Pioneer L. A. Christian Station Stops Broadcasting After 79 Years
by Jim Hilliker
AIMEE’S TROUBLE WITH THE RADIO REGULATORS
Besides the thousands of radio fans who tuned into the KFSG broadcasts each week, the new station was also drawing the attention of the regional Radio Inspector from the Department of Commerce 6th Radio District in San Francisco, Col. J.F. Dillon. One legend that has been passed down over the years is that KFSG was taken off the air or at least received a stern warning, because the station either used too much power, drifted off its assigned frequency or changed frequencies without permission. These violations of the radio regulations caused interference around Los Angeles to those trying to hear other local stations. In reality, the station was never taken off the air. But, some warning letters were sent to KFSG in 1924, shortly after the station’s debut. In a letter dated February 21, 1924, J.F. Dillon told Aimee in his opening sentence, “This office is daily receiving complaints regarding interference caused by the operation of K.F.S.G. with the reception from K.F.I. and K.H.J. and distant stations.” (Source: Letters, telegrams and other items in the old Department of Commerce KFSG files, copied for me by the National Archives). Dillon’s solution was to have KFSG go on the air only three times a week. He felt part of the problem may have been the early radios of the day, which had trouble filtering out or separating other strong local stations, from the one you may have been trying to hear!
KFSG was then assigned to 1080 on the AM dial and on 1090 from April 1925 to February 1928. KFI was at 640, KHJ was at 740 and KNX was on approximately 833 kilocycles, and 890 by the end of 1924. If Aimee was allowing KFSG to use other frequencies other than the one she was assigned to broadcast on, she was not alone. There were plenty of newspaper stories in the mid-1920s, especially in larger eastern cities, about radio stations moving up or down the dial to escape interference from other stations. Whatever took place possibly kept happening between 1924 and sometime in 1925. There must have been some warning from the Department of Commerce that KFSG could lose its license if the station continued breaking the rules, but we have no date of such an incident.
In response to these warnings from the radio regulators, at some point, a frustrated Mrs. McPherson fired off an angry telegram to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. He was in charge of regulating radio broadcasting at the time, before he was elected President of the United States in November of 1928. The telegram to Hoover from Sister Aimee reportedly said:
PLEASE ORDER YOUR MINIONS OF SATAN TO LEAVE MY STATION ALONE. YOU CANNOT EXPECT THE ALMIGHTY TO ABIDE BY YOUR WAVELENGTH NONSENSE. WHEN I OFFER MY PRAYERS TO HIM, I MUST FIT IN WITH HIS WAVE RECEPTION. OPEN THIS STATION AT ONCE!
I wrote to Aimee’s son, Dr. Rolf K. McPherson about this in 1994. He tried to tell me the incident between his mother and Herbert Hoover regarding the telegram never took place! In his letter responding to me, Rolf said, “This is one of the many rumors which have persisted through the years. Mother never attempted to defy the law, but always endeavored to comply with the rules. The statements you mention certainly were not typical of her way of doing things. I might explain that the equipment in those days was not always adequate, but the situations were cleared as quickly as they could be.”
However, history seems to prove that such an incident more than likely took place. Matthew T. Schaefer, Archivist at the Hoover Presidential Library, responded to my inquiry about this much-reported incident of early radio history. He wrote the following to me: “Trying to separate the history from the legend of the McPherson telegram to Hoover is difficult. All who have written on Hoover, the Department of Commerce and radio mention the McPherson telegram.” These sources include two biographies on Herbert Hoover and a dissertation, and they all cite volume II of Hoover’s memoirs, published in 1952 as their source. Schaefer continues, “In the memoirs, Hoover writes as if he has the McPherson telegram in hand. Unfortunately (for today’s historians), the original McPherson telegram is not extant. This leaves as the earliest source, a radio address Hoover gave on November 11, 1945 on the 25th anniversary of radio. In this speech, Hoover tells the story about KFSG violating the radio regulations, then says ‘I can give you approximately the telegram I received from her,’ then proceeds with the words of Aimee Semple McPherson.”
In the radio speech from 1945, the words Hoover spoke are nearly the same as in his memoirs, except for the last three sentences of the telegram, which he read this way:
WHEN I OFFER UP MY PRAYERS, I MUST FIT INTO THE RECEIVING SETS IN HEAVEN. YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR WAVELENGTHS AND NEITHER DO I. STOP THIS INTERFERENCE WITH ME AT ONCE.
The last sentence seems to be Sister Aimee’s way of telling Hoover and the radio inspectors from the Department of Commerce to stop sending her letters about KFSG straying off-frequency and interfering with other stations. Hoover reportedly told her that if she stuck to the rules, she could keep her license for KFSG and stay on the air. Another version of the story told in some radio history books says Hoover convinced McPherson to hire a competent broadcasting engineer to keep the KFSG transmitter within its assigned power and frequency. The reason this story is inaccurate is she already had a capable engineer for KFSG from the start, Kenneth Ormiston.
Mr. Schaefer wrapped up his email letter to me, talking about how the above statements by A.S.M. vary from Hoover’s memoirs: “Either the 1945 radio address or the 1952 memoir permitted some slippage between the original telegram and the story as told by Herbert Hoover. Given Hoover’s careful attention to documenting history, I am inclined to believe the story is true (even without the original telegram as the irrefutable evidence).”
As for the exact date or year this incident took place, the radio history books and internet articles on McPherson say it was anywhere from 1925 to 1927. But the letters I have from the Department of Commerce to KFSG also indicate that this may have taken place as early as 1924. Again, I’ll quote Matthew Schaefer on this topic: “I revisited the sources I consulted last time and some additional sources, and could find nothing to narrow down the date of the McPherson telegram to Hoover. Hoover’s memoirs discuss it amidst the several radio conferences held between 1922 and the eventual passage of radio regulation by Congress in February 1927. Since ASM broadcast throughout those years (at least from 1924 onward), and the telegram is lost to history, there is no way to further narrow the date.” This means that those who previously wrote about the telegram incident were also guessing as to what year it occurred. One more possibility is this incident could have taken place in 1926 or 1927, after Kenneth Ormiston left KFSG. His last day there was December 31, 1925, after only two years on the job, for reasons I’ll give you later in this article. In that case, if it happened in 1926 or 1927, two to three years after KFSG received its first warning letters about causing interference, the blame would be placed not on Ormiston, but on the new KFSG chief engineer who replaced him. But it could have been Aimee McPherson, as owner of KFSG. giving the orders on how to run the station.
Not long after McPherson’s skirmish with the Department of Commerce over radio broadcasting regulations, a Federal Court in Chicago ruled in 1926 against Herbert Hoover, regarding what radio stations could and couldn’t do under the Radio Act of 1912. The judge’s ruling determined that Hoover and the Department of Commerce had to issue radio station licenses to all who asked for them, he had no right to restrict what frequencies radio stations used, their hours of operation or their transmitter power. Because of this court ruling, between July of 1926 and January of 1927, broadcasting became a “free-for-all.” The number of radio stations increased to over 700 and many jumped around the dial to any frequency they chose and used higher output power than they were assigned. The chaotic situation finally ended in February 1927, when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, which formed the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC became today’s FCC in 1934.
An article in the November 3, 1926 issue of the New Republic quoted from columns Aimee wrote for newspapers. There’s nothing about radio, but her writing style was very similar to her ‘minions of Satan’ message to Hoover. Other magazine articles about her in the ’20s mentioned her amazing ability to use radio for fundraising and to inspire listeners to donate or even join her church. Since KFSG was a non-profit station for many years, this was no doubt helpful in getting the money needed to keep KFSG equipment running, pay electric bills and other costs related to the station and Angelus Temple.
It’s also interesting to note that the story about the telegram McPherson sent to Hoover is never mentioned once in any of the biographies or other books about Aimee Semple McPherson written in the past 40 or so years. The story only seems to be come up in Hoover’s memoirs and then was picked up and repeated in numerous books on early radio history or history of religious broadcasting, and in some college textbooks on the early development of radio and TV broadcasting. Even a pamphlet KFI radio printed in 1972 on the occasion of that station’s 50th anniversary told the story of the KFSG interference to KFI and the telegram, so it’s more than likely true. I haven’t searched through microfilm files from 1924 and 1925 of the L.A. newspapers to see if any of this was reported by the press at the time, or whether the letters between Aimee, J.F. Dillon and Herbert Hoover were private matters that the public didn’t know about until much later. Whatever the truth is about this story, it is a fascinating chapter in the KFSG story.
AIMEE’S FRIENDSHIP WITH THE KFSG ENGINEER CAUSES SCANDAL
Since KFSG averted further trouble with the government and was able to stay on the air by following the radio regulations of the day, I am trying to determine the following: How could such a reliable and serious radio engineer as Kenneth G. Ormiston allow KFSG to possibly transmit on various frequencies it was not assigned to use or transmit with too much power? Without a time machine, it’s nearly impossible to get to the truth of the matter today. So, I’ll try to make some educated guesses on the topic.
During the years 1924 and 1925, KFSG became well established as a reliable broadcaster and popular station in Los Angeles and in distant states. A couple of books on McPherson’s life seem to imply or tell the reader that Ken Omiston and Aimee had a very close working relationship, before, during and after all of her KFSG broadcasts, six days a week. So, quite possibly, his friendship with her may have caused him to not keep an eye on the transmitter meters when he should have. But that’s speculation on my part, all these years later. Another explanation that makes sense to me is that broadcasting transmitters in those days tended to drift off-frequency. In fact, crystal-controlled radio transmitters to keep all stations locked on their assigned broadcast frequencies didn’t appear until 1926 and later. So, it’s very likely that KFSG may have wandered off-frequency every so often in those early years on the air, as other stations did too, due to the technology of the day. This caused heterodynes or whistles and squeals to be heard by listeners as the signal edged close to another station on the dial. But for Ormiston to deliberately re-tune the transmitter to various wavelengths every day instead of the usual KFSG frequency is difficult for me to believe.
Another book on the evangelist’s life points out that during Angelus Temple church services, the KFSG engineer, who was an agnostic, would talk to Aimee via a telephone intercom from the KFSG control room on the Temple’s upper floor and her pulpit chair. He would frequently crack jokes about the church services, the choir, the band, and how the broadcast was going, which made Aimee get the giggles. Apparently, due to the excellent acoustics, their private chats could sometimes be heard in the second balcony, without either of them knowing about it. The gossip about the two of them being more than friends began to spread quickly.
Aimee knew Mrs. Ormiston and dined with the Ormistons at their home and in public, but the gossip continued. Aimee’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, put pressure on Aimee to fire Ormiston due to the gossip. But she refused, and he stayed on as the KFSG chief engineer and producer of all the KFSG broadcasts until December of 1925. He left his job at KFSG on the last day of 1925, as the gossip put an unbearable strain on his marriage. In January of 1926 while Aimee Semple McPherson was on an overseas trip, Mrs. Ormiston told Aimee’s mother she was going to sue for divorce, naming Aimee as a correspondent. Ruth Ormiston soon changed her mind, but did separate from her husband by taking their son to live with her parents in Australia, after reporting Ormiston missing on January 22, 1926.
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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