High school sports and livestock sales. Local news and community conversations. Jazz, ranchera, polka, rock and “serious” music.
For 75 years, Four Corners residents have tuned in to KIUP-AM (930), the “Voice of the San Juan Basin,” to be entertained and find out what is happening.
The story of the radio station is the story of our lives, says Four Corners Broadcasting Regional Manager Ward Holmes.
The station started as a risky and then tragic venture in the depths of the Depression. Durango resident John Turner, while wintering in San Diego, noted the birth of a radio station there. He wondered if a local radio station might work in his hometown. Ten businessmen each invested $500 to get the enterprise on its feet.
“At that time, not one of us had the slightest idea of the rough roads we were going to encounter and the headaches that were in store for us,” Turner said in 1950 when reminiscing on the station’s 15th anniversary.
After much discussion with the fledgling Federal Communications Commission, the men received a broadcast permit in the name of LeRoy Haley. As foreman of the Tacoma Power Plant, he had an electrician’s license, which at the time was what the FCC required to prove the station could be operated safely.
“Although the pesky porcupine has been charged with many sins, homicide and interference with radio broadcasts must be rare indeed on the docket,” the Durango-Herald Democrat wrote on the occasion of KIUP’s 15th anniversary. “Yet a porcupine did kill a former station manager of KIUP and did prevent the station from going on the air on schedule in 1935.”
The culprit porcupine wandered onto the Denver & Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks when Haley was returning to Tacoma and derailed the hand car, flinging Haley’s body into the Animas River. His body, with the FCC license in his pocket, was not found for several months. The stockholders had to find someone else to apply for a license.
“Wiser now, the stockholders often smile how, early in the station’s history, they went on the air with only their construction permit as a license to operate,” a reporter for the Durango Herald-Democrat wrote in 1950. “‘We nearly got thrown in the jug,’ Dick Turner (John Turner’s son), reminisces wryly.”
But they had done something right – broadcasting events and news that touched the community. Over the years, KIUP hosted one-hour shows for Bayfield, Pagosa Springs, Cortez, Farmington and Silverton. There were Navajo and Southern Ute programs and hours of programming in Spanish.
In the early days, live talent shows were broadcast each week, featuring groups such as Mildred Limprecht and her accordion band.
When KIUP moved to a new building in south Durango in 1950, more than 3,000 people showed up for the festivities despite a severe snowstorm.
“People thought of KIUP as theirs,” said Leona O’Brien, the station’s assistant manager at the time.
Characters on the air
Some of KIUP’s on-air talent left lasting impressions on listeners.
Armintha Johnson, known as “Johnny Becker,” became involved in radio by accident. The daughter of a meat cutter and sausage maker, Becker told an interviewer in the 1970s she “took her saxophone lessons seriously, and avidly read the Want Ads for the proverbial break in show business.”
The break came when she responded to an ad for the Malloy Melody Maids, a traveling all-girl dance band. After the band played at the old Trimble Hot Springs, she fell in love with the area, quit the band and went to work in the ladies section of the J.C. Penney store.
“Pat O’Brien, who was the station manager at KIUP, knew she had sung with a band, and believed that anyone accustomed to a microphone would have no difficulty working into radio,” an article in Today on July 10, 1975, said. “Her first opportunity came in 1951 when she was asked to play the part of the Lady of Make Believe on ‘Make Believe Time,’ a story program for children.”
Becker played the role for nine years. In 1953, she began hosting the “Coffee with Johnny Show,” which became “The Breakfast Club,” held at the Holiday Inn and aired each weekday at 8:37 a.m. for more than 25 years. She also hosted weekly birthday parties for the area’s birthday child, hosted by A&H Bootery with a cake provided by Durango Bakery. About 10 children had their birthday parties broadcast each week.
Another woman, Nancy Elliott, who went on to become the first female managing editor of The Durango Herald, was KIUP’s women’s commentator. And Mrs. Celia Marshall was the book reviewer in the 1940s.
“Her program was instructive and entertaining,” John Turner said.
Known for his gravelly voice, Wayne Moorehead was a fixture at KIUP for more than 40 years. Everyone who worked at the station during those four-plus decades had a Moorehead story or two to tell.
“John Mackley put in 24 years at KIUP,” Charlie Langdon wrote in the Herald in 2000 after Moorehead’s death, “but he said that Moorehead ‘was the station patriarch.’” Mackley added, “He was such a positive person. He was a master of putting people at ease. That’s why his on-air interviews were unique. He was on first-name terms with everyone, including President Gerald Ford.”
Mackley told Langdon that Moorehead’s popular “Southwest Ho” started in the 1950s.
“He and Johnny Becker stood along the highway outside the station, and the state patrol flagged down the tourists,” Mackley said. “They knew they were tourists because of their out-of-state plates. It was a great show.”
They eventually broadcast the show from in front of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Depot, collaring tourists arriving to board the train to Silverton.
Moorehead was best known for his Sunday afternoon jazz shows before and after “serious” music.
“We used to carry the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday afternoons in those days,” Holmes remembers of the mid-1990s. “It would be time for it to start, and Wayne would say, ‘now it’s time for two hours of that glorified hollerin’.’”
Gene Shirley was the morning disc jockey on KIUP for more than 20 years.
“Gene would never go to anything in public,” Holmes said. “He would say, ‘I’m a radio guy. I live in a booth.’”
One year, for the Business After Hours kickoff to Snowdown, Shirley walked in wearing disco-themed attire and a nametag.
“He was swamped,” Holmes said. “People were saying, ‘You’re Gene Shirley, I listen to you all the time.’ ‘Your voice is so soothing.’”
Sponsored by KIUP
In addition to entertaining and informing from the studio, KIUP also brought events to the community. In the 1930s, it sponsored a free wedding for one lucky couple, with a wedding dress courtesy of Graden Mercantile, wedding rings from Taylor-Raymond Jewelers and photos by Pennington Studios. Couples lined up around the block of the Kiva Theater, and the lucky couple was married in the theater with the ceremony broadcast on KIUP.
The station hosted the March of Dimes Jamboree and broadcast a fundraising talent show. When movie companies came to town, KIUP was on hand to interview celebrities. And when something special was going on in the world of entertainment, the station and staff found ways to have fun with it.
Everyone who worked at KIUP laughs at the mention of the “Gobble Giveaway” that Karen Maas created in the 1980s. Local supermarkets would provide turkeys that area businesses would sponsor. Lucky callers would win a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“I was the queen of the Gobble Giveaway,” said Suzanne Tyrpak, who was in ad sales for KIUP. “I sold about 100 myself to advertisers. People would be crying when they won those turkeys.”
Tyrpak and Bruce Anderson, who is celebrating 30 years at KIUP, loved the promotions that Program Director John Mackley created for the giveaway.
“I want the white meat, mama,” Tyrpak said in a deep Southern accent.
The Radio Ranch, where KIUP made its home beginning in 1950, had the studio in a bomb shelter, a reflection of Cold War tensions at the time.
“If there was a nuclear holocaust, KIUP could still broadcast,” Tyrpak said. “But the studio was nice and quiet for broadcasting.”
Her favorite memory is of Mackley deciding to prohibit any conversation about hats on his popular program “Speak Out.”
“People would not stop talking about hats,” she said, “whether men should wear hats in Denny’s, whether they should take them off inside. This went on for weeks. People would call in about everything. I remember one man calling in to complain that postage stamps were too small.”
Gary Penington was at KIUP for three years before going to work at Fort Lewis College for 28 years.
“I remember two days when I arrived at work,” he said. “The first was when the Secret Service was there (when former President Ford visited the station after buying it), and the second was when there was a rattlesnake by the door.”
Sports lovers tune in today to catch ESPN programming. And there is still quite a bit of local programming.
“When I send in my inclusion list to ESPN and say ‘I’m going to block this half hour and this 15 minutes, they say ‘What?’” Holmes said. “I can have county commissioners and local representatives come on and do legislative updates, do those things and satisfy another audience with information of community interest.”
Holmes said the owners today have the same philosophy as the founders 75 years ago.
“They have always felt localization is important,” he said. “If it’s not local, caring about your community, what you’re doing doesn’t matter.”