By Vivian (Makela) Sazama
Fifty nine years ago (on Dec. 2), Park Rapids received its first radio station, thanks to Ed and Carol De La Hunt of Park Rapids.
How did the station happened to come to Park Rapids? “Well, it’s kind of a long story…” laughed Ed.
Ed grew up in St. Paul, and attended a parochial school where he said, “I drove the nuns out of their minds!”
He went on to Cretin High School, a military school in St. Paul. “There,” he laughed, “they pounded some sense into my head!” During the Korean War the Minnesota National Guard was sent over to Korea to fight. The governor, not liking that there was no one at “home” to guard the state, formed a State Guard, which Ed joined at age 15. They were dressed in WWI “pea pod” helmets, overcoats and given wooden training rifles. Ed said they would march in the parades and the people watching would laugh at them,
After graduating high school, Ed joined the Minnesota Air National Guard, going in as a Corporal, due to his military school training and State Guard service. He did a lot of military flying during his time with the Guard, which would prove helpful in later years.
Ed got started in the electronics business while still in high school. A friend of Ed’s father, Bart Setchell, who became like a second father to Ed, would stop by the house on Sundays after church and take him to his factory, Setchell Carlson Television, where he would work in the engineering department. Ed said that he learned an unbelievable amount of electronics from Bart.
After graduating from high school Ed went to work for Bart, starting from the ground up. The first job he had was to put television sets into cardboard boxes. The next thing was to put tubes in the television sets, building them; then he ended up putting the chassis in. From there he went into the portable TV department and tested all the sets before they went out of the building. Ed worked for Bart for quite some time then went to work for Hall Electric, which was an electronics distributor. “I worked with them until the boss, Owen Hall, died of a heart attack.” Ed said sadly.
Ed went back to Setchell Carlson Television, who had gotten a license from RCA to start building color television sets and went to work in that department. Their color television sets became so much better than RCA’s that RCA sent some of their people to the factory to try and find out why. Ed says the reason their color was so much better than RCA’s was because they had developed something called a clarifier, which Ed happened to be on the front end of.
“I seldom went home at quitting time,” he said. “I would stay and monkey around with different things and happened to come across a way that made the color picture as clear as a bell.” After showing Bart, together they developed the clarifier, bringing clear color television into homes.
During this time Ed, who was 20 years old, married his sweetheart, Carol, who was just 17. After work Ed would go home and have dinner and then go to Brown Institute and take engineering classes. Sometimes after the night classes he would stop by WMIN Radio in St. Paul, where a friend of his was the chief engineer, and he would help out a bit. Ed had been a ham radio operator since he was 12 years old, which helped him learn a lot about radio transmitters.
One night after work he was driving along with the radio on when he noticed that WMIN cut out, so he stopped by the studio. He learned that a lightning bolt had hit the radio tower. The engineer had no idea how to fix it, so when the General Manager saw Ed he asked if he could do anything to fix it. Ed told him he could give it a try, and after looking it over and with the help of a wooden broom stick and some copper wire he was able to get the radio back on the air. After getting back into the station the GM asked Ed if he wanted a job, and offered double what he was making at the factory. After talking it over with his Setchell Carlson boss, Ed accepted the new job offer. “I had to join the union and I had a funky feeling about it, so I told the GM that I’d go to work for him if he would write up a separate contract that would cover me in case I would be put out of work. I ended up working for WMIN for about 90 days during which I fixed everything that was messed up, and increased the coverage. One day I was locked out. The station had locked all the union people out and they went non-union. I was out of a job.” Ed said.
Wanting to stay in the broadcasting business, Ed found out that a station in Thief River Falls was looking for an engineer.
“I went from $840 per month at WMIN to $65 per week! My wife encouraged me and said I wouldn’t stay at that low of a wage for very long and that I should take the job.” They moved to Thief River Falls and Ed went to work.
“The transmitter box there smelled just terrible and I found 24 dead mice in it!” Ed laughed. In about a month Ed got the station to sound like a million bucks and his salary was raised to $125 per week! He worked there for about a year when he was offered a job in Sheldon, Iowa, to build a radio station where they would pay him the same salary he was making plus he would have an opportunity to sell radio ads, so he accepted the offer. After the station was up and running he went out to try to sell ads. The first day he sold $40,000 in just one afternoon.
Ed worked at the Sheldon station until April, 1962. He was still in the Air Force Reserves and had what was called vest pocket orders, which stated that if he received a wire he had 24 hours to report to duty. One of his friends, Curt Le May, whom he had befriended when he was a ham radio operator, happened to be the commander of the Strategic Air Command. Le May was in command when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Ed got a wire and 24 hours later he was in Omaha, Nebraska. Another 24 hours later he was at 30,000 feet in the air and working on what was called the “looking glass,” which was a flying headquarters started during the Cold War. There was talk of taking out a highway to Berlin. His wife was pregnant with another child and had returned to the Cities to stay with her parents, so after 45 days, the Commander told Ed he would cut him loose since he had a wife and a family at home.
Ed went back to the Cities to join his wife and family since someone else had already filled his job back in Sheldon. He worked for his dad at his garage for a bit and then found out from the Brown Institute that a station in Brainerd was having problems with their FM transmitter, one of the few FM’s in the state. Ed was offered the job as Chief Engineer. At Brainerd, Ed was on the air and was also given a sales list again. While there he and Carol decided to file an application with the FCC to start a radio station in Park Rapids. The only license they could get for the new Park Rapids station was for 100 watts, which was 150 less watts than the sheriff’s.
Ed was able to borrow a small plane and after work in Brainerd would fly up to Park Rapids, which took only about a half hour, and began making arrangements for a studio and a tower. His father-in-law became a partner and Ed built the studio and put in all the equipment. His wife and kids moved up to Park Rapids and on Dec. 2, 1962, they got a wire from the FCC approving them to go on the air. The first broadcast was at 8:30 p.m. with the second half of a basketball game between Park Rapids and Bemidji. After nine months on the air Ed went out with a meter and discovered he could raise to 250 watts because the soil was so bad in conducting. After about a year he was able to go to 1,000 watts. In 1969 Ed was asked to build a radio station in Fosston, which started out at 1,000 watts and then went up to 5,000. Back in Park Rapids they were able to go to 5,000 also for the daytime only as their towers were too close to the airport runway for nighttime. After another six months a friend of theirs sold them a piece of her land further from the airport to move their towers over, and the airport couldn’t stop them anymore. They went to 1,000 watts at night and over the years they’ve been able to raise the daytime to 50,000 watts, the same size as WCCO in Minneapolis.
During that time Ed said, “We got into a big hassle with a group of people in Park Rapids who were endorsing what was called the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’”
The doctrine said there needed to be equal time for both positions of an issue.
“They contacted the FCC with their complaint and the FCC proceeded to pick apart our station. We had just purchased an automation machine into which we set up ads and music, etc. so that we didn’t have to have someone sitting at the station in the afternoons. A computer would tell the automation machine to play a certain ad; but sometimes the machine would play another one instead. We billed based on what the computer told us, but it turned out it wasn’t correct; and the FCC accused us of fraudulent billing.”
For four years the FCC told them they were going to take away their licenses and the legal fees were up to $110,000. Finally their attorney in Washington agreed to make an appointment for Ed and his wife to go talk to Martin Levi, the FCC Director of the Broadcast Bureau. “After hearing about our situation he picked up the phone and called the Complaints and Compliance Division, who came into the office, and he told them ‘This ends today!’ And it was all over.” Ed said. The Fairness Doctrine began in 1949 and ended in 1987 after it was ruled it violated the First Amendment rights of free speech and press.
What started with a fledgling 100 watt radio station in 1962 has now evolved into seven radio stations, three AM and four FM stations in five cities.
In 2006, Ed and Carol De La Hunt were both inducted into the Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame, for their extensive work in bringing radio to the North Country. And all of this started with faith, hope and love and a whole lot of know-how and determination!