Indie Minn. radio station celebrates 50th birthday
HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — The phone rang off the hook one recent morning at KDWA-AM 1460.
It wasn't breaking news or the upcoming school levy renewal that had people burning up the phone lines at the Hastings radio station. They wanted a German dinner for two from the Bierstube and other deals offered up on the station's live "Super Saver Radio Shopping Show."
"I like to say this show was Groupon before Groupon knew who they were," said Dan Massman, the station's owner and general manager who also gets behind the microphone. "It can get pretty busy around here."
Whether it is the shopping show or daily birth and death announcements, KDWA's hyper-local format works. In October, the independent station marked its 50th year on the air.
"Local is our bread and butter— always has been," said Massman, who grew up in Hastings and bought the station in 1991. "Our listeners tune to us to find out what's going on."
KDWA is a family-run business that operates in a small brick building along Vermillion Street, the city's main drag. Massman and his wife, Barb, manage the station's 16 staffers, half of whom work part time or seasonally.
The Massmans' 21-year-old grandson, Zach Hodgson, is the news director at the 1,000-watt station, which ratchets down to about 100 watts at night.
"There's plenty of news here in Hastings," said Hodgson, who first went on the air with his grandfather at age 8.
Locally owned independent stations are few and far between across the country.
After deregulation in 1996, media conglomerates such as Clear Channel Communications, which now owns six Twin Cities stations, started buying up radio frequencies.
"There still are a few standalone stations like KDWA in the metro area, but they are a rarity," said Jim du Bois, president and CEO of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association.
Two such stations, he said, are KLBB-AM 1220 in Stillwater and KRWC-AM 1360 in Buffalo.
"If you're running a station like KDWA," du Bois said, "everyone is doing multiple jobs to keep that radio station on the air."
Although consolidation stabilized as values increased and the economy tanked, radio stations are still targeted. One of the industry's latest big deals came in early 2011 when locally owned Hubbard Broadcasting paid $505 million to acquire 17 major radio stations from Salt Lake City-based Bonneville International Corp.
Massman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he frequently gets offers for KDWA. But the station, which Massman says is profitable, is not for sale.
Two years ago, he said, he turned away two suitors who arrived wearing Armani suits in a limousine. They badly wanted the station.
"They weren't happy that we said no," he said. "But my wife and I personally know many of the people who tune in and rely on us to bring them their church services and sports. What would we do? I'm afraid we'd have to leave town."
KDWA went on the air Oct. 24, 1963, founded by John McKane, a former editor of the Hastings Star Gazette weekly newspaper and a lifelong resident.
The station's local news format was born out of necessity, said Dave Baudoin, who was hired as its first news director at age 23.
"We had to compete with 20 radio stations in the Twin Cities, so we had to really, really hustle and do our best to supply as much local flavor as we could," said Baudoin, 72, of Hastings. "Local was all we had going for us."
But the station had its limits. Because there are other stations on the same 1460 frequency— one in Des Moines, Iowa, and another in Montevideo, Minn. — KDWA wasn't allowed to sign on the air each day until sunrise. It signed off at sunset.
"That was tough," said Baudoin, who became a co-owner in 1968 after buying McKane's 51 percent share of the station. "Even some of the advertisers would say most people are at work then, so why would we advertise on your station?"
In 1971, the Federal Communications Commission allowed KDWA to broadcast at night at 43 watts — basically within city limits. But it opened the station to high school sports, which remains its biggest draw.
"I told the FCC that we can't let the kids know if there's no school in bad winter weather or what the driving is like," Baudoin said.
"They agreed. Looking back, I don't think we'd be here today if we had to keep signing on at 7:45 a.m. and off at 4:30 p.m."
After 18 years owning and running KDWA, Baudoin sold the station to a St. Paul businessman who had no previous broadcast experience. Two years later, it was sold to a Wisconsin group that owned three other radio stations. They soon failed.
"The first thing they did was raise advertising rates by about five times what they were, and the advertisers didn't really go along with that too much," Baudoin said.
Massman, working in the circulation department at the Pioneer Press, swooped in and bought the bankrupt KDWA for $150,000.
"I had to borrow the money from my parents," he said.
It was a lifelong dream for Massman, whose first peek into the broadcast business came at age 9 when his Cub Scout troop toured KDWA's studio. After high school, he returned to the radio station as a disc jockey to spin records.
"I knew radio was something I wanted to do," Massman, 58, said. "This doesn't feel like work to me. I've been blessed."
Sports director Nick Tuckner believes the same. Tuckner has been doing play-by-play for his hometown Hastings Raiders the past 12 years.
"I was delivering pizzas when Dan gave me a chance," Tuckner, 33, said. "People ask why I stay around and keep covering high school kids and don't move on to another media job. That's easy. I love it."
KDWA also airs Park (Cottage Grove) and Prescott (Wis.) high school games, as well as Miesville Mudhens games in the summer. It is also a Minnesota Wild affiliate.
Other popular draws include the "Hastings Coach's Show," which has been broadcast live from Perkins Restaurant in Hastings for 44 years, and the "New Generation Radio Show," where kids are the disc jockeys.
"That show gets the kids away from our little sister station — KDWB," Massman joked, adding that he once took heat from a KDWB station host for saying that KDWA was "one letter better."
Catering to the other end of its listenership, the station airs five church services either live or tape-delayed each Sunday.
"They're very popular with our older listeners," he said. "Boy, if one of those doesn't go on for some reason, our phones light up."
Doug Erickson, owner of Hastings Ford and Hastings Chrysler, said KDWA's local connection has kept him backing the radio station with his advertising dollars the past 25 years.
"They do a good service to the community," Erickson said. "I think people from Hastings feel like it is our own station — our own voice — and that means a lot to a small town."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.