Pioneer L. A. Christian Station Stops Broadcasting After 79 Years
by Jim Hilliker
SETTING HISTORY STRAIGHT
I’d like to share with you what I believe is KFSG’s legacy all these years later, along with a few stories about KFSG from its first decade, that have become popular in radio history books and on the internet over the years. Many of these have grown into legendary status since the 1920s, while others may have been forgotten.
But, I also want to set history straight. Despite the public relations machine of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel promoting KFSG all these years, my research has found some facts about the station that may not make the higher-ups at the I.C.F.G. happy. I hope by bringing up these historical discoveries, I may be able to bury the false statements that have been published about KFSG for these many decades. However, in 2003, it might be too late now for many people, including the biographers, historians and the church, to take notice or care about changing their outdated stories on KFSG. But I’ll present my findings, anyway. Here they are:
First, KFSG was NOT the 1st religious radio station in the nation and it was NOT the 1st religious station on the air in Los Angeles. The first religious radio station on the air in this country was WDM radio, owned and operated by Church of the Covenant in Washington, D.C. WDM was licensed on December 22, 1921 and had its first broadcast on January 1, 1922. This station only lasted a bit over 3 years, as WDM was deleted on June 8, 1925. Not far behind WDM was KJS-Los Angeles (King Jesus Saves) in March of 1922, which became KTBI-Los Angeles in July 1925, owned by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now known as Biola University in La Mirada. (The station was sold in 1931 and became KFAC). KJS/KTBI was the second religious radio station in this country and the first in Los Angeles.
When I tried to explain this to the folks at KFSG and ICFG headquarters some years ago, I received a letter saying, “Of the four known religious stations prior to KFSG, none continued as religious stations beyond 1931.” I guess their belief is, even if WDM and KJS were on the air first, two years prior to KFSG going on the air as a religious station, it doesn’t count, because they both went off the air by 1931! That’s ridiculous. You can’t change history and the truth is that WDM and KJS/KTBI did start their radio ministries first. However, after going on the air in 1924, KFSG did become a very important pioneering Christian station with a huge following in its early years, that seemed to overshadow other religous radio stations of that time. Up until its demise this year, it was the oldest operating religious station in the nation. Its total years on the air on AM and FM had made it the 5th oldest radio station in Los Angeles. Moving into the number 5 slot now is KLAC, with a license dating back to March of 1924.
Second, it’s also easy to figure out that KFSG was NOT the 3rd radio station on the air in Los Angeles, as has been claimed in several books on Aimee Semple McPherson, related Web sites and on the KFSG Web site. In 1922 alone, two years before KFSG started broadcasting, L.A. stations KNX, KJS, KHJ, KFI and a few others had already taken to the airwaves! That’s at least 4 stations on the air in 1922. In chronological order, KFSG was the 21st radio station license issued within the Los Angeles city limits, and the 12th to actually go on the air with a regular broadcasting schedule. So, how can KFSG and the church that founded and owned the station, possibly claim it was only the 3rd radio station to go on the air in Los Angeles?? I believe it’s because the church and/or the writers of those books never bothered to check the facts related to radio history in Los Angeles, when KFSG was established.
Also, Aimee’s son who turned 90 in March 2003, Dr. Rolf K. McPherson, sent me information via an ICFG secretary in an email 3 years ago. He was 11-years-old when KFSG began. He said at that time, he played around with a radio he built himself, but never heard anything besides KFI, KHJ and his mother’s station, KFSG. So, perhaps, that’s where this inaccurate statement originated!
Third, KFSG owner Aimee Semple McPherson was NOT the first woman in the United States to hold a radio license or own a radio station in 1924. That was Marie Zimmerman, who owned and operated radio station WIAE in Vinton, Iowa in 1922 and 1923. However, she did co-own the station with her ham radio husband and Marie was a ham radio operator too. But the name on the WIAE license as owner was Mrs. Robert E. Zimmerman. (Source: Article by radio historian Donna Halper on “Marie Zimmerman–Broadcasting’s First Female Owner”). However, to be entirely fair, when Mrs. Zimmerman’s station went off the air, it was still extremely rare for a woman to own and operate a radio broadcasting station. That means it was quite likely that McPherson was still the only woman at that time to own a station, which may have been the case for many years. She was also most certainly the first woman to own and operate a Christian radio station.
Finally, I wanted to clear up some false information given in a book by one of McPherson’s biographers in 1993. The author stated that every morning, Aimee Semple McPherson broadcast a program over KFSG called “The Sunshine Hour” at 7 a.m. Another book said this show went on at 6 am. The problem I have with that statement is that it’s not true. While Aimee did host a daily show on KFSG known as the “Sunshine Hour”, it was actually on from 10:30 to 11 a.m., according to the KFSG program schedules I checked in magazines and newspapers from 1925 through 1928. The author also said that on June 29, 1925, a major earthquake struck Santa Barbara at 6:44 am, which is true. The 6.3 magnitude quake killed 13 and injured 65.
But, the book said that Aimee got a call from someone in Santa Barbara asking for help. She then reportedly ran from her home into Angelus Temple to interrupt the morning broadcast in progress. Aimee supposedly grabbed the microphone to tell listeners to help out those affected by the quake by driving cars and truck filled with supplies, blankets, medicines, food, etc. to Santa Barbara. The problem with that story is it may not be true or accurate. That’s because June 29, 1925 was a Monday, and KFSG was off the air or silent every Monday and was not broadcasting that day! Even if KFSG had been on that day, it didn’t go on until 10:30 a.m. Still, it may be possible Aimee was able to get the station on the air to alert listeners about the quake. But, checking the Los Angeles Times for the next day, June 30, there were several stories about the earthquake. The KHJ daily listing and related article also told of how that station updated listeners occasionally on Monday, but I could not find any mention of KFSG going on the air or any credit given to McPherson and her listeners for helping during the emergency.
SISTER AIMEE AND HER CHURCH
My main focus will be on what I see as arguably KFSG’s most popular years, 1924 to 1928. As I stated earlier, KFSG was founded by the dynamic, and at times, controversial female evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). Her story has been told numerous times in at least 7 biographies published over the years, along with several Web sites that tell about her life and times. She founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal mission, and settled in Los Angeles in 1918. (The church was officially incorporated as a Protestant denomination in 1928). Between, 1920 and 1922, Aimee traveled with her mother on a non-stop series of evangelistic services. The purpose of those trips was to preach the word of God and raise money to build her home church in the Echo Park area of L.A., at 1100 Glendale Boulevard. With the cash donations, her 5300-seat church, Angelus Temple, opened on January 1, 1923 for $1.2 million dollars. It was dedicated to service and was debt-free. One year later, the church would boast its own radio station.
Sister Aimee, as her followers called her, was no stranger to innovation and controversy. Married three times, she was widowed and divorced twice. Her third marriage took place, even though it was against her religion to marry if a divorced spouse was still alive. One Web site on her life claims that Aimee McPherson’s weakness was men and that she had several affairs, some discrete and some not so discrete. Even the vaudeville comedian Milton Berle, later of early television fame, wrote in his 1974 autobiography that he had sex with Aimee on two occasions in 1930, at an out-of-the-way apartment she owned near the beach. She approached him following a charity show they both took part in at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., while Berle was booked for a few days at a downtown Los Angeles vaudeville theater. Aimee was then 40 and the young Berle was only 22. When she married for the third time in 1931, Aimee eloped with 30-year-old David Hutton, a singer she met when he took part in one of her biblical spectacles. Their marriage lasted less than 3 years. In 1936, there was a story that reported her being blackmailed by someone who threatened to release nude photos of her. Yet amid all these incidents of scandal, rumor and gossip, Sister Aimee survived partly by presenting herself to her followers as a repentant sinner.
As an innovator, she and her mother were reportedly the first two women to travel alone across the U.S. in their car. Aimee introduced popular slang and jazz music into the church during the 1920s and sometimes would change the words of popular songs of the day, but would sing them with the same tune for her church services. One example: A 1925 song called “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” was changed by Aimee to “Yes Sir, That’s My Jesus.” Being close to Hollywood fascinated her, too. She popularized the use of church sermons which were illustrated and dramatized through elaborate stage plays, which the press said were very much like vaudeville shows. Her Angelus Temple stage was supposedly designed by the early film superstar Charlie Chaplin, who told Aimee, “Whether you like it or not, you’re an actress in show business now.” The famous stage shows in Angelus Temple rivaled what Hollywood and Broadway had to offer. Because of that, the shows Aimee presented attracted people who would never have thought about going inside a church. Once inside, they were entertained with her message of salvation. Once, after getting a traffic ticket, she rode onto the Angelus Temple stage on a police motorcycle, wearing a Los Angeles police officer’s uniform. Her message was for the audience to stop and obey God’s laws! Also, instead of the hellfire and damnation style of preaching of a Billy Sunday, Aimee preached about a God who loves us. She substituted a “sunnier religion” for a “gospel of fear.”
With her personality and style of preaching, Aimee turned the religious establishment of that time upside down. In fact, many of the male preachers didn’t like her and wouldn’t accept a woman as pastor of a church. (One Methodist preacher, “Fighting Bob” Shuler (not related to Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame) had his own radio station, KGEF from 1926 to 1931. He had a regular feud, on and off the air, with Aimee, from his Trinity Methodist Church in downtown L.A. He constantly denounced McPherson and her ministry, along with denouncing gambling, political corruption and alcohol, while going on the air, naming the sinners in Los Angeles. Shuler later lost his radio station. The Federal Radio Commission revoked Shuler’s license for KGEF in 1931, but that’s another story). Mrs. McPherson was written about in newspapers and magazines and was called everything from “the Barnum of religion” to “the Mary Pickford of revivalism.” She also managed to find and keep followers, despite the various scandals that played havoc with her life. But, her church services and sermons in the 1920s were shows in every sense of the word, and she did her best to bring that same excitement of being inside Angelus Temple in person to her radio audience.
Jim Hilliker is a radio historian and former broadcaster. He has written a number of articles on the history of broadcasting in Los Angeles. He currently lives in Monterey, California.
This article is © 2003 – Jim Hilliker
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