Radio Active: There’s No Place Like Ohm

This is the house at 3219 Avenue L in Poly:

Shhh. Listen. 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. One day after World War I ended Will Branch bought from the Army’s demobilized Camp Bowie the broadcasting equipment of the camp’s five-watt communications radio station.

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.

kfjz 25 rsb 400 west 7thBranch would continue to work at WBAP as technician and engineer into the late 1920s. But by at least 1925, as this Radio Service Bulletin of April shows, Branch the WBAP technician was also Branch the operator of another radio station: KFJZ. And that other radio station was located, according to the Bulletin, at 400 West 7th Street–in the same building with 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, groovy.)

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.

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