Pioneer L. A. Christian Station Stops Broadcasting After 79 Years
by Jim Hilliker
THE DEPRESSION YEARS
The hard times of the Great Depression years put a strain on nearly everyone in the United States. There are some writers who claim that the popularity of Aimee Semple McPherson diminished during the 1930s, but that’s not really true. Yes, the curiosity and media frenzy that attracted many to Angelus Temple and KFSG broadcasts early on from 1924-1928 had come to an end. But Aimee’s church services still drew large crowds of her faithful believers and church membership continued to grow. That was especially true for many from the South and Midwest who settled in Los Angeles, as they tried to fit in with life in an urban area.
There were still controversies in Aimee’s life in the ’30s, including dozens of lawsuits and splits with her mother and daughter Roberta over the operation of Angelus Temple and the Foursquare Church ministry. Aimee and her mother, Minnie Kennedy, apparently had a violent argument, ending when Aimee hit her mother and broke her nose. Aimee also had a reported nervous breakdown in 1930.
However, one bright spot at this time was her extensive social ministry in Los Angeles, with as many as one out of four people unemployed in 1933, during the darkest days of the Depression. After the 1929 stock market crash and through the 1930s, Aimee set up a service of Angelus Temple, which provided hot meals, clothing and other necessities to an estimated 1.5 million needy people of Southern California—the sick, hungry unemployed and homeless of those years. Aimee’s soup kitchen reportedly fed some 80,000 people in its first month of operation. The clothing, blankets, free medical clinic and homeless shelter all came about through donations to Angelus Temple and volunteer labor. Angelus Temple, through Aimee’s leadership, also helped victims of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and in March of 1938, when torrential rainstorms caused extensive flooding in Southern California.
Despite shorter hours of operation and possibly fewer listeners since late-1928, KFSG continued its broadcast service as a radio ministry of Angelus Temple and the Foursquare Gospel Church into the 1930s and ’40s. Technical improvements were made to the KFSG studio and control room, with newer microphones, transmitter and other broadcast equipment. By the mid-1930s, KFSG along with timeshare partner KRKD had increased their daytime transmitting power to 2,500 watts, while night power remained at 500 watts.
The radio made Aimee’s voice one of the most recognizable of that era. Those who tuned to KFSG to listen to her, became accustomed to the way this pioneer radio evangelist began her broadcasts, with the words, “You thousands of people here, you in the orchestra, you in the first balcony, you in the second balcony, you crowds standing in the rear, you thousands listening in over the radio!” Sister McPherson continued to keep busy, working to help the lonely and ill, bring people to Christ and minister to those who already were saved. Besides the KFSG broadcasts and the illustrated dramatic sermons performed onstage at Angelus Temple, she also syndicated some of her sermons, which were recorded and sent to various radio stations across the nation.
Along with Sister Aimee’s sermons on Sundays and other days of the week, the station broadcast a Christian action serial, “The Adventures of Jim Trask-Lone Evangelist.” This was probably brought on by the popularity of the radio action serials then, such as “Little Orphan Annie”, “The Lone Ranger”, “Superman”, etc. By early 1935, the radio hobby magazine RADEX indicated that KFSG was on the air only from 6:30 to 7:15 am and 7:30 pm until midnight, but I believe the Sunday hours were somewhat expanded for the Sunday church services. Also, KFSG’s engineering staff conducted some special after-midnight DX program tests on occasion, for radio hobbyists trying to hear the KFSG signal and collect a verification card or letter. For example, in a postcard from January 1935, KFSG station manager Charles Walkem informs a DXer in Wisconsin who heard KFSG’s signal, that KFSG was going to broadcast a special DX program on Saturday night, Feb. 23, 1935 from 11 pm until 1 am Pacific time, and that he should tell his other DXer friends about it. While Sister Aimee often referred to KFSG as “The Cathedral of the Air” or “The Voice of Angelus Temple”, the KFSG letterhead in the late 1920s and early-’30s used the slogan “The Angelus Temple Radio Beacon.” By the late-1930s and early-’40s, a special KFSG QSL card was sent to distant listeners, which had a drawing of Aimee next to a microphone and the call letters in red.
1937 to 1944
During the earliest years of KFSG and Angelus Temple, Aimee Semple McPherson’s name had appeared on the front page of Los Angeles newspapers an average of 3 times a week. A similar amount of press coverage on Aimee had taken place in the New York Times and other large newspapers, between 1926 and 1937. Up until 1937, there had been roughly 45 lawsuits filed against Aimee and/or Angelus Temple. Then, in 1937, Aimee obtained a new business manager for Angelus Temple, Mr. Giles Knight. He kept her name out of the press and got her to agree to a “no interview” policy to make sure there were no unfavorable newspaper stories about Mrs. McPherson or her church. Also, because of Giles Knight taking charge, during the last 7 years of her life, the lawsuits stopped and not much was heard from Sister Aimee, except over radio KFSG and inside Angelus Temple. She also did some occasional traveling and made public appearances in many cities, much in the way Billy Graham traveled and preached around the U.S. later.
McPherson had received much favorable press coverage for her work in helping the needy of L.A. during the Depression. When World War II began in December of 1941, again, Aimee pitched in to help. She appeared around Los Angeles making patriotic speeches and selling war bonds. She made good use of the KFSG airwaves during this time, too. During 1942, Sister Aimee used KFSG to teach her listeners about rationing and the other sacrifices America had to undergo during the war. KFSG was also used to teach the public about air raid blackouts, war bond sales, etc. In return, for her fund-raising efforts and outstanding use of KFSG radio during the war, the U.S. Treasury and Office of War Information issued her special citations for her “patriotic endeavors.”
SISTER AIMEE’S DEATH
With all the pressure of running Angelus Temple and its many branches, a Bible college for missionaries, writing religious songs and operas, editing a magazine for her followers and conducting weekly church services, Aimee’s health began to suffer by the late-1930s. She began to take tranquilizers to get the sleep she so badly needed. On September 27, 1944, Aimee was in Oakland, CA to speak at a revival service. The night before, she had taken an overdose of her prescribed medication, classified as a “hypnotic sedative”. She never woke up and died that morning. The coroner’s report said it was an overdose of barbiturates that caused Aimee Semple McPherson to die, prior to what would have been her 54th birthday. Her funeral service drew many thousands of people to Angelus Temple who lined up for hours. As they passed her open casket, many were heard to whisper to others, “That’s the woman who led me to Jesus.” For years, critics accused her of diverting funds from the Temple for her personal gain. However, at the end, she left behind a personal estate worth only $10,000. It’s been written that at the time of her death, Aimee had been thinking about applying for a television station license in 1944. With the war on, it’s likely that would not have been a possibility until 1945 or later. Still, it would have been interesting to see how she handled the new world of TV as one of its early televangelists, but it was not to be.
THE LEGACY OF KFSG
Aimee Semple McPherson passed away during the 20th anniversary year of the radio station she founded, KFSG. In 2003, KFSG radio passed away into the airwaves of time, just a few weeks after the station’s 79th anniversary and during the 80th anniversary of Angelus Temple. The landmark church, which she opened in 1923, was made a National Historic Landmark on April 27, 1992. It still holds services and remains very much a part of the ICFG.
After Aimee’s death, her son, Rolf McPherson, took over as head of Angelus Temple and the Foursquare Church. He continued in that position, until he stepped down in1988. At 90, he’s President Emeritus of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The ICFG continued to grow and prosper over the years. It now serves more than 2 million members in 83 countries around the world.
KFSG radio continued to grow and prosper and change through the decades after Sister Aimee died. After being a non-profit station for many years, it became a successful commercial operation, but continued its mission as a Christian station spreading the word of Jesus, until it left the air the night of February 28, 2003.
While KFSG wasn’t the first religious station in the country, it didn’t miss by much. The station was a true pioneer broadcaster, like the other L.A. radio stations that first went on the air in the tumultuous 1920s, radio’s first big decade. It soon passed other Christian stations in Los Angeles in popularity (and probably some secular stations too, at times) during its early years. It likely even drew people who may never have thought of listening to a religious radio station before, until the word was spreading around town about Aimee Semple McPherson’s church and the exciting way she could preach. But times change and Los Angeles grew. So did the number of radio stations. KFSG changed with the times, but was a success on its own terms, even if the fanatical popularity of the roaring ’20s wasn’t there anymore and most people in Southern California were not familiar with the station, the call letters or its heritage.
During those “pioneering” days of radio, KFSG set a standard for future Christian broadcasting, and cleared a path for the nearly 2000 religious radio stations on the air in the U.S. today to follow. Whether or not another station with the KFSG call letters returns to the L.A. airwaves, it won’t be quite the same. The string of continuous years on the air for KFSG has been broken. But, it’s still a proud achievement for the ICFG, which had owned the station since its inception. As for me, I can only wonder what it was really like between 1924 and 1944, when the founder of KFSG preached before the microphone in her own unique entertaining style and had the Southland talking about her as she worked to bring people to Christ. All I know is, it was long ago and it really happened. I think that’s a pretty good legacy for KFSG to have left behind for other broadcasters.
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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