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Student was instrumental in Sioux Falls' first radio station

Eric Renshaw Sioux Falls Argus Leader USA TODAY NETWORK

Sioux Falls’ first radio station, WFAT, was largely the product of the passion of one young man named Charles Norton.

In 1917, Charles, then 13 years old, joined the new Sioux Falls Radio Club, and his interest took off. Two years later he joined the YMCA Boys Radio Club. Charles absorbed all he could on radio broadcasting and receiving, along with best practices. By the end of 1920, he possessed one of four government licenses issued to broadcasters in town. His designation was 9AIF.

In the early days of his radio obsession, Charles and the others in the clubs would send and receive Continental Morse Code, spending the last half hour of club meetings practicing their skills. On a .5 kilowatt set, the kids could receive code from as far as Minneapolis, and send code as far as 10 miles. These communications, called Radiograms, were like telegrams, but sent wirelessly. One wonders if parents had concerns about those with whom their children were coding.

In early 1921, the radio clubs were increasing their equipment to the point where they could receive audio. On January 8, they heard a phonograph recording from Kansas. Imagine the excitement they felt!

In June, Charles and club member Nick Jensen travelled to Yankton to help some interested parties set up their own radio club. Once established, the networking possibilities really mushroomed. Club members shared experiences over vast miles of prairie, and tips and tricks to improve their technology no longer had to wait for mail or actual travel. It was a very exciting time. In December, South Dakota radio enthusiasts gathered in Sioux Falls in hopes of organizing on the state level. A few days later, the South Dakota Radio Association had its first meeting.

In early March 1922, Charles Norton traveled to Minneapolis to inspect some stations there. Radiophones were all the rage. They were akin to the telephone, but wireless. Think CB radio.

Charles had come home with some inspiration. On March 27, he established the city’s first licensed radiogram station. A day later he announced the first radiophone. He could send audio signals now, but not many in range could reply. He used his radiophone set to broadcast to the annual auto show at the Coliseum in early April.

On April 22, the Argus Leader announced plans to establish a radio presence in the city. To broadcast using the technology of the time, they planned to erect two masts, one on the Security Bank building at the southwest corner of Ninth and Main, the other on the Metropolitan Bank building, across Ninth to the north. These masts were attached at the top by an insulated cable that would

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facilitate the transmission. The Argus Leader building, just to the north, would include the studio.

When the equipment for the station was finally procured, plans were modified to place the towers on the Carpenter Hotel, north of 11th and Phillips, and the Williams Piano Company building, across the alley to the west. The station’s studio would be on the second floor of the Williams building. The design of this apparatus was that of Charles Norton. He observed the construction and advised as his school studies allowed, but couldn’t engineer the project full time until June 12, when he graduated from high school.

WFAT began broadcasting in June 1922, starting with only periodic tests and baseball scores at each night at 7:30. A regular schedule of broadcasts and performances began in July. The performances were mostly live, and the performers, arranged by Williams Piano Co, were not paid. There were religious orations by local clergy, and of course, baseball scores. By October, weather reports were heard in the mornings, while market reports could be heard at 10:15, 1:15, 3:15, and 7:30.

Norton took a year off after high school to work at WFAT. He kept the station running, and was already a pioneer in South Dakota broadcasting before he started attending college in Ames, Iowa.

WFAT was shut down after broadcasts and programs got too expensive to maintain in a non-commercial model. The equipment was purchased by local businessmen and presented to Columbus College in November 1923. By December of that year, the college was broadcasting under the same call letters. Before long, Columbus College gave up on the station and sold the equipment to the company that would establish KSOO. KSOO began broadcasting in December 1926 from the top of the Carpenter Hotel.

After graduating from Iowa State College, Charles went on to work as an engineer for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. One of his first projects was improving submarine communications for the Navy.

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