Heard It On the Radio: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

Conway may have had one of the first radio stations in the state when the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a license to Conway Radio Laboratories on October 2, 1923. KFKW operated at 150 watts on Tuesday and Friday evenings if Ben Woodruff, the owner, was around.

The U.S. government began licensing radio stations in late 1912 and from the beginning gave the stations call letters starting with a K or a W. Stations in the west were given a K while all stations in the east were given a W.

The original dividing line ran north along the Texas-New Mexico state line but in January, 1923, this line was moved to east to follow the Mississippi River. That is why Conway’s new radio station was given call letters that started with a K.

Listeners who tuned in mostly heard piano music. The music was often played by George Huddleston, son of a local doctor. Sometimes there were singing groups from schools and occasionally there might be a sermon. All programs originated in the back yard of Woodruff’s home on Tyler Street. There were no commercials of any kind.

The station was built and equipped at the expense of Woodruff’s father. The technical equipment of KFKQ, like most home receivers in use at the time, was assembled by the users. Russ Cole, a friend of Woodruff, created the microphones that were used at the station.

In addition to operating KFKQ, Conway Radio Laboratories had the town’s first radio store in the Conway Theater building. Here one could buy the necessary parts for assembling a radio set. In the 1920s, Conway had its share of radio “hams” or amateur radio builders and operators.

A number of factors led to the demise of Conway’s first radio station. One major factor was the demand by some radio equipment patent holders that they be paid more. Another factor was that the founder and builders of KFKQ were college-age youths who grew up and scattered.

One of those amateur radio builders who stayed in Conway was Herman Stermer. Herman’s father, Frank Stermer, a lifelong resident of Faulkner County, was one of the largest landowners in the county. He was elected county surveyor in 1898 but became a surveyor for the Missouri Pacific railroad in 1907.

Frank Stermer became county surveyor again in 1932 and was still holding that position when he died of a heart attack while driving out in the county. He was considered an expert on land descriptions in the area because he drew most of them.

Herman Stermer and his sister, Frankie, operated Stermer’s Radio Shop on Oak Street for many years. He was also a “ham” radio operator, obtained his FCC First Class Engineer’s License, and was considered somewhat of an electronic genius. They sold the radio service shop in 1949.

In 1947, Conway Broadcasting Company was incorporated for the purposes of operating a radio station in Conway. The idea for providing radio service was initiated by James E. Clayton, who was born, raised and educated in Conway. Clayton graduated from Hendrix College in 1930 and then worked in the wholesale grocery business with his father and brother. After their deaths, he went into the retail grocery business with his sister, Miss Louise Clayton. He became interested in radio in the 1930s and received an FCC First Class Operator’s license in 1942. He taught radio courses part time to members of the military at Hendrix College during World War II and also worked as a transmitter engineer at KARK in Little Rock.

Conway Broadcasting Company was granted a permit to operate an FM station, KOWN, which remained on the air until AM station, KCON, went on the air in 1950. KCON studios were located at ASTC (now UCA) on the first floor of what is now Old Main. The studio remained there until June, 1966 when it moved to the Donaghey Building at Parkway and Oak.

Herman Stermer worked for KOWN and then KCON. He hosted an early morning show on KCON known as “Ye Old Cowpuncher,” which had a wide following. Stermer and his wife, Billie, lived west of ASTC on what would eventually be Stermer Road.

Stermer left the station in 1954, but rejoined the staff as part-time engineer in 1964. He continued his radio activities until his death in 1969. He had a heart attack while repairing a neighbor’s television set in October and died a short time later.

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