April 23 2021: Forty five years ago today, Dave Molvik threw a switch at Itasca Community College putting a transmitter on the air. Three miles away Jon Newstrom took some transmitter readings, he had to be there because we discovered, at the last minute, that our reverse telemetry didn’t work, and we could not monitor the transmitter from the college. After a signal relayed from Suzi on the phone with Jon I opened a microphone and said, “This is KAXE Grand Rapids, Minnesota signing on” and spun a Charlie Maguire disc.
This moment came after five and a half years of planning, speech making, fundraising, grant writing, application filling, nailing, wiring and testing. Including building the transmitter building on county tax forfeit land and raising the tower in one weekend.
We signed on with an “all local” weekend. We recorded every high school music ensemble, church choir, folk musician and poet we could find to put on the air. We wanted to get as many voices from our listening area on as possible. We figured everyone would tune in to hear themselves, their kid or their great aunt and it would, at least, help people find KAXE, 91.7 on the unfamiliar to most of our listening area, FM band. (See article from the Herald Review at the bottom of the page.)
Most of the tapes we made for that broadcast were played back on old Ampex 300 tape machines. They went into service in 1949 and we bought them at least third hand. They were good and serviceable. The history of the Ampex 300 said the last machines went out of service in about 1977 but KAXE kept its machines going for far longer than that.
We expected phone calls with congratulations, good wishes and love. And we did get phone calls, lots of phone calls, lots of angry phone calls. We signed on during the State High School Hockey tournament and Grand Rapids was playing. It was televised on Channel 6 from Duluth, 81 miles away. Technically we were outside channel 6’s protected area but, as we discovered, channel 6 had viewers. Since we had announcements of our going to air all over the place people knew who to call.
So instead of complements and well wishes we got complaints, curses and one bomb threat. The FBI heard about that and paid us a visit a few weeks later wanting to know why I didn’t report it. I replied that I didn’t take it seriously since the caller identified herself. She called from a bar with a TV set that, at 7 PM, had lots of wiggly lines on the screen and the sound of frying eggs coming from the speakers. Half of Bovey heard her call.
We worked it out over the next month or so. Senator Humphry intervened, on the side of the hockey viewers. The FCC inspected us and found we were “clean” but suggested that we help the local cable systems ground their equipment, which never had to deal with a high-powered FM station before. So, after a rocky start KAXE was off and running, and has been running ever since.
That first week someone asked me if the station was sustainable, whether it could last. My reply is that no human institution, except perhaps The Church, is eternal, and that someday the station would not be around. What matters is the lives it touches now. In 45 years KAXE/KBXE has touched many lives and will continue to do so in the future.
Congratulations to the listeners, volunteers and staff in Grand Rapids, Bagley and everywhere in between and beyond. Happy Birthday KAXE.
KAXE Mobile Unit A. Suzi’s Model A, painted white with green fenders that we took around to events to publicize the station. We filled it with antique radio equipment that we found in WCAL’s basement. Dave Molvik, Dale Constantine, Suzi and I all had worked there. Some of the antiques we got running again and actually used on the air, especially some great old RCA 44 ribbon mics.