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Eighty years bucking a trend
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Hard at work in the WNAX newsroom in the early 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Wynn Speece)
A pioneering radio station in South Dakota celebrates its 80th birthday on Monday, Nov. 25. WNAX-AM was one of the first stations on the air in the Midwest. It covers a five-state area including southern Minnesota. Its glory years were in the days before television, when it helped unite the region's farms and small towns. Although a fire destroyed most WNAX archives, a fan of oldtime radio managed to save a portion of the station's history. For one southern Minnesota family, that history is especially sweet.

Yankton, S.D. — Marian Meyer of Fairmont has a favorite memory about growing up on a Minnesota farm. The entire family gathered around a metal box which had dials and wires sticking out of it.

"I remember leaning over this radio," says Meyer, with Dad and all of us trying to listen to that faint voice that was coming through there."

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Image The Neighbor Lady today

The station she listened to most often in the 1930s and '40s was WNAX in Yankton, S.D. There, she heard programs like "The Dinner Bell Broadcast." She heard singers like "Jack and Audrey."

"That's all we listened to all the time," she says.

She says much of the farm day was planned around favorite radio programs. She says radio offered a human touch to an isolated rural life.

"There were so many people out on the prairie that had no contact except telephone and some didn't even have telephones," Meyer says. "We felt like we knew all these people personally, because they just came into our house and talked to us."

One of her favorites on WNAX was Wynn Speece, known as "The Neighbor Lady." Speece is still on the air, hosting a recipe show each weekday morning. "I've been on the air 60 years," says Speece. "That's a lot of time."

At the height of her fame in the 1940s and '50s she received over 250,000 letters a year. One listener wrote, "You really saved my neck. I just couldn't keep my new oil stove clean until I heard on your program how." But the Neighbor Lady means more than household tips. She's a human connection.

"I remember one letter as if it were yesterday," says Speece. "She said, 'You are the only female voice I hear all winter long.'"

WNAX reached out to listeners. It sponsored live music shows, farm meetings, cooking get-togethers. The station had a warehouse which sold everything from fuel to food. In 1943 WNAX built a new broadcast tower, which it called the tallest in the U.S. To celebrate, the station threw a party. An estimated 30,000 people came to Yankton on Sept. 4, 1943 for live music, speeches and food.

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Image Marian Meyer

The highlight was a contest to choose a farm family which best represented the Midwest. The nominees came from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The winner was Otto and Marie Baumhoefner of Welcome, Minn. On the stage with her parents was the young Marian Baumhoefner, now Marian Meyer.

"It was a tremendous shock," says Meyer. "My dad sucked in his breath and my mother put a hand to her forehead and she said 'Oh my, oh my.' I can hear her saying this yet."

The Baumhoefners won a tractor for the honor. They also won a trip to Oregon. There they were part of a christening ceremony for a World War II freight ship, the "SS Midwest Farmer". Marian's mother, Marie Baumhoefner, swung the champagne bottle. WNAX recorded the event.

That moments like this from the station's past are preserved at all is a credit to Ted Kneebone of Aberdeen, S.D. Thirty years ago he was working in a college library in Yankton. He had an interest in preserving old recordings. One day a friend called to say WNAX was throwing out some records.

"He said, 'There's some LPs and 45s and there's a big batch of rather large, oversized kinds of discs here," remembers Kneebone. "And I said, 'Don't throw them away, I'm out to get them.'"

The big discs were recordings of WNAX on the air. At the time it seemed like no big deal. But Kneebone's action became positively momentous in 1983. That December a fire destroyed the station's main building and its remaining live historic recordings.

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Image George German

WNAX staff regrouped at its transmitter site a few miles away and resumed broadcasting. It was a daunting moment. News Director Jerry Oster says the station, which once counted thousands of music records in its libraries, was left that morning with just two.

"We had a Big Bird album and we had a Charlie Daniels Christmas album that we signed on with," says Oster.

But the station recovered and continues to broadcast from a Yankton studio. Oster says he still feels good about the business.

"Here we are at an AM radio station, in the early part of the 21st century," says Oster. "Radio's been pronounced dead half a dozen times. TV was going to kill it, the Internet's going to kill it. But we're still here."

The station looks to a future which is forever linked with its past; like to a day in 1944 when WNAX brought a star to Yankton. More than 30,000 people came to Yankton that day to see the Lone Ranger. It was a tribute to one of the most popular stars of the day. But it was also a tribute to the clout packed by a radio station in a small South Dakota city.

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