Published April 16th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Paging Wolfman Jack.
In Westwood, demolition crews tearing down an old radio station recently revealed an even older radio station – or, more precisely, the station building’s old tower transmitter facility, which dated to the early 1930s.
The small, squat structure still bore the faded outlines of the station’s call letters, KMBC, on its fatigued façade.
“It’s like radio station archaeology,” said Chuck Haddix, local music and radio scholar.
“It looks like an Egyptian tomb,” said Ellen Schenk, who served as a news anchor for many years at KMBZ.
The building had been embedded within a larger, more contemporary complex, most recently occupied by Entercom Communications (now known as Audacy). But after being visible for several days, the old structure vanished for good on Wednesday, demolished to make way for a new elementary school.
Entercom had announced its departure for nearby Mission in 2004, and the demolition of the long-vacant facility in Westwood had been anticipated.
What likely wasn’t expected was the sudden appearance of the building’s original transmitter structure, hidden in plain sight for not quite a half-century.
Its emergence from surrounding rubble – suddenly isolated on the 6.5-acre suburban site – gave area residents an almost cinematic glimpse of radio’s distant past, looking much like the lonely outpost where actor Richard Dreyfuss visited a melancholy Wolfman Jack in the 1973 film “American Graffiti.”
For several days area residents and neighbors pulled over their cars or paused on their walks near the intersection of West 50th Street and Belinder Avenue, often taking out their cell phones to take pictures.
“People were surprised that the building itself had been buried in the larger building and that the call letters could still be seen,” said John Sullivan, who grew up in Westwood and has served as its public works director for 30 years.
Many years ago, Sullivan said, the building had only a dirt-and-gravel road for equipment deliveries brought to a small rear door.
But beginning in the early 1970s, more modern additions began being added in a process sufficiently seamless that not every employee realized the older, original structure was still there.
“I had no idea,” said Schenk, who retired in January after almost three decades at KMBZ, many of them spent with news co-host Noel Heckerson – who did recall the inner building.
“When you walked out of the newsroom, you walked down a hall and took a right to enter a coffee break room,” said Heckerson, who retired in 2005 after 42 years in radio, 23 of them at KMBZ.
“To the left was an enclosure the engineers worked out of. I remember a diesel generator being in there, just in case there was a power outage.”
“That must have been that building.”
The structure recalled the development of radio from its infant days, said Haddix, curator of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“It harkens back to the days when independent radio stations with affiliations with national networks were popular,” said Haddix.
“In the case of KMBC, that was CBS.”
That network affiliation began in 1928.
But the station changed hands several times as industry evolved over the decades. In its more recent past as Entercom headquarters, the building housed studios and on-air talent for as many as eight different stations serving audiences wanting to hear rock, classical and country music, as well as sports talk.
“There you had all these radio stations that were clustered together and owned by one entity,” said Haddix.
“But that building still served a specific purpose, to make sure that a signal was going out on the air.
“While everything else changed in radio, that didn’t change.”
KMBC often is considered Kansas City’s first radio station.
In 1922 Arthur B. Church, an early radio entrepreneur, received a broadcasting license from the U.S. Department of Commerce, authorizing the use of call letters WPE.
Church soon built what he called the first broadcast studio in the Midwest. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints acquired the station in 1923, and operated it under the call letters of KLDS before the Midland Broadcasting Company bought it in 1927 and received permission to use the call letters KMBC.
Station studios were in the Aladdin Hotel downtown before, in 1930, moving to the top floor of the Pickwick Hotel, several blocks to the east.
A commemorative KMBC volume published in 1931 reported that the station broadcast 19 hours a day at 1,000 watts and also claimed that it routinely received mail from listeners across Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and even Illinois.
The station maintained microphones at Kansas City Municipal Airport, the Kansas City Livestock Exchange and the Kansas City Journal-Post.
KMBC’s on-air talent included Journal-Post city hall reporter John Cameron Swayze, who delivered bulletins from the newspaper’s newsroom before going on to a long career as NBC television news anchor, and Paul Henning, a singer and writer who, decades later, developed “The Beverly Hillbillies” television show.
In 1932 a federal radio commission examiner recommended approval of an application to move the station’s transmitter facility from Independence to a new site in northeastern Johnson County, according to information posted on the Westwood municipal website.
The following year The Kansas City Star reported that a $75,000 “modernistic radio transmitter building” that would serve as an “insulating base” for a KMBC tower soon would be built at the Johnson County location, which boasted an elevation about 960 feet above sea level.
Archival photographs of the original building included sunburst flourishes on its façade.
“It’s a gorgeous building that harkens back to the golden days of radio,” said Haddix. “Back then KMBC was a powerhouse station that covered the Midwest. And if you look back at shots of the studios at the Pickwick Hotel, they were quite stylish, too.”
According to that 1931 commemorative volume, the ceiling of one room in the KMBC offices contained a “radiating silver lightning flash emanating from the ceiling as an imaginative radio expression.”
High winds twice damaged towers at the site.
In 1938 a 256-foot tower fell during a windstorm. And in 1941 a 73-mile-per-hour wind damaged two towers. The taller tower crashed into a home on nearby Booth Avenue, but none of three people inside were injured.
By the mid-1960s the care and maintenance of the station towers required full-time engineers at the Westwood building, said retired radio engineer Rich Myers.
In those days station studios were at 11th and Central streets in downtown Kansas City, but the KMBC tower structure remained in what by then had become the suburban Kansas municipality of Westwood, incorporated in 1949.
Myers moved to the Westwood site when station owners began expanding the facility in the early 1970s, he said, adding that the smaller, original building housed two five-kilowatt transmitters.
“The newer RCA transmitter was next to the north wall and the older Western Electric transmitter, which we kept as a back-up, was next to the east wall,” said Myers, who retired as chief engineer upon the 1997 acquisition by Entercom of KMBZ and three other stations from Bonneville International Corp.
An adjacent basement was filled with all manner of spare radio equipment, and also served as a reassuring refuge during tornado warnings, Myers said.
“The building was very solid,” he said.
But this past week it wasn’t hard for experienced workers to knock it down, said Aaron Dehn, president of Dehn Demolition of Independence. The original KMBC transmitter structure was the last of the three separate sections to come down during the demolition project.
“They built this building to last,” Dehn said Wednesday as the last building was coming down. “But concrete doesn’t last forever and it is coming apart easily,” he added.
“I’m just ripping it apart.”
In recent years the radio station property has prompted news both routine and tragic.
Workers completed upgrades to the site’s two towers after a 2008 permit review. That same year an area teenager whom officials said was trespassing on the property died after an apparent fall from one of the towers.
In 2016 the Shawnee Mission Board of Education approved the school district’s purchase of the site. By 2018, the two towers had been disassembled and removed.
In January, voters approved a $264 million school district bond issue. One of the projects funded by the bonds is a new Westwood View Elementary School. Construction of the new school is expected to begin soon after demolition is completed.
Spectators this past week often have paused behind the demolition site’s temporary fencing, said Dehn. If they are interested in the old radio station building, he added, he’s also been pleased to showcase his company’s gear, which includes a $150,000 dust-suppression system.
“Everybody has been very respectful,” he said.
Schenk, who drove by the demolition site this week, described the sight as “sad,” adding, “Some of the best years of my life were spent in that building and I met so many wonderful people there.”
Yet the dialogue prompted by the old station building has been positive, said David Waters, Westwood mayor.
“I think it is very special and appropriate that, as we prepare for our city’s future with the new Westwood View Elementary, we can also be reminded of our city’s past, where we came from, and how our city developed,” he said.
Sullivan, the public works director, believes the older building’s sudden appearance – and just as sudden disappearance – has left area residents with mixed feelings.
The property has been a consistent dialogue-driver for years, he said, with residents expressing opinions about the towers and the condition of the fencing, which included barbed wire, that used to surround them.
“There was always a lot of comment about the towers,” Sullivan said.
“But now the towers are gone, and now the radio station building is, too – and maybe some people are beginning to miss it all.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.