Artifact of the Month: WKAI 1510 Microphone Shaped Radio
By Chance Waddell
Don’t touch that dial, as this month’s Artifact of the Month tunes in to the history of radio in Macomb. While this item looks like an ordinary microphone, it is actually a working radio. When it is plugged in, the “microphone” lights up and the radio tunes in to whatever is being played on a specific wavelength. Used as a promotional item, this radio was tuned into 1510 AM, only playing what was on the station then known as WKAI. It still works today and now tunes in to WKAI’s successor WYEC. Made in the 1950s, this item serves as a reminder of the Golden Age of Radio, and the heyday of a radio station in the history of Macomb.
WKAI was founded in 1947 by James C. Bailey and Lyle B. Landis, two World War II veterans who had experience as ham radio operators. Bailey served as the president and Landis as the vice president of the newly created Macomb Broadcasting Company, which they established at 113 East Carroll Street. As the first radio station in Macomb, WKAI combined music, news, sports, and public service programs. Bailey and Landis did not stick with the station long, however, as they sold it to a man named William E. Schons in 1950. Schons was not a local, but he hired local men Gene Larson and Allen Forbes to manage the station, before he too sold it in the late 1950s. The station was sold to William H. Rudolph, who moved the company to 119 West Carroll Street, and changed the name to WKAI Broadcasting Company. A powerful and influential man, Rudolph brought about the golden years of WKAI and radio in Macomb. A look at his life helps to understand the role WKAI played in the area.
William Hainline Rudolph was born on January 25, 1905, in Red Oak, Iowa. The grandson of the Macomb Journal editor W.H. Hainline, he was sent to Macomb at the age of two to live with him when his mother died. After graduating from Macomb High School in 1922, Rudolph went to work for the newspaper. When his grandfather died in 1924, Rudolph’s uncle A.L. Hainline took over and groomed Rudolph as the heir apparent of the business. He became business manager in 1934, and became the publisher in 1942, after the death of his uncle. Rudolph assigned his friend, Lewis A. Randolph, to be the editor of the paper, and the two combined their strong Republican viewpoints, according to Macomb historian John Hallwas, to dominate what news the Journal published. Actively dedicated to the community they called home, the two used their paper to help promote school improvement and the establishment of businesses and organizations such as the McDonough District Hospital and Macomb Municipal Airport.
While Rudolph carried great influence with his paper alone, he was determined to hold more. Rudolph inherited the Illinois Theater and the Lamoine Theater, and his purchase of WKAI allowed him to control virtually all media in Macomb. Rudolph extended this control even further by establishing WKAI 100.1 FM in 1966, allowing him to control both sides of the radio waves.
Rudolph used this control to promote the Republican candidates he favored in elections, and he would influence the decisions of public officials and the offices they held. Rudolph was a powerful and popular man, but not everyone agreed with his views. A frequent opponent was Carle R. Crabb, a staunch Democrat who was openly critical of the power Rudolph and Randolph held. Crabb often clashed with the two men, especially Randolph, and published his views in his own newspaper, the McDonough Times. The two sides fought bitterly over elections at the local level before Crabb passed away in 1950. While Rudolph held control over the media and government of Macomb, and fought with those who did not agree, he had Macomb’s best interests in mind, helping the city in more charitable ways. Rudolph donated thousands of dollars to local organizations, but went out of his way to make sure these contributions were not advertised, as he did not want credit for doing what he thought was right.
When Rudolph’s power started coming to an end, due to his age and the changing nature of politics in the 60s and 70s and the Federal Communication Commission regulations, so did that of WKAI. Rudolph’s partner Randolph retired in 1969, and his successor Paul Carson was not as willing to exert influence over the town. The growth of Western Illinois University also put a damper on his control, as the boom in population with diverse viewpoints and rise of anti-establishment activism made it difficult for one man to run the town. Furthermore, an FCC ruling that required owners of both radio stations and newspapers to drop one or the other in markets in which they had a monopoly lessened Rudolph’s influence. Partially due to this ruling, Rudolph retired from the newspaper business and sold the Journal in 1979. He had lost interest in political control and was more concerned with focusing on his support of the community. Rudolph decided to keep WKAI over the Journal as it was “easier to run, ” but he ended up selling it five years later, bringing to an end the station’s influence in the area. Rudolph passed away in 1986 at the age of 81.
With Rudolph’s sale of WKAI came great change to the station. WKAI was purchased by George Lipper of Dubuque, Iowa in 1984. By this time, the youth of Macomb had become bored with the once great station, and referred to it by the insulting derivative of its call letters, “We Kill All Interest.” Seeing that he needed to make a change, Lipper changed the call letters to WLRB, and changed the station’s format to a community talk station. Lipper only held on to the station for a short while, however, and he sold it to Don Sharp of Galesburg the next year.
Following Sharp’s purchase of WLRB and its affiliates, instability came to the station. WLRB was sold again in 1998 to WPW Broadcasting, Inc, and this arrangement only lasted for a decade before being sold to Prestige Radio Communications in 2008. This lasted even less time than the previous ownership, as the station was sold to Virden Broadcasting of Bettendorf, Iowa in 2015. The next year, WLRB underwent a call letter and format change once again, as it shifted to WYEC, a Christian contemporary music station. The FM version of WKAI still exists as well in its original letters, broadcasting today’s hit music while also serving as the home of Macomb High School Bombers football and basketball. While WKAI is no longer the bastion of media in Macomb that it once was, this month’s artifact, the microphone radio, serves as a reminder of its glory days, while also connecting that past to the present as it still plays what is heard on WYEC.
The Western Illinois Museum’s exhibit of this WKAI 1510 AM microphone radio is on display throughout the month at 201 South Lafayette Street. While you visit, you can also check out our current major exhibit “As Advertised: A History of Local Promotions.” This exhibit will be on display until January 6, 2018, and features interesting promotional items from throughout the history of Macomb, much like the radio featured here. Other examples of antique radios are currently on display, as well. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission to the museum is free but donations are appreciated.