Station Still Spry at 80

KODL Has Covered the Gorge Through Changes in Frequency and Ownership

By Rodger Nichols

Radio personality Al Wynn hosts the Coffee Break show from his familiar spot at Cousins’ Restaurant in The Dalles. Photo by Rodger Nichols

The oldest radio station in the Columbia River Gorge recently celebrated its 80th anniversary.

When KODL signed on the air in October 1940, it was the only station between Portland and La Grande. In the eight decades since, it’s been on three different frequencies, affiliated with three different networks, broadcast from studios in three different locations, and had three different owners.

The man who put the station on the air was V. Barney Kenworthy, a banker and businessman who, according to William H. McNeal’s 1953 “History of Wasco County, Oregon,” converted his wireless hobby into station ownership. He later added stations in Pendleton and Pasco.

At the time, The Dalles was the smallest town in Oregon to have its own radio station. For that reason, the 36-by-46-foot studio building was built with a floor plan that could easily be converted to a house, providing an asset that could be sold if the station wasn’t profitable.

The station was housed where Trevitt Street ended. At the time, Scenic Drive did not go through to Sorosis Park from the west. The empty area had become a popular lovers’ lane. Some folks were annoyed when the studios were built with a bright light illuminating the area.

Following Pearl Harbor, the Federal Communications Commission ordered stations on the West Coast off the air at night for fear that Japanese carriers launching bombers could use station signals as navigation beacons to guide their attacks.

In a 1980 interview for the 40th anniversary of the station, KODL’s longtime Station Manager Paul Walden said, “Until they could get out the bombers and fighters and sweep the coasts in the mornings, we were off the air, sometimes not getting back on until maybe 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning.”

The station was also required to have an employee on duty through the night to sign on the station for emergency broadcasts in case an attack came. The station built a small building behind the studio to house that employee.

The station created promotional material for its anniversary celebration.

In the early days, the station featured many live musical performances. The most famous of those was by a young man named Carl from Arlington, who played trumpet. In later years, he would be known as Doc Severinsen, bandleader for “The Tonight Show” for decades during Johnny Carson’s tenure.

Originally, the station was licensed to operate with 250 watts during the day and 100 watts at night, at 1,200 kilohertz on the radio dial.

In 1941, the FCC realigned the AM broadcast spectrum, assigning each frequency as local, regional, or “clear channel.” KODL was moved to 1230 kHz, one of six designated local frequencies.

The last shift came in 1955. Facing its first local competition in KRMW—later to become KACI—KODL was granted a move to a regional frequency, 1440, and increased power to 1,000 watts.

In 1967, V. Barney sold the station to Sterling Recreation Organization, a Seattle-based company that owned movie theaters and bowling alleys. This was the company’s first radio station. It changed the call letters to KGLX, “the golden X,” and played current pop hits among the oldies. The company went on to own a string of stations.

In 1974, the station was sold to Larson-Wynn Inc. For the nearly half-century since, the face of KODL has been that of Al Wynn. He introduced several innovations, but the most lasting has been the Coffee Break program. Every weekday at 10 a.m., he—or his sidekick, John Frederick—hosts a live talk show from a local restaurant, most recently at Cousins’ Restaurant.

The first guest was Trailblazers Sportscaster Bill Schonely. Since then, guests have been community leaders of all stripes as well as governors, senators, educators, artists, authors, merchants, and representatives of many local organizations.

The original main studio, with the control booth at the left. It was from this room that Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen made his first broadcast as a teenager. Materials Courtesy of KODL

On August 14, 2018, the program celebrated its 10,000th show. Bill, who was 89 at the time, returned for that show to reminisce, along with many former employees.

A key component of KODL through the decades has been its devotion to sports coverage. Al hasn’t kept track of the number of sporting events for which he’s done play-by-play, but the number is in the thousands. He has covered everything from The Dalles High School football, basketball, and baseball to American Legion baseball and Columbia Gorge Hustlers baseball, and the Fort Dalles Rodeo.

Al has also been tapped by the Oregon Association of Broadcasters to broadcast state playoff tournament games. The same organization named him Broadcaster of the Year in 2006.

In addition to the Trailblazers and local sports, the station has broadcast the World Series, the Seattle Seahawks, the first season of the Seattle Mariners, college football, and even Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Grand Canyon.

“It’s been an honor to serve this community in so many ways over the years,” Al says. “KODL appreciates the great community support from listeners and advertisers.”

He says growing up in the Spokane Valley and following his childhood dream makes him feel—at 77 years old—like he never worked a day in his life.

“People ask when will I retire, and the answer is when it’s no longer fun,” he says. Thanks for the memories.”