourth wall here, no one knows about it.

A young Paul Henning–before he took up the typewriter and moved to Cali-for-ni-ay–sings a saccharine song into the camera, calm and easy, but seeing this makes me glad he pursued television writing instead.

The most natural performances come from the cast of Life on the Red Horse Ranch. Unlike old Uncle Ezra, these are actors, and adapting to the visual medium much better. Even a glimpse at the sound-effect man, turning a wheel to make the prairie wind, rattling metal sheets and shutting small doors is a treat to watch. Following their brief radio-play the band closes with a hoe-down number of banjo, stand-up bass, and accordion solos.

KMBC became most widely known for it’s “country” themed programming that started with the hillbilly antics of Happy Hollow and evolved into Brush Creek Follies, which ran for 20 years. Other very popular programs were western and cowboy-oriented programs like Life on the Red Horse Ranch and The Texas Rangers program. KMBC oversaw national distribution for many of these shows, which led to great success for Arthur B. Church and is a vital facet of the station’s legacy.

“Zion’s New Friend” – Radio Station KLDS

Number Two in an Occasional Series of Odd and Obscure Periodicals.

Early studio at KLDS.

Early studio at KLDS.

KLDS Control Room

KLDS Control Room

Battery Room

Battery Room

KLDS Orchestry

KLDS Orchestra

KLDS Studio

KLDS Studio

Autumn Leaves was a monthly magazine published for the youth of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (since 2001 knows as Community of Christ).  The publication was produced from 1888 through 1928 out of Independence, Missouri.  The October 1926 issue was almost entirely dedicated to the church’s radio station, KLDS.

First Presidency member Elbert A. Smith penned an ode to the station entitled “Zion’s New Friend” that appears at the beginning of the magazine, setting the tone for the remainder of the publication:

“Free from the slumber that bound him so long,
Radio leaps to the air with a song;
Taking his journey from Zion’s high tower,
Bearing his message in haste, yet with pow’r…

…Roused from the slumber that held him since dawn,
Radio leaps to the air and is gone!
Go, thou bright messenger, Zion’s new friend,
Preach thou the gospel till time shall have end.”

At the time this issue was published, radio broadcasting was still a relatively new phenomenon.  One of Kansas City’s premier radio pioneers, Arthur B. Church, was the guiding force behind the implementation of KLDS.  Referred to as “A.B.C.”, Church contributed two articles to the magazine, detailing the development of KLDS from a small, weak station to a broadcasting powerhouse.

Programming was predominantly musical in nature, and the numerous musicians associated with KLDS are pictured throughout this issue.  Broadcasts of Sunday services were routine, and in the winter months lectures courses and special sermons were offered.

By 1927 Church has secured a separate license for KLDS – which, according to Autumn Leaves, stood for “Knowledge, Liberty, Divinity, Service” – and it then became Midland Broadcasting Company.  A second license was obtained for a commercial station, KMBC, with which Church found even greater success.  Much more about his work at KMBC can be found here.