Radio Active: There’s No Place Like Ohm

This is the house at 3219 Avenue L in Poly:

It’s a nondescript house, typical of the neighborhood: five rooms, one thousand square feet, asbestos siding, built in 1926. But shhh. Listen to the history that this house engendered. Can you hear Bob Wills? Or “The Shadow”? Or Mark Stevens? How about Wolfman Jack or George Erwin or Porter Randall?

This house seems an unlikely laboratory for a man who would affect the life courses of such voices. But during the 1920s self-taught radio wizard William Ellison Branch lived—and broadcast—here.

By the early 1920s America had gone radio ga-ga. In 1922, when Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter decided to get in on the new—and possibly newspaper-threatening—technology of radio, Branch (pictured) helped invent radio station WBAP in the Star-Telegram‘s building at 400 West 7th Street.

kfjz 23 branch tech on evans

Branch was WBAP’s first technician. He built the station’s first transmitter, taught S-T circulation manager-turned-radio station manager Harold Hough the rudiments of the new technology. Branch also wrote a radio technical column for the newspaper and gave public lectures about radio technology in the newspaper’s building.

In 1922 the Texas National Guard’s 112th Cavalry had moved from Dallas to the former site of Camp Bowie. The next year the Headquarters Troop began operating a five-watt communications radio station designated “KFJZ.”

kfjz 25 rsb 400 west 7thWill Branch would continue to work at WBAP as technician and engineer into the late 1920s. But by April 1925, as this Radio Service Bulletin shows, Branch the WBAP technician was also Branch the KFJZ operator. Yes, Branch had bought the National Guard’s radio equipment and increased its power to fifty watts. And according to the Bulletin, Branch had moved KFJZ, now a Class A station, to 400 West 7th Street—the building that housed WBAP.

kfjz 25 seminaryBy November of 1925 Branch’s radio station KFJZ, like Carter’s WBAP, was a commercial success. In fact, Branch had sold KFJZ to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

kfjz 26 branch tech on lBy 1926 Branch was living in the house on Avenue L.

And by 1926 Branch had reacquired his radio station from the Baptist seminary. To house his radio transmitter on Avenue L, Branch built behind his house a small building—possibly the one visible behind the car in the top photo. His “studio” was his living room. Longtime KFJZ broadcaster Dave Naugle recalled that when someone dropped by Branch’s house and wanted to be on the radio—play the piano, sing a song—Branch switched on the transmitter out back.

kfjz 26Did it irk the seminary Baptists that Branch began to broadcast services of the First Methodist Church? He also broadcast Fort Worth Cats baseball games and music such as that performed by the Sorin-White Top o’ Texas Orchestra.

kfjz 26 only 2 stations in cdAnd yet in 1926 the city directory listed only two radio stations in Fort Worth.

kfjz pianist sunday 1-9-27 dmn

On April 6, 1927 B. Reynolds completed fifty nonstop hours of piano playing on KFJZ. Clip is from the April 9 Dallas Morning News.

kfjz 28 rsb ave l milfordNote that in January 1928 Branch’s radio station on Avenue L was listed along with a station in Kansas owned by Dr. J. R. Brinkley. Brinkley would enter Branch’s life later.

kfjz 28 branch engineer on lBranch continued to work at WBAP while he lived and broadcast on Avenue L.

kfjz 28 radio moore buildingNot until 1928 did KFJZ appear in the city directory. But wait! In the city directory, right under “rabbitries,” the station was listed as being located in the Moore Building.

kfjz 28 allison chiro mooreThat’s because Branch had sold his station again, this time to a doctor who operated a combination chiropractic office and radio station on the second floor of the Moore Building at 1104 Main Street.

kfjz meacham 4-8-29 dmnIn April 1929 Dr. Allison sold the station to former Mayor H. C. Meacham, who moved the studio to his department store downtown. Shoppers could listen to musicians—among them the Light Crust Doughboys featuring Bob Wills—as the musicians performed on the air. Clip is from the April 8 Dallas Morning News.

In 1931 Meacham sold the station to Ralph Bishop. In 1932 the station was located in the Hotel Texas. WBAP was just up Main Street in the Blackstone Hotel.

In 1938 Bishop sold the station to a group led by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son Elliott, who had married hometown girl Ruth Googins in 1933. The group built a studio (designed by architect Joseph Pelich) at 1201 West Lancaster Avenue and created the Texas State Network, with KFJZ as its flagship station. The new station’s first broadcast was from the original Casa Manana in September 1938. In 1941 KFJZ relocated to 1270 on the AM dial.

kfjz norris 1948In the 1940s J. Frank Norris of First Baptist Church broadcast on KFJZ.

After Branch got WBAP and KFJZ onto the air, he packed up his soldering iron and headed south—to Mexico. In the 1930s he built several of the transmitters of the “border-blaster” X stations, such as XELO and XEPN. Border-blaster stations operate just over the Rio Grande and just beyond U.S. law: By broadcasting from Mexico they skirt U.S. regulations on transmitter strength. But they broadcast to American listeners. Advertisers back then included “Carr Collins’ Crazy Water Crystals,” made from the waters of the Mineral Wells area. Another advertiser sold “baby chicks by mail.” Among the stations’ religious programs, one sold “autographed photos of J. Christ of Biblical fame.”

Some of the stations were started by renegade physician Dr. John Brinkley (photo from Wikipedia), who experimented with goat gland transplants to cure impotence in men.

Brinkley hired Branch, who built border-blaster transmitters of 250,000, even 500,000 watts, capable of reaching Europe and even Russia. The most powerful radio stations in the world. Listeners claimed to be able to hear broadcasts without a radio, picking up the border-blaster signals on dental work, bed springs, barbed wire.

Wolfman Jack (Robert Weston Smith) ran one of the border-blaster stations in the 1960s. Wolfman Jack told author Tom Miller in On the Border: Portraits of America’s Southwestern Frontier: “A car driving from New York to L.A. would never lose the station.”

The transmitters that Branch built were powerful. And, ultimately, deadly. In 1946 Will Branch was fatally shocked while working on the transmitter of border station XELO in Juarez, Mexico. He was forty-eight years old.

Both of Will Branch’s former stations in Fort Worth continued to change. In 1955 KFJZ radio moved from the Lancaster Avenue location to 4801 West Freeway when KFJZ-TV went on the air.

Over the decades KFJZ radio listeners got their news from Porter Randall, listened to programs such as “The Shadow,” “Queen for a Day” and “Nick Carter” and to personalities such as Randy Robbins, George Erwin, Larry Shannon, Hubcap Carter, Beau Weaver, Bill Enis, George Nolen, Skeeter Gordon, Joe Holstead, John Moncrief, Dave Tucker.

kfjz 67 miss texas

And, of course, Markie Baby: Mark Stevens (1934-2010).

(Markie Baby jingle at 8 seconds:)

kfjz 67 markyStar-Telegram entertainment columnist Elston Brooks wrote about Stevens in 1967.

kfjz mark tv(Remember the  “psychedelic” contemporary music show that Stevens hosted on Fort Worth’s UHF TV channel 21? Neither do I, but I’ll bet it was, like, far out.)

kfjz beach boys 67In 1967 KFJZ sponsored a concert by the “old” Beach Boys.

kfjz 67 top 10 2

kfjz 67 scheduleFrom 1967.

Since the 1980s KFJZ radio has gone through several changes in format, ownership, and studio location. Today KFJZ is at 870 on the AM dial and broadcasts financial news/talk programming. WBAP broadcast variety and popular music during its first forty years, switched to adult standards in the 1960s, to country music in the 1970s, and to news/talk in the 1990s.

And it all began in the 1920s in a newspaper building on West 7th Street and a little house on Avenue L.

This entry was posted in Cowtown Yoostabes, East Side, Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Radio Active: There’s No Place Like Ohm

  1. Greg M says:

    I just found your blog. This post was excellent! I’m sure I’m going to be spending a lot of time ignoring my work while I peruse your fascinating blog.

    Thanks for sharing your hard work!

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Greg. I would not have thought that a blog about my hometown could keep me busy this long, but we’re headed for year nine.

  2. Actually, you are both correct. Will Branch built XER’s original 50 kW transmitter. James Weldon built the 500 kW power amplifier for XERA. It used Branch’s original transmitter as its driver.

  3. Mike Carroll says:

    Correction: The 250/500KW station of Dr. Brinkley’s, XERA, the successor to XER, was designed and built by James O. Weldon of Dallas.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks. I don’t find XERA mentioned in the post. XER is mentioned in a news clipping. As I understand it, Branch built the first XER transmitter.

  4. Bruce Miller Earle says:

    As a young man I was blessed to work on the XELO transmitter that Bill Branch built by hand. What was a treasure trove seeing and having access to his drawings of the circuitry and his special antenna matching network. He was very tight with Ing. Nestor Cuesta who was one of my mentors. A few years ago someone presented his name for induction to the Texas Radio Hall Of Fame. I am a 2011 inductee and would like to help get Mr. Branch inducted. Please feel free to contact me.

    Ing. Bruce Miller Earle

  5. Holly Martin says:

    Thank you for mentioning Howard Wayne “Skeeter” Gordon. Although I am much younger than he was, he lived downstairs from me for many years until his passing in 2014. I mention the young part because I don’t remember him actually being on the radio, only the “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday” bit he did for Green Valley Raceway I recall. He was a true friend and I miss him very much.

  6. Very informative, thanks!

  7. tom campbell says:

    I remember being irritated by patter DJs, interrupting all that music, yet being starstruck at events hosted by Markey Baby.
    By the 90’s I treasured the R&B oldies station KKDA am (Soul 73–KKDA–Jazz, Blues, Gospel and news!) And I didn’t mind the patter of Cousin Lennie. It was a lost art; he was the last master of it.

  8. Shelley says:

    I am looking for my best friends father. She is 51, and adopted. She was born in August 1966. Both of her wonderful adoptive parents have passed and she is looking for her real Mom and Dad. I have not found her Mom due to redacted records, but the records do reveal that her Dad was a 20 yr old Disk Jockey in Fort Worth in 1966 and he was not informed of the pregnancy. He would be around 70 yrs old now. Her Mom was 17 when she gave birth at a home in Fort Worth called Volunteers of America. Her Mom and Dad met at a Club dance. We figured their families were members of a Club, but we really don’t know. They both liked horseback riding and tennis. Records reveal that her Mom was adopted at age 8 and had 2 adopted siblings. Records reveal nothing else. This 20 year old Disk Jockey from 1966 may have a daughter he doesn’t even know about. My friend would desperately like to meet her real parents if they would be willing. Any help would be appreciated!

    • hometown says:

      Volunteers of America is still on Avenue J in Fort Worth. The Star-Telegram in 1966 and 1967 did not list radio deejays or programming in its entertainment pages. It listed just the stations by name–ten of them. That means dozens of deejays.
      The newspaper DID list local deejays in 1965, and I have e-mailed you a page from June 1965.
      You have some facts to go on, but the passage of a lot of time is a handicap. Good luck.

  9. chris murphy says:

    Well, that house hasn’t changed much in 60 years. My aunt and uncle and cousin old house. That garage used to have pool table and beer on tap in 1970’s.

    • hometown says:

      I remembered that Pat lived on one of the avenues near D. McRae. When I pulled up the deed card for 3219 Avenue L to see if it listed Branch (it doesn’t), there were the Honeckers.

  10. Mark Wilson says:

    I remember the XEROK station back in the 70’s. Listening to it at night out here in Southern California. I like following the links and learning about William Branch and the transmitters. Amazing building that kind of power back in the day. Thank you.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Mark. Growing up in Poly, I was amazed to learn this story of how KFJZ started in a house not far from where I went to elementary school.

  11. William Branch says:

    As one of the grandchildren of this radio pioneer, I greatly appreciate the research done, and providing this info to the public, on the Internet.

    • hometown says:

      Thank you for providing me with new information on your grandfather, who helped to create our American soundscape.

    • BME says:

      Mr. Branch:

      I am Bruce Miller Earle who worked on the XELO transmitter. Many stories of Bill branch I’d like to share with you.

      Ing. Bruce Miller Earle
      ?? 512 412 1000

      ingbme@gmail.com

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