by Michael Swanger
“All things Iowa!” proclaims an oft-heard ad on WHO Radio. It’s a theme that has carried the legendary radio station to unparalleled success in the state.
The station boasts a longstanding tradition of top on-air personalities, a powerful signal and news, sports and weather coverage that appeals to Iowans. WHO-AM 1040’s 50,000 watts allows the clear channel radio station to be heard over most of the continental United States during nighttime hours, and its storied Iowa roots run very deep.
“I remember as a kid growing up in Adel listening to WHO because it had so many brilliant personalities on the air,” says Van Harden, WHO’s program director and co-host of the popular, long-running “Van and Bonnie in the Morning” show. “Listeners like it when they seem to know the people they hear on the radio, which is why I was listening to WHO all the time.”
Van Harden is one of the countless Iowans who have tuned in to WHO-AM 1040 over the years to hear the voices of broadcasters like former president Ronald Reagan, Jim Zabel, Jack Shelley, Roy Fox and Lee Kline. According to WHO’s historian George F. Davison, Jr., a Des Moines lawyer and former WHO employee, the radio station was established in the spring of 1924 by Bankers Life Company, a life insurance company with home offices in Des Moines.
The station had an original power of 500 watts on a frequency of 570 kilocycles (570 AM) and the first regularly scheduled broadcast was April 10, 1924. It’s call letters – WHO – stem from George Kuhns, president of Bankers Life Company, who was a long-distance listener and, like others who tuned in to distant stations, would ask “Who is it?”
Later, the stations’ owners, the Palmer family, changed the call letter slogan to represent “With Hands Only”, which they adopted as a slogan of chiropractic care.
Listeners soon would not have a problem picking up WHO’s signal. In 1925, the station increased its power to 5,000 watts, and three years later it changed to 1000 kilocycles (1000 AM). In 1927, WHO became an NBC network affiliate. In 1933, WHO became a 1-A clear channel station when it increased to 50,000 watts, and on March 29, 1941, it moved to 1040 kilocycles (1040 AM), where it has remained for 70 years.
“Only a handful of radio stations at that time in the Midwest had 50,000 watts, which was the legal limit, and most of them were in bigger markets,” says Davison. “That kind of power allowed WHO to reach most Iowans during the day.”