In the 1920’s, broadcast radio became a cutting edge phenomenon across the country. People rearranged their living rooms to make space for the clunky receivers that promised to bring the world into their homes. Stations started cropping up as folks realized they could get popular entertainment and the latest news for free while sitting by their fire. Radio became the internet of its day and joined the telephone in transforming the world.
In the early days, Bisbee could get radio, sort of. Powerful stations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Dallas reached the town, but the mountains mostly blocked daytime reception and though nighttime was better, atmospheric interference made for spotty listening. Townsfolk sometimes gathered on Main Street at the Bisbee Daily Review where they could hear reports of far away sporting events. Coverage came over teletype and staffers would relay the action by megaphone to the waiting crowds. Fans enjoyed the play by play, even if it was second hand. But everyone knew radio would make it a lot better.
By the 1930’s things were looking up. Improved receivers and advances in broadcasting along with more powerful signals made reliable radio listening possible, though the hills and summer storms could still get in the way. A Bisbee visionary named Carl Morris came to the rescue. He’d been a telegraph operator, electrician for Phelps Dodge and owner of the Copper Electric Company. With a partner, Robert B. Thompson, he started a station in Lowell near Johnson Addition. The story says the Chamber of Commerce was boasting that Bisbee was a place where the sun shines 365 days a year. Morris and Thompson decided to play along and KSUN, 1230 on the dial, went live in 1933. It was not a powerful station, 100 watts daytime and 250 nighttime at the start, but it was adequate to reach most of the town. KSUN was affiliated with an Arizona network that included KOY in Phoenix and KGAR in Tucson. In 1938, the signal was increased to 250 watts full time. K-SUN, as it was known, became part of the Cactus Radio Network joining other stations in Douglas, Sierra Vista and Nogales.
Also in1938, KSUN joined CBS and the world opened up. The first national program was a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1951, Phelps Dodge began developing the Lavender Pit and swallowed up Johnson Addition. KSUN moved to Bakerville and kept right on broadcasting from a building that today is the Bisbee headquarters of the Department of Public Safety. Unlike stations in larger markets that responded to increased competition by becoming format driven, Bisbee’s station was always full service providing local and national news and variety of entertainment.
People may remember the programs and personalities that filled the airways. In the early days, Carl Morris and Robert Thompson shared broadcast duties. Other voices came along. Arlo Woolery was station manager; Ray Helgeson program director and the baritone voice of Bud Kelly signed the station on each morning for years. Bud also hosted a popular morning show called “Play Music”, a kind of radio bingo. Woolery and Helgeson had a morning talk show that started out, “It’s a good day with Arlo and Ray”. Later that program became the Good Morning show hosted by talented duo Joe and Bea Von Kanel. Radios were turned on early in Bisbee homes as mothers got breakfast ready and school lunches packed. In addition to popular music that played off and on all day, families listened to short, regular programs. The Dugan-Hennessy Mortuary sponsored a morning devotional, Chapel by the Side of the Road. There was the County Calendar that told of meetings and activities and the People’s Exchange, an on air swap meet. At 8am, the station joined the network for Frank Hemingway and the news. There were religious programs and famous personalities like the legendary Paul Harvey. There were soap operas, a staple of American radio for many years. In the early evening, kids could listen to their favorite radio heroes like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. And the network’s evening news featured a reporter with a wonderful name, Gabriel Heatter. After that, Bisbee folks relaxed with “Best by Request”, hosted early on by the ubiquitous Arlo Woolery. Listeners could call in to ask for their favorite song. In the 1960’s, the show shifted to Rock ‘N Roll and Bisbee High School students became the DJ’s. Sylvia Echave, Susan Davey, Marie Pinto, Donna Babicky and Corky Kelly all took a turn while Don Williams often ran the board. A regular afternoon program, “The Accent is on You” followed a trend toward the radio magazine format that packaged news, entertainment, weather and local interest. Other announcers like Charlie Morris and Steve Spelbring joined the station. KSUN was always a supporter of Bisbee schools and anyone who did not turn out to root for the Pumas at Warren Ball Park or the High School Gym could tune in to hear Dick Miller’s fast paced the play by play.
In the early 1950’s, television came along. Once again Carl Morris lead the way. Because of the mountains, open signals could not reach Bisbee, so he developed an early version of coaxial cable and cable TV became standard in the bustling mining town long before it took over the entertainment world. Other pioneers like Nick Pavlovich helped make that happen.
But KSUN radio kept right on going. It stayed on the air until the end of 1982 when dwindling listenership and falling advertising revenue took a toll and it closed. The call letters and the 1230 spot were taken over by a station in Phoenix. Other stations have come and gone in town and today the internet and cable provide access to radio programming. Though Bisbee no longer has a commercial station, KBRP Community Radio has been broadcasting since 2004. Radio will be around for a long time, though its golden age may have passed. Bisbee was part of that age. For nearly fifty years, and before radio evolved into constant pulsing music, endless commercials and raucous ranting by talking experts, KSUN came into homes giving listeners what they wanted to hear and what they needed to know. It was a reassuring presence that brought the town together and kept it in touch with the wider world. Radio signals last forever travelling endlessly into space. It’s comforting to know that somewhere, out past Pluto and on towards Andromeda, if you had an AM receiver, you might still be able to hear that familiar phrase, “You’re listening to KSUN, 1230 on your radio dial.”