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WRJN celebrates its 90th anniversary

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RACINE — The exact date that Racine radio station WRJN hit the airwaves is up for debate.

Some histories say Dec. 6, 1926, others say Dec. 11, 1926.

But everyone agrees that the station has been broadcasting continuously for 90 years this month, making it the fourth-oldest radio station in Wisconsin.

News Director Tom Karkow hasn’t been there for all 90 years, but he has been working at the station for three decades. He has spent the past several months piecing together the station’s rich and varied nine-decade history to help commemorate the anniversary.

He has created several short on-air vignettes featuring the sounds and voices of the station’s past. And at 8 a.m. Sunday, the station will present a 30-minute tribute to the early years of the station, featuring former broadcasters and engineers talking about the old days.

“We have had some amazing people work here throughout the years, and they have all helped make us what we were and what we are,” said Karkow, a Racine native who started at the station in 1979. “They all helped us still be here after all the years.”

Changes over the years

During the past 90 years, ownership has changed, the format has changed, but the commitment to provide timely and telling local news has never wavered.

“We have been lucky that we have had ownership that has recognized there is a need to provide a local product,” Karkow said. “Very few stations do what we do with local news.

“I think that’s pretty amazing and unique in the state,” he added. “They have allowed us to continue to do that. If they didn’t like it they would have changed it.”

The station started as WLBG back in December 1926, quickly changed to WRRS, and then settled on WRJN when the Racine Journal News purchased the station.

The first broadcast came in December 1926 and featured live orchestra music from Memorial Hall, 72 Seventh St.

Since starting, the station has been located several spots around the city: At Memorial Hall and at the third floor of the Downtown building that now houses the Racine Art Museum, 441 Main St.

The station constructed a transmitter tower and engineering house at 4201 Victory Ave. Old photos show those buildings were among the only structures in the area at the time.

“The engineers lived there,” Karkow said.

In 1958, the station constructed studios and offices on Victory and moved there for good. An open house after the building was completed drew more than 5,000 visitors, according to newspaper accounts.

In the station’s early days, WRJN broadcast live music, soap operas and serials.

In a 2001 Journal Times article about the station’s 75th anniversary, former Journal Times photo editor Lyle Salvo remembered calling in reports to the station from the scene of a fire.

“Lyman Merens was the news announcer and we would go live on the air. In those days we didn’t have two-way radios, and I would find a house near the fire scene and ask to use their phone. He would interview me over the phone,” Salvo said in the article.

Salvo also remembered former Journal Times Publisher Frank R. Starbuck broadcasting the noon news from the executive conference room on the newspaper’s second floor.

In 1969, the Journal Times sold the station to Sentry Broadcasting Inc. of Stevens Point, and WRJN-FM was sold to WRAC of Racine.

From the late 1980s until 2014, WRJN carried a talk radio format, with a combination of local and syndicated talk. For many years WRJN was affiliated with ABC and aired the popular daily commentaries from radio legend Paul Harvey.

Today’s WRJN

Today, the station is owned by Magnum Communications, Inc.

Karkow keeps station’s past alive in a small soundproofed room in the bowels of the station. He has collected photos, posters and other mementos.

Former station employees and their families have contributed many of the items, Karkow said.

He even has the original hard plastic call letters that were atop the building’s northeast corner. They were lit up at night from the 1958 until the 1980s, Karkow said.

“I hope we can make it to 100,” Karkow said. “I don’t know if I will make it that long, but I hope the station is still here.”

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