Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

The early history of television in Minnesota includes a lot of names that are familiar today

From the 1920s through the 1960s, local stations achieved many national firsts and produced enduring TV legends.

Minnesota State Fair-goers at KSTP television cameras of the telemobile, 1947.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota was a pioneer in the early years of broadcast television. From the 1920s through the 1960s, local stations achieved many national firsts and produced enduring TV legends.

Broadcast television in Minnesota got its start in radio, beginning with St. Paul radio station KSTP. In August 1928, station owner and broadcasting pioneer Stanley E. Hubbard started transmitting in the new experimental medium of “radio picture broadcast”—a precursor to television. Four times a week, KSTP broadcast still photos. The technology was so new that only a handful of people had the receivers to view them.

By the early 1930s, the novelty of television was attracting new enthusiasts. In 1933, Dr. George A. Young, an optometrist who owned and operated Minneapolis radio station WDGY, got a license to broadcast Minnesota’s first television station, W9XAT. The “X” in the call letters indicated “experimental.”

Article continues after advertisement

W9XAT had five hundred watts of power and accompanied the audio broadcast on WDGY. The picture quality was poor, and the technology depended on a crude, mechanical scanning-disc broadcast system. It’s unknown how many early mechanical television viewers tuned in to watch the blurry, black-and-white imagery. Young gave up his television license in 1936, but his radio station flourished.

In 1938, Hubbard bought the first television camera ever sold by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), for $8,500. He also purchased RCA’s first available electronic television set. In August 1939, he arranged the first demonstration of electronic television in the state. It was a closed-circuit telecast of an American Legion parade that played to six television sets in the downtown Minneapolis Radisson Hotel. To promote television, KSTP continued to showcase closed-circuit programming. Most Minnesotans, however, could not afford a television set that cost around $600.

During World War II, television broadcast was temporarily suspended when companies like RCA were recruited for the war effort. But new technologies developed during wartime enabled greater mass production of consumer products, like televisions sets, at lower prices.

As television moved beyond the novelty realm and into permanence, there was a need for formal training in all aspects of television production. For many technicians, camera operators, lighting crews, on-air talent, makeup and wardrobe personnel, and news directors, the answer was Twin City Television Lab. The lab opened its doors in 1947 and gained national respect among broadcasters for improving television production.

In March 1948, the National Broadcasting Center (NBC) announced its first-ever station affiliation contract, which was awarded to Minnesota’s KSTP-TV. The station’s transmitter, located on University Avenue at the border between Minneapolis and St. Paul, had a 571-foot tower and an effective radiated power of 24,700 watts. KSTP-TV on Channel 5 was the state’s first commercial station, signing on the air on April 27, 1948, from the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul. KSTP-TV was the first television station in the Northwest and the first to cover local news.

KSTP-TV’s only competition arrived the following year with Minneapolis’s WTCN-TV (later KARE 11) on Channel 4. WTCN-TV went on the air on July 1, 1949. It offered a combination of live local programming and national television shows from the American Broadcast Corporation (ABC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and DuMont networks.

In 1948, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) put a freeze on all new television station applications. Broadcasting too many stations at once, it feared, would overtax the limited frequencies. When the ban was lifted in 1952, the FCC opened up numerous opportunities by reserving 162 channels on the newly assigned UHF band and eighty channels on the VHF band for nationwide non-commercial and educational television.

The same year, Twin Cities WTCN-TV was sold to WCCO Radio, and Channel 4 became WCCO-TV. Following some reconfiguring in 1953, WTCN-TV and WMIN-TV broadcast jointly on Channel 11. The two stations shared the channel via a rotating broadcast schedule. Each one broadcast for two hours at a time and alternated between studios throughout the day. Two years later, WMIN-TV sold its share of Channel 11, and WTCN-TV took over the frequency full time.

In January 1953, KSTP-TV became the first television station in Minnesota to increase its power to 100,000 watts, the highest wattage allowed by the FCC. The increase meant viewers as far away as Duluth and Brainerd would get better reception from this Twin Cities station. However, reception was still spotty. Viewers in greater Minnesota were left adjusting their antennas and longing for closer television towers.

Shortly after the FCC ban was lifted, KROC-TV (later KTTC), sister station to KROC radio, launched on July 1953. The station’s original studios and transmitter were a few miles outside of Rochester. This tiny operation carried programming for all four commercial networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. KROC-TV eventually expanded its operation to serve downtown Rochester.

In the same year, WFTV on Channel 38 signed on as Duluth’s first television station. WFTV was on the UHF ban at a time when most televisions sets only had VHF tuners. Viewers needed to purchase a converter box to watch WFTV’s shows—a mix of local news, sports and weather programs, and national programming from all four commercial networks.

In 1954, two new Duluth stations on the VHF ban—KDAL-TV (later KDLH) of Channel 3 and WDSM-TV (later KBJR) of Channel 6—signed on. Since the two new stations were more powerful and easier to receive on the VHF ban, WFTV permanently signed off.

Minnesota’s first non-commercial public television station started broadcasting in 1957 under the name Twin City Area Educational Television on Channel 2. Initially, the station was located in a World War II-era, wooden barracks-type building on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. The station broadcast educational shows. Eventually, it took on the call letters KTCA (later TPT) and became an affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

In 1958, a new station, KCMT (the last three call letters stood for Central Minnesota Television), signed on the air for the first time. It touted the tallest television tower in the state at 1,133 feet. KCMT was a joint venture by a group of Alexandria businessmen who wanted to bring television service to central Minnesota. It was a big operation run by a small staff who produced local news and community shows and broadcast national programming. KCMT gained a large viewing audience, especially for their talk show Welcome Inn.

The golden era of television was drawing to an end in the early 1960s, but in Minnesota some of the state’s most iconic programs and on-air personalities were just hitting their stride. Legendary journalists Dave Moore, Chick McCuen, and Bill Carlson were the new faces of WCCO-TV’s news. The characters Casey Jones (played by Roger Awsumb) and Roundhouse Rodney (played by Lynn Dwyer) delighted child viewers. They appeared on various shows, including Lunch with Casey and Wake Up with Casey and Roundhouse. Longtime popular radio actor Clellan Card played the loveable Scandinavian Axel Torgeson on Axel and His Dog, a kids’ show that aired for twelve years.

In 1961, under the leadership of Stanley E. Hubbard, KSTP-TV became the nation’s first all-color television station. New television stations, shows, and advances in technology continued to emerge throughout the state, confirming Minnesota’s reputation as a leader in broadcast television.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.