Editor’s note: Independence native Paul Henning created “The Beverly Hillbillies” and other hit TV shows. Ruth Henning tells their story in “The First Beverly Hillbilly,” published by the Mid-Continent Public Library and the Jackson County Historical Society. Those groups and others are presenting a program at 6 p.m. Friday, “Heartland to Hollywood: An Evening with the Henning Sisters.” Linda and Carol are Paul and Ruth’s daughters. The event is at Ophelia’s restaurant on the Square. Go to jchs.org for ticket information.
The following is the second of three parts, a history of the Hennings and the Kansas City area.
By Brian Burnes
In 1914 Frederick M. Smith, an amateur radio enthusiast, rode a train from Independence to Lamoni, Iowa.
On the way he had pondered the plausibility of swift, efficient radio communication between the two locations, some 110 miles apart.
Upon arrival in Lamoni, he noticed a home with an elaborate radio antenna.
The home’s owner, after Smith knocked, confirmed that such a miracle was doable.
There were many amateur radio enthusiasts in the years before World War I. Smith, however, was a grandson of prophet Joseph Smith Jr. and in 1915 he would become president of the RLDS, which had followers across the country.
Much of Smith’s early radio enthusiasm was driven by the still-evolving communication possibilities between two operators in distant locations as opposed to one-way “broadcasting.”
But his clear vision of how the young technology could spread his congregation’s message eventually led to the establishment of what Judd A. Case, associate professor of communication studies at Manchester University in Indiana, calls the first licensed, church-owned radio station. By 1927 that broadcasting ministry would lead to the establishment of KMBC, the station young Paul Henning would be singing over by 1935.
Case told the story in a 2016 article published in The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal.
As Case explained, Smith encouraged the building of radio facilities, funded by donations, at both Independence and Lamoni, home of Graceland College, established by the RLDS Church in 1895.
During the years before World War I, both stations were offering programming for listeners.
In 1920 RLDS officials named Arthur B. Church, who had served as a U.S. Army radio instructor during World War I, head of their newly formed Department of Communications. Church moved to Independence and began planning the construction of a radio studio in a small brick building in the rear of Stone Church.
That studio was completed during the winter of 1921-22, according to Case. The station received a license to operate with the call letters WPE, and listeners soon found broadcasts there of church services, sermons and music.
In 1923 Church persuaded RLDS officials to finance a 250-watt transmitter, and the Stone Church station received the call letters of KFIX. The following year Smith helped lead a fundraising drive to further upgrade the power of the station, which then would be known as KLDS – as in “Latter Day Saints.”
Writing in a church publication, Smith wrote “…we shall because of generous contributions have the means of enlarging the station and then establishing relay stations, until we can eventually circle and encompass the globe with the glad sound of the gospel and with knowledge of the kingdom of God.”
KLDS debuted in 1925 with a 500-watt signal.
But growing federal government regulation, along with the pressures of the emerging national market for commercial radio networks, contributed to the end of KLDS as a predominantly religious station
“That end came much too soon; the challenges of professional broadcasting proved to be too much for the cash-strapped church…” Case wrote.
In 1927 the station became the property of the Midland Broadcasting Company, a Missouri corporation whose president was F. B. Blair, who had served as an RLDS bishop in Kansas City and before that as manager of the Lamoni power plant.
The company received the call letters KMBC – as in Midland Broadcasting Company.
In 1928 KMBC became part of the Columbia Broadcasting System, the radio network predecessor of the CBS television network.
Its operators moved the station’s studio to Kansas City, where it occupied space in the new Aladdin Hotel at 1215 Wyandotte St. In 1930 the operators moved the studio again, this time to the top floor of the new Pickwick Hotel at Ninth and McGee streets.
That’s where Paul Henning arrived sometime in the mid-1930s -- wanting to sing.
Thursday: Henning in Kansas City, Chicago and Hollywood.