Dr. A. S. Lutgen, a Wayne local, established the town’s first hospital in the early 1900’s. During the radio rave of the 1920’s, he bought a ship “radio telephone” with the intention of putting a radio station on the hospital’s grounds. Without an operator’s license, though, how did he manage to accomplish this?
Read more to explore the history behind Wayne’s KGCH radio station.
By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
Wayne, Nebraska, did not have a hospital or a radio station in the early 1900s. That began to change when a physician named Dr. A. S. Lutgen and his wife moved to the area. Lutgen soon established Wayne’s first hospital and invested his efforts heavily in his medical practice. Later he grew fascinated with the new technology of radio. When the opportunity presented itself, he became determined to establish his own radio station.
In 1926, Dr. Lutgen was rumored to have bought a ship “radio telephone” transmitter with the intention of putting a radio station on the hospital grounds. He was intrigued by the concept of radio, but did not have a license to operate the equipment. Instead of attempting to earn one himself, he sent a local boy to Omaha to test for a license. In case he failed, Dr. Lutgen had instructed the boy to gain contact information from those who passed. Unfortunately, the local boy did not earn his license, but a young Iowan named J. Merrill Shum did.
Lutgen asked Shum to come to Wayne to fix the transmitter and operate it. Shum accepted the job and rebuilt the transmitter. During the process, he had bought parts for the machine and even received equipment from other stations, including acquiring a microphone and tubes from a station in Yankton, South Dakota. While working, Shum also attended classes at Wayne State. After fixing the equipment, he spent the last two years of his college career running the radio station.
Like many stations during that time, KGCH broadcast a small variety of programs: usually starting at 6:30 pm and continuing “until [they] ran out of talent,” and saved Sunday afternoons for matinees. Most of the time was spent broadcasting music. In his written recollection, Shum mentioned that they played vinyl records and had live acts. Dr. Lutgen particularly enjoyed fiddle performances; one day he encouraged young Joe Lutgen to play his violin on air.
Besides music, the station also broadcast educational programming taught by professors at the college. For sports, they broadcast only one ‘special’ college football game. They did not have a ‘remote pickup,’ so to broadcast the game ‘play-by-play’ the announcers had to type what was happening and send messages via runners back to the station. This happened every ten to fifteen minutes throughout the game.
Outside of the college, nearby stations helped each other in different projects. KGCH once helped the Norfolk station, WJAG, to produce at 24-hour-long program for a charity event.
Shum continued to run the station as he worked toward his college degree, but after two years Dr. Lutgen was losing his enthusiasm for radio. After Shum had graduated in 1928, Lutgen sold the station to KMMJ of O’Neill. This happened during a period when the Federal Radio Commission began consolidating small radio stations in an attempt to reduce signal interference. As for Shum, he soon traveled to Montana to install a special radio set, and later settled in California where he worked a number of jobs in entertainment.
This story is based on material from History Nebraska’s Nebraska Radio Collection (RG2006.AM). Included in the collection are records and written recollections from radio pioneers and others who have worked within the field. Stories like these shed light on the operations of early radio stations and help explain the ‘behind the scenes’ of radio.
Top: The, what was then, “newer” and renovated Wayne hospital photographed in the early 1900’s when the radio station had been established.
Bottom: From the Historical Society’s archives, these are scanned front and back images of a KGCH call card (also called QSL card). These were often given to listeners in appreciation for frequently tuning in.
Wayne, radio station, radio