Photos by K2 Images
Radio. This wonderful medium was the first truly wireless means of communication. Fifty years ago, KSAM began its electromagnetic modulation through space and time. Today at 101.7 on your FM dial (as well as online), thousands of listeners are treated to “Today’s best Country Music and all your favorites.”
“Back in those days, you had to have a first class phone (radio and television license) to operate the (radio) transmitter,” said Jack Nichols, one of the original KSAM engineers and announcers. “It was a very difficult test in those days. My dad, who was chief of police at that time, told me one day that if I’d get that first class phone, I could start at $70 per week. He was talking to a guy that had never made more than a dollar an hour.”
Over the next 30 years, Nichols would see just about everything during this golden age of radio in Huntsville. From its move in 1960 away from the Walker County Fairgrounds to its present location at 622 I-45 South, and the construction of its 6500-watt antenna, KSAM has remained a treasure to the local community. “I remember looking and looking for a place to build the radio station after we had to move from the fairgrounds,” continued Nichols. “My neighbor finally sold us this land, and we bought it just as they were putting in Interstate Highway 45.”
Although the AM version of radio had been alive and well since 1938, something new was on the horizon – FM Radio. “In 1965, we put in the FM component,” said Steve Everett, General Manager. “We had the AM station, which is KHVL right now, but it started out in 1938 as KSAM-AM, because there was no such thing as FM in those days. FM really didn’t start coming on the scene until the early 1970s. But we were a little ahead of the curve, so to speak, and were able to get an FM license here in 1965.”
Nichols still recalls the days when country artists from this region would simply drop by the radio station and play their music live on the air for the new FM format.
“Back in the early days, Huntsville only had about 6,000 people, so we had to really operate efficiently,” Nichols said. “It took a number of years to see the benefit of FM. We didn’t sell a dime’s worth of airtime for nearly five years. We just couldn’t sell it, because no one had an FM radio. Then we got a few listeners, but they were 50 and above, and advertisers only wanted those from 20 to 55 because they are still buying things. But the start went over well, and we even carried Astros games for a number of years to boost listenership.”
KSAM has always taken pride in broadcasting local news and events. “We were heavy into local news here, because you can get state and national news anywhere,” Nichols said. “For the 30 years I was here, from noon to past one o’clock you couldn’t buy a minute of airtime. It was just that solid. We did local newscasts every day, and we had reporters, which that was their only job.”
Among some of the legends getting their start at KSAM were the likes of former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, voice of the San Antonio Spurs Bill Schoening, Cable ACE Award winner and beloved sports reporter with WFAA-TV in Dallas/Ft Worth Mike Capps and Larry Witt of Sirius XM, just to name a few.
“Dan (Rather) and I graduated from college together at Sam Houston State University; we even had classes together,” Nichols recalled. “He came on as a part-time person and worked as a radio disc jockey and on-air personality, plus he did our sports. He was excellent at it. It was the first time he’d ever done sports. It was just unbelievable the drive Dan had. Dan went on to do pretty good for himself after he left here. “I remember he challenged Richard Nixon down in Houston. I was with him that day, and he almost got fired, but we kept him,” continued Nichols. “He went on to Vietnam, then to the White House, then to CBS. People talk about the legendary CBS broadcaster and producer Edward R. Murrow or even Walter Cronkite, but Dan did more than any of them, in my opinion. “The last time he was here, before he left he made sure to give me his address, phone number, and his secretary’s phone number,” Nichols said. “He’s just that type of guy. Lots of people from Huntsville have gone up to New York City to see him, and he’d always show them the works.”
Nichols also has fond memories of Mike Capps. “He just walked in one day and wanted a job. He auditioned, and we hired him,” Nichols said. “He told us he was getting married the next day, but that he would be here Monday. I thought, oh sure. But he was here, and he never missed a single day for as long as he was here.”
Many around Huntsville will remember Larry Witt, because he was a local. Witt’s from Huntsville, went to college in town, and now is with Sirius XM Radio. “He told me that when he retires, he wants to move back to Huntsville and come back to work at KSAM,” said Everett. “He’s a great guy, and we have just been so fortunate to have a lot of talent to come through this station. A good part of the reason, I think, is because of the university.”
As Nichols closes his eyes, his mind seemed to drift back and more stories began to flow about the early days of KSAM. “I was told that a group of local business people and some from the university thought a radio station was needed here,” he said. “They all got together and filed for an FCC license. Back then, it was only a daytime station with 250 watts. People felt like a town needed a radio station for growth, just as it needed a newspaper.” During the early 80s, things began to change in the radio industry, as more and more became corporately owned. As times and technology began to change, KSAM has been able to maintain a hometown feel, due in part to its location and the support of the community.
“At one time, an entity could only own one AM and one FM station, and that was it,” said Everett. “But then they (FCC) relaxed those rules and said an entity could own up to five stations.” According to the FCC website, an entity may own no more than 50 percent of radio stations in a given area. “You had corporations coming along and buying up stations left and right. Some would buy stations in Bryan-College Station, Waco, Conroe, and Houston,” Everett said. “They’d have a station in Waco that would run part of the station in Bryan. Aggie 96 FM only has one person in the building. This ruined radio’s local appeal, in my opinion. But through the local support of our community, and because we are far enough away from the Bryans and the Wacos and Houston, we’ve been able to keep that local feeling.”
No longer are DJ booths filled with records and albums; today, everything is totally digitized and automated. “Up until the late 80s, we would still spin records. Then the CD came out, and we no longer had to cue up the records,” Everett said. “We thought the CD was wonderful. Then, in the mid-90s, we moved to all the digital systems. Now, we can put music on hard-drives. We have a hard-drive here with over 40,000 songs on it, with all genres of music. Today, the internet has been an even greater boom for us. Now, your broadcasting power does not matter, because KSAM can be heard via the internet anywhere in the world.”
Listen live at ksam1017.com