WKOW was the first TV station in Madison, Wisconsin, established June 30, 1953.
The history of WKOW-TV begins in 1947 with the formation of Monona Broadcasting Company, led by a group of local businessmen. Stuart Watson was the President of the Board, E. Bacon “Ted” Rindell, E.C. “Ole” Severson, George Icke, Emil Lieberman, B.W. Huiscamp and Otto Sanders were all Board Directors.
Monona Broadcasting Company began with WKOW radio located in the heart of Madison, at 215 West Washington. The radio station gathered strength during its first six years, with mainstream programming, local features and its affiliation with the leading broadcast network at the time, CBS.
Stuart Watson and the Board immediately applied for a television license right after WKOW radio station began operations. However, in 1946 the FCC put a nation wide freeze on new licenses, so Monona Broadcasting Company would have to wait over six years.
As the final days of the freeze came to an end, Monona Broadcasting Company hired Mike Henry, a former attorney from St. Louis, with connections to CBS, to become General Manager of WKOW radio and television.
In the early days Stuart Watson and his Board admitted to making a number of mistakes, notably choosing the call letters KOW for the radio and later the television stations. “We thought we were being darn clever, choosing these letters, associating the station with a barnyard. You see what mistakes you can make when you don’t know what you’re doing?” Originally, the station tried to use K-O-W and cows as a way to promote the station, using a smiling bovine along with the station logo.
June 30, 1953, work crews raised the station’s antenna to the top of its 600-foot tower, and by 5pm WKOW-TV first went on the air with test patterns. On July 4, 1953, Stuart Watson and Jerry Harper, an announcer, spoke the first words on WKOW-TV. Harper said, “Madison this is WKOW television, and we want you to welcome our programs” and Harper continued with the names of the board members at Monona Broadcasting Company. That first day of broadcasting consisted of several CBS films, a farm segment, and local news, sports and weather. 25 years later, reflecting on the day, Mike Henry said, “Well, we put that station on the air. It was the first; it will always be the first.”
General Manager Mike Henry faced many obstacles in his role as first General Manager of WKOW-TV. His major goals included, getting on the air first in Madison, assembling a staff, acquiring equipment and a plant, and putting the operation in the black.
The most expensive decision was whether the new station should be merely a site for the transmitter of network programs, or should WKOW build studios for live programming? Construction company owner George Icke built the new studio on a high point of land on Gilbert farm, at the end of Tokay Boulevard on the far west side of Madison. Henry said, “The greatest problems in building design was simply space…space for properties, space for control rooms, space for studios. They told us you needed a studio you could drive two cars into, and so we built one…” The new studio was equipped with two film projectors, two live studio cameras, a slide projector and equipment needed to receive network programming.
Board member, Ted Rundell purchased the very first television set installed in his Madison home. He also owned Rundell Clothing Store, and would later perform his ads for his clothing store.
In those early days, WKOW-TV was a marvel to the Madison community. Only one out of every four families during the 1950’s had a television set, but people were curious. They would drive out to the edge of town to look at the tower and hopefully catch a glimpse of one of WKOW-TV’s on air announcers. Those early pioneers had done their job and now history would unfold. As General Manager Mike Henry said, “We wanted to be the best little television station in the country. And I think we came darn close.”