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Published May 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

WDAY on air now 90 years

Station to host celebration in Island Park on Tuesday
FARGO - While Earl Reineke was in Hillsboro one day in 1922, he told H.L. Dunnlevy he was starting a radio station in Fargo the next week. “Well, at noon on May 22, I had a phone call from Fargo” informing him that they would send a signal out “at any time.”

FARGO - While Earl Reineke was in Hillsboro one day in 1922, he told H.L. Dunnlevy he was starting a radio station in Fargo the next week.

“Well, at noon on May 22, I had a phone call from Fargo” informing him that they would send a signal out “at any time.”

“I sat at my radio from noon until … two o’clock,” Dunnlevy recalled in an interview from the 1940s. And when he picked up the signal, “I guess I done quite a bit of hollering.”

That was the first broadcast of WDAY radio, made 90 years ago on Tuesday. And it marked the launch of broadcast in our area.

Reineke started the station with Kenneth Hance and Lawrence Hamm. They broadcast from the bell tower at the Cass County Courthouse. The station moved about a year later to 117½ Broadway, and in 1931 to the Black Building in downtown Fargo.

It was a different world during those early days.

“There were no manufactured sets on the market until after WDAY went on the air,” the late Reineke told longtime WDAY newsman Norm Schrader in an interview.

People built their own sets. In fact, Reineke, Hance and Hamm opened a shop that sold radio equipment before launching WDAY.

The receiver Dunnlevy used was one of those 10-foot-long homemade outfits.

“You had to walk back and forth to dial,” he said.

Ken and Peggy

Dunnlevy said in the 1940s interview that the general public didn’t think much of radio in those early days.

“They thought that it wouldn’t come out to anything.”

They were wrong. And WDAY became home to many longtime broadcast personalities. One of those was Ken Sydness, better-known by his on-air name Ken Kennedy.

Kennedy came to WDAY in 1933. Stories of his early years are the stuff movies are made of.

In “Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee,” author Peter Richmond writes:

Kennedy’s “choice of Augsburg State, a Lutheran college, was a little inappropriate, since the school forbade dancing. So Ken did what any enterprising college musician did at the time: He changed his name and on the sly formed Ken Kennedy and the Kanadians. Later he moved back to Fargo and got the Kanadians a regular gig playing the Crystal Ballroom.”

WDAY broadcasted from the ballroom on Saturday nights. On one evening, the station dropped off the equipment, but no one showed up to operate it, Kennedy’s son, Steve Sydness, said recently. Kennedy had seen it done so many times, he set it up and did the broadcast himself.

Kennedy got a call the next morning morning saying he “did a great job Saturday night,” said Sydness, who now lives in Wellesley, Mass. The offered offered him a chance to try out for the station.

Kennedy, who died in 1976, worked with WDAY into the television age. But he didn’t stay because he had to; there was opportunity for talent like Kennedy’s. Sydness said his father turned down an offer to host the TV game show “Concentration.”

“And when dad declined, they got somebody else by the name of Ed McMahon,” Sydness said.

Kennedy was closely linked with North Dakota native Peggy Lee. Lee worked at WDAY, and it was Kennedy who gave Lee her stage name.

“It was just that Norma Egstrom didn’t sound quite poetic enough,” Lee said in an interview on a New York radio station. “And so he looked at me for a long while and said several names and when he got to Peggy, he said, ‘Peggy, Peggy, Peggy, Peggy, Peggy – Lee. That’s it.’ And so that’s the way it stayed.”

The morning showman

Kennedy was just one of the names known on WDAY radio and later WDAY TV – names like Howard Graber, Howard Campbell, Boyd Christenson and Bill Weaver.

Another name listeners grew to know was that of Don Dresser, 79, who left the station in 1994 after 34 years, most of those on the

morning shift.

Getting the job at WDAY was like “going to heaven,” Dresser said.

“When I was a kid growing up in New York Mills, we used to listen to DAY: Ken Kennedy, Jack Dunn,” said Dresser, who lives in Dilworth. “And, when I got hired, I was walking the halls with these guys. It was a really a big deal for me.”

During his time with the station, Dresser interviewed a wide mix of individuals, including musician Doc Severinsen, singer Johnny Mathis and the person who did the original voice of Donald Duck.

Another of the interviews he remembers was with a man who had something of an oddball talent.

“I think Mr. Echo he called himself,” Dresser said. “He could repeat everything you said about a fraction of a second behind you. And that was tough to do.”

Celebrating history

WDAY has seen a lot of change since it began in the tower of the Cass County Courthouse in 1922. The Forum purchased 49 percent of WDAY radio in 1935 and the remaining 51 percent in 1958.

The station brought television broadcasting to the Red River Valley in 1953. The Forum heralded the news with the words, “WDAY-TV came on the air at 6:45 p.m. Monday to mark the beginning of a new era in communication and entertainment in the Fargo-Moorhead area.”

WDAY will celebrate its 90th anniversary Tuesday with events at Island Park and at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, including live television and radio broadcasts.

“Oh, it’s absolutely huge.” WDAY radio operations manager Erick Johnson said of the anniversary.

“It’s a legendary station,” Johnson said. “I don’t know any other way to put it. When you think about WDAY and what it has meant to this area for decades, it’s hard to put it into words.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

If you go

What: 970 WDAY 90th Anniversary celebration

When: Tuesday

Where: FMCT/Island Park

Info: 11a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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