The oldest station in central Missouri, KFRU in Columbia, actually has its origins in Oklahoma, where KFRU was based before moving to Missouri and resuming regular broadcasting on October 7, 1925 in Columbia.
Oilman E.H. Rollstone started the station at Bristow, Oklahoma in January 1925, doing business as the "Etherical Radio Co." The station called itself "The Voice of Oklahoma," a slogan revived by the next station to start up at Bristow, KVOO. KVOO subsequently moved to Tulsa (50 kW, DA-2, 1170 kHz, calls changed to KFAQ on May 10, 2002), and one source has suggested a link between KFRU and KVOO but there is no conclusive proof.
Newspaper accounts of the time suggested that Rollstone became alarmed at the cost of the electricity needed to run the station (500 watts at 760 kHz), and began looking for a buyer.
In Columbia, the president of Stephens College, James Wood, was looking for a station that the college could run. The private women's college bought Rollstone's station, and had the equipment shipped to Columbia in September of 1925.
After the erection of two towers on the Stephens campus just east of downtown Columbia, and test broadcasts on October 5, the station inaugurated regular broadcasting October 7. The city's other private college, Christian (now Columbia College), and the University of Missouri participated in the inaugural broadcast.
The Great Depression forced Stephens to sell the station. Nelson Darraugh and Robert Bennett of St. Louis bought KFRU in 1932, and instituted commercial programming when they took control August 2, as indicated by a typical broadcasting day in 1932.
Despite its regional coverage at 630 kHz, KFRU did not prosper. (Similar problems were faced by the station with which KFRU shared time, WOS in Jefferson City.) The station was sold again in 1935 to Des Moines businessman Luther Hill, who sold it again in June 1936 to the St. Louis Star-Times newspaper.
The newspaper sunk a lot of money into KFRU. It built new, air-conditioned studios for the station and began an extensive schedule of live programming. At one time, KFRU employed more than 40 entertainers, some of whom made use of an impromptu dormitory on the third floor of the station's studios.
The improvements came with a big price tag. The Star-Times wanted KFRU's desirable frequency for its St. Louis station, KXOK. With FCC approval, KXOK began broadcasting at 630 kHz October 26, 1940 after KFRU moved to a higher frequency at much lower power.
KFRU was relegated to a strictly local operation, 250 watts at 1370 kHz. KFRU moved to 1400 kHz on March 29, 1941 under the new North American allocation plan created by the Havana agreement.
Even amid the bad news, the station got a boost in 1940, when it won the first George Foster Peabody award for outstanding service by a small-market station. The station's ties with KXOK also brought it an affiliation with the NBC Blue (now ABC) network, as well as a future owner.
Mahlon Aldridge, Jr. was KXOK's news director when the Star-Times tapped him to become KFRU's manager in 1945. Aldridge began energetically promoting local news, attracting the attention of Columbia Daily Tribune publisher H.J. (Jack) Waters, Jr. In 1948, Aldridge and Waters joined forces to buy KFRU.
Aldridge and Waters briefly considered bringing a TV station to mid-Missouri, but deferred to the University of Missouri, which began commercial operation of KOMU-TV in 1953. The arrival of TV had a severe impact on the station's revenue, and, like many other station owners, Aldridge realized that the station's future could not be secured by extensive reliance on network programming.
While retaining the ABC network for news and sports programming, Aldridge instituted a schedule (see example from 1957) focused heavily on local service features. Aldridge himself invested in two-way radio equipment, still a relative novelty in the late 50s, and began remote broadcasts from news events, including routine auto accidents.
The station also maintained a newsroom at the Columbia Daily Tribune in downtown Columbia. Its news director during the 1960s, Eric Engberg, is now a CBS News correspondent. The newsroom arrangement with the Tribune ended in 1976.
KFRU briefly considered an FM operation in 1961. Consideration was serious enough to generate a letter from RCA with a detailed description of the proposed transmitting equipment for a station with 50 kW at 98.5 mHz. However, the cost of another operation, the poor experience that Jefferson City's KWOS had with its FM station, and an FCC freeze on new FM allocations led Aldridge instead to begin 24-hour operation. It doesn't sound like a big deal now, but 24-hour operation in a small city of 36,000 was unusual in 1961.
Also in 1961 the station increased its daytime power to 1,000 watts, with a transmitter now in use by Haitian station 4VEE, Radio Citadelle, where it was sent in 1980.
Aldridge's decision against FM operation proved fateful for the station, because the station faced more and more competition from newly-minted FM stations. A note of interest: Stephens College also pioneered FM radio in Columbia, starting the city's first FM station, KWWC, on February 2, 1965.
KFRU's news and sports image remained untarnished, but it was tougher to sell advertising, especially after easy-listening KARO(FM) came on the air in February 1982. Aldridge and Waters' son Hank (who had inherited his father's interest in the station) decided to sell. A buyer could not be found who wanted to pay the asking price, leading Aldridge to sell his interest to Waters. Aldridge died in January 1986.
Waters took over KFRU and installed former KFRU announcer Bill Weaver as general manager December 7, 1983. Weaver streamlined the station's programming, and, in 1989, Waters sold KFRU to a partnership headed by Weaver.
KFRU continued to face a tough advertising market and even stringent cost-cutting measures could not stem a decline in the station's revenues. Cost-cutting affected quality, which caused audience share to decline. The local bank that had lent money to Weaver began to seek a buyer.
KARO owner Al Germond, a former KFRU chief engineer, took control of the station July 27, 1992 under a leasing agreement. Shortly thereafter, the FCC approved Germond's purchase of the station.
After nearly 60 years of local ownership, Germond and partners sold KFRU to Cumulus Broadcasting in 2004. Cumulus assumed control of the station on March 1. The Federal Communications Commission approved the purchase on April 24. Germond and partners currently own the historic Tiger Hotel, once the home of KFRU competitor KTGR-AM/FM, in downtown Columbia.