Home on the Radio

Mar 9, 2020

I was 19, on my first radio station gig, KTTT in Columbus, Nebraska, my hometown. I was hired primarily for news, also working occasional DJ, ad production and engineer for the Big Joe Polka Show. Joe was Polish, his wife Bohemian and they called their kids Po-Hunks.
Credit Big Joe Show Facebook

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR.  The book is Border Radio”,by Gene Fowler.

“Well, uhh let’s see here. This is a letter from Mary Jedlicka,” Joe Siedlik said, as he opened the envelope under the microphone, then unfolded the paper with a hand printed message. “Mary wants to wish happy birthday to her great-grand-dad. He’s 91 on Tuesday. And can I play a polka by Happy Louie for him? He is a regular listener. – Well, thank you Mary.”

I’m already reaching for the set of Happy Louie LP’s, scanning the song names on the covers. Joe Siedlik turns to me and says, “Mike, play the “When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver Oberek Polka.” And while I am waiting for you to get that song cued up you might like to grab a kolache from Gloor’s bakery. Fresh goods every day delivered to all the grocery stores in Columbus. And to Glur’s Tavern early in the morning. Glur’s is a registered historical landmark south of the tracks. Okay, Mike has “When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver Oberek Polka” cued up and ready to play. Take it away, Mike.”

I was 19, on my first radio station gig, KTTT in Columbus, Nebraska, my hometown. I was hired primarily for news, also working occasional DJ, ad production and engineer for the Big Joe Polka Show. Joe was Polish, his wife Bohemian and they called their kids Po-Hunks. The community had overlapping ethnicities, Polish, Czech, Bohemian, Swedish, German, Croatian with polkas, schottisches, obereks, mazurkas and other rhythms.

Me? I couldn’t tell the difference. They all sounded the same to me. At 19, I was listening to rock ‘n roll played by slick announcers in Omaha developing the smooth and excited “radio delivery” we have today.

At 19 I couldn’t imagine how the homespun quality of Joe’s program could have a huge, loyal and adoring fan base. But he did. People wrote in letters by the bag full. Joe was gold. Absolute, delicious gold. It just took me a few years to realize how priceless.

Joe, himself came out of a period when radio was fresh. In the 1930’s movie musicals, especially cowboy musicals were everywhere. And on the border Brinkley’s station XER was celebrating in Del Rio and Villa Acuna as nearby Eagle Pass and Piedra Negras, only 56 miles downriver worried that tourism and industry would pass them by.

Piedras Negras (meaning Black Rock, named for its coal mines) was losing out to oil. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras wanted their own border station to blast out news of their agriculture, irrigation, fishing, hunting and land to develop into citrus farms. The engineer who had built XER, Will Branch, was on the project. The new station was to be named XEPN (after Eagle Pass - Piedras Negras).

This was to be tied into overall area economic development. Hotel studios were established. The Yolanda Hotel had a $3,000 grand piano and room for a 13-piece orchestra. There were investors all the way up to Kansas.

They would have a snappy jazz orchestra, comedians, singers, opera singers, fiddlers and even cowboy yodelers.

Nolan Rinehart started broadcasting on a 250-watt station in Brady, Texas. As Cowboy Slim Rinehart he would become the number one singing wrangler on XEPN. The story goes that when Rinehart auditioned, the musical director, Don Howard, thought Cowboy Slim was the worst singer ever. But XEPN pitchman Major Kord thought Rinehart was the greatest cowboy singer. He predicted money. “That’s how a cowboy would actually sound,” Kord said.

That first week on XEPN veteran musicians made fun of him. But the next week Cowboy Slim pulled in more mail than all of them together. Rinehart and singing cowgirl Patsy Montana then teamed up. Her recording of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was the first major hit by a female country artist. Patsy Montana came from Chicago where she had listened to border radio.

Like the veteran musicians, Patsy didn’t think that much of Rinehart at first. She didn’t think he was very good at harmony. So, when they went on tour to the East Coast, she was surprised to realize how popular he was. His style connected with the people. They listened to him, bought his records, sent him letters and purchased his $1 guitar course.

Cowboy Slim Rinehart was gold. Delicious gold. Those were days.

Now let’s have a “That's My Girl Oberek Polka” by Happy Louie.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.