For almost 50 years, KCMT did more than bring local television into central Minnesota homes. It created memories to last a lifetime - for both its employees and its viewers. It played an integral role in the history of Alexandria. And it may well have put Alexandria on the map.
Those associated with the success of the station are determined not to let its legacy be forgotten. On September 18, they will reunite, reminisce and remind Alexandrians how lucky they were to have had such a presence on the airways.
A million anecdotes
Jon Haaven was fresh out of college when he landed a job as news director at KCMT Television in 1958. One of the original employees at the station, he still remembers the day it went on the air.
"We signed on the air on October 8, 1958 with the third game of the World Series," he fondly recalled. "The lead story the first night was the death of Pope Pius XII. That was the very first news story I ever wrote."
Haaven wore many hats at the station. He covered sports and wrote news for the anchorman, Glenn Flint. In 1960 he took over the news anchor duties. He was co-host of a talk show. He did 10 to 12 stand-up live commercials every day.
"Everything was live. There were no teleprompters, no video tape machines," he said with a laugh as he related the story of how he accidentally named the wrong brand of sewing machine in a live commercial for a competing brand. "There were a lot of apologies on the air."
Haaven left KCMT in 1969, but it was with more than just an impressive media resume. He left having witnessed small-town history unfolding. He left with warm memories and a "million anecdotes" of co-workers and fun times.
KCMT was a place where all his co-workers were like a second family and where he learned the value of equal respect.
"That was the kind of family we had," he said. "We had a lot of respect for the owners and they had a lot of respect for us. It showed both ways."
A welcoming job
Natalie Johnson never thought she would be a famous talk show host. When she started at KCMT in late 1958, she was secretary to the general manager, Glenn Flint. A year and a half later, he asked if she would like to do "on air work."
"I was absolutely dumbfounded," she said. "I had never thought about going on the air."
She accepted the offer and in 1960 the local talk show, Welcome Inn, aired, with Johnson a co-host with Haaven.
"The purpose was to get local people to talk about their community or special events," Johnson explained.
Welcome Inn aired every weekday at 4 p.m., an hour of free-flowing ad-libs with each guest.
"It was live, that was part of the fun of it," she said.
Things could get wild on the talk show. A live tiger once roamed the studio. Johnson's practical-joking co-workers trapped a mouse and left it in a jar on her desk (to this day, Haaven swears he doesn't remember that incident).
There was wholesome family fun, too. The Osmond Brothers dropped in to chat. Bozo the Clown entertained children every day. Myron Floren, the accordion player from Lawrence Welk, made an appearance. And politicians made it a regular stop - vice presidents, senators, governors.
"I got to meet a lot of famous people," Johnson said.
In 1973, Johnson left KCMT, leaving behind 13 years of providing a welcoming presence to viewers in central Minnesota.
"I was just a little farm girl, glad to have a job," said Audrey Behrens of her time at the TV station. "I didn't realize at the time that other people were looking at me thinking that was the place to work."
Behrens started at KCMT in 1974 as a secretary to one of the owners, Tom Barnes Jr.
"We were like a family," she said of her time there. "Everybody worked together and we worked hard, but we played too."
Behrens reflects on her time at KCMT with gratitude and nostalgia, appreciating most the people she met along the way - co-workers and guests.
"It was always fun to meet the new people who came in," she said. "They were fun to get to know and were so eager to learn. And all these politicians came through. To shake Walter Mondale's hand...you'd never have the chance to do that otherwise."
Behrens left KCMT in 1990, during what she calls "the big layoff" (see related sidebar).
But this farm girl would never forget her years there and the opportunities it gave her and the viewers.
"To be at the TV station was such a cool thing," she said. "It gave so many people a lot of memories. It meant something to them."
Airways and freeways
Would Alexandria be the town it is today without KCMT's presence? Haaven doesn't think so.
"I contend that KCMT really put Alexandria on the map," he said. "The impact it had was not realized until years and years later."
Because KCMT had proven itself a reliable source of news for central Minnesota, politicians frequently made stops in Alexandria.
"Everyone got to know Alexandria quite well," Haaven said.
Then President Eisenhower developed the interstate system - and the "feds" wanted to connect the Twin Cities area to Fargo. There were a couple of routes that were being considered. Alexandria was one of them.
According to Haaven, because KCMT was the "largest, single station market in the U.S.," it influenced the decision to have the freeway built through Alexandria.
"I think KCMT indirectly helped the politicians decide that the Alex route was the best to take," he theorized. "Without KCMT, there would not have been an interstate here. I think [the interstate and KCMT] helped develop this community to where it is today."
Thanks for the memories
After a small, successful KCMT get-together last fall, Behrens decided to organize a reunion on a much larger scale this year.
"It's been 20 years since it became a satellite," she said of why she wanted to hold the reunion in 2010. "We are all getting older and it's time to do something."
The reunion is set for Saturday, September 18 at the Alexandria Golf Club (see related sidebar). All former employees are invited to attend to reminisce, celebrate and keep the legacy of KCMT alive in Alexandria.
"We need to leave this town knowing that there was a TV station here," Haaven concluded. "KCMT is no more, but its impact will last forever."
The history of KCMT
KCMT (Central Minnesota Television) was formed in 1956 by a group of Alexandria businessmen who wanted to bring television service to Alexandria and central Minnesota. The idea was conceived by Ken Bechtel, who was then associated with KXRA Radio.
Bechtel organized a group of incorporators, including Ercel Aga, Harold Bartz, Sidney Carlson, Earl Drussell, Alan Graves, Lee Johnson, Donald Kelly, John J. McCarten, Joseph Perino, Ken Tessmer and Everette Walters. Financing was accomplished by a stock sale.
Perino, then-president of KCMT, was the general manager at Runestone Electric Association (REA) in Alexandria. For the first few years, the KCMT studio was located in the basement of REA.
KCMT aired for the first time October 8, 1958 with a staff of 16. Five years later, 43 employees rounded out the employee roster.
In 1964, the station moved to the corner of Hawthorne and 8th Avenue East. A grand opening to celebrate the new building was held on November 28, 1964.
Initially an NBC affiliate, in the early 1980s the station became a CBS affiliate. In 1988, KCMT was sold to WCCO and it became KCCO.
In 1990, the station went through several changes and it became a satellite station, in which the format became local cut-ins only during the Twin Cities' news broadcasts.
KCCO's last day on the air was July 7, 2004.
A KCMT/KCCO Television reunion is set for Saturday, September 18 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Alexandria Golf Club. There will be a short program at 5 p.m. Burgers and brats will be served, and there will be a cash bar.
Cost is $15 per person; send payment to Audrey Behrens, 712 Scandia Street, Alexandria, MN 56308-2169.
There will also be an 18-hole golf event at 10 a.m. Cost is $45, including a cart. Register before September 11.