Harmon’s Histories: Before Black Friday, there was UM’s 1st radio broadcast

Jim Harmon

Black Friday 2018 is nearly here with its giant, flat screen TVs, computers, electronic toys and gadgets – all at bargain prices!

Flashback to Christmas 1924, and it was much the same. Everyone wanted the latest in electronics.

Root Electric Company at 127 East Cedar (now Broadway) was displaying the Grebe Synchophase radio receiver. The Dickinson Piano Company featured the Zenith Long Distance radio, capable of picking up broadcasts from “as far as 1,500 miles away.”

Even the H. O. Bell auto dealership on South Higgins offered the Radiola, priced from “$35 to $425 with convenient terms, if desired.”

But with the exception of Ashley Dixon’s occasional transmissions from his homemade Stevensville station, KFJR, there were no local broadcasts to be heard.

Enter Garvin Dennis (“G.D.”) Shallenberger, a man “known for his wry, delightful sense of humor” but also known to be “a bit intimidating and strict.” Shallenberger was hired to chair the university’s physics department, which in 1923 consisted solely of the professor and one assistant.

Garvin D. Shallenberger, circa 1957. (UM Mansfield Library Archives Special Collections)

G.D. came from Beloit College, where he had helped construct a broadcast transmitter with his physics students. In Missoula, with the backing of State University (now, UM) President Charles H. Clapp, he and his students would tackle the same project.

“The second floor of Simpkins Hall was assigned to Dr. Shallenberger and four student assistants for the studios and transmitting room of the new station. The station antenna was planned for suspension over the building,” wrote Ron Richards in his 1963 UM graduate thesis, “History of radio broadcasting in Montana.”

By early 1924, according the Missoulian, the students had constructed an experimental 50-watt station dubbed KFLW, operating on 234 meters. “The station opened up Tuesday evening (April 29), by broadcasting the Missoula Male chorus and the Varsity Glee Club concert.”

But the goal of a high power, 250- or 500-watt station, capable of reaching out more than a thousand miles, encountered numerous delays.

In December 1924, Shallenberger told the Missoulian newspaper a “2,000-volt generator is expected to arrive next week and this will be the last equipment to install.”

More tests were done, including a broadcast with a play-by-play recreation of a Grizzly-Bobcat game based on relayed telephoned descriptions.

Finally, on February 12, Shallenberger announced, “The wave length of 243 meters and the call letter KUOM were assigned yesterday by the government,” noting the station’s first official licensed broadcast would be February 17, 1925, with coverage of both the afternoon and evening Charter Day ceremonies held at Main Hall.

At the event, University President Clapp acknowledged the radio audience, saying, “We are showing off tonight, so to speak, in that we are broadcasting the talent of the University to those who cannot be here with us,” adding: “Education to improve man’s work and improve his recreation in art, music and science is our purpose.”

Music Department Dean DeLoss Smith followed up with a “new Montana song”  he wrote and performed especially for the occasion, then the University Symphony orchestra presented a concert.

KUOM, circa 1928, possibly Edward Little, operator. (UM Mansfield Library Archives Special Collections)

In the weeks and months that followed, KUOM aired musical programs featuring local talent like John Orvis of the Orvis Music company. Professor A.S. Merrill presented an educational talk entitled, “Earth’s Nearest Neighbor.” There were Sunday church choir concerts and more of the popular telephone-relayed sports play-by-play programs.

The station also participated in a number of contests. Mrs. C. L. Williams from Monterey, California, won a box of Montana apples for being the most distant listener of one broadcast.

The campus station also participated in the nationwide Atwater-Kent radio contest to find the best young singer in America (Miss Edith Wiedman of Livingston and David Williams of Roundup were the Montana finalists). Cash and scholarships were offered as prizes.

By the late 1920s, though, interest in and funding for KUOM waned. Professor Shallenberger tried to enlist the help of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, but funds were scarce. Finally, on November 3, 1929, the national radio commission ordered KUOM and 19 other stations across the country “off the air” for failing to file applications for renewal of their licenses.

Missoulians, though, wouldn’t be without a local radio station for long. On January 18, 1931, A. J. Mosby powered up his 100-watt station, KGVO, which continues to broadcast to this day – but, that’s another story.

As for the pipe-smoking Dr. Shallenberger – he became a larger than life character in Missoula. The part-time inventor, with patents on a shoe-shine device and a tape dispenser, continued his educational and civic work. His companion, a fox terrier named, “Tag,” would accompany him everywhere, including to class.

As the story goes, whenever his students seemed to be falling asleep, he’d say “Wake ‘em up, Tag” and the little dog would yap loudly!

G.D. retired from the State University in 1960, but continued his public service as a county commissioner from 1961-1967. He died on April 28,1970, one day short of the 46th anniversary of that first experimental broadcast of KFLW.

It would be decades before another professor would come along to establish a University radio station. Journalism Professor Phil Hess’s 10-watt student training facility, KUFM-FM, created in 1965 is now the flagship of Montana Public Radio, MTPR.

** A note for broadcast fans and history buffs – Retired U-M Journalism Professor Bill Knowles tells me his comprehensive, decades-in-the-making book on Montana broadcasting (including a section on Dr. Shallenberger) should be ready for publication soon.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.