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Sioux City's first television station, KCAU, marks 50 years on the air
Members of the Major 9, KCAU-TV team are shown in this 1971 photo. KCAU, originally KVTV, went on the air 50 years ago, becoming Sioux City's first TV station and one of the few operating in the Midwest. (Photo courtesy of KCAU)

The first coach potatoes were born in Siouxland 50 years ago today.

Sioux City's initial TV station, KVTV, went on the air on March 19, 1953, at a the time when the mass medium was still in its infancy nationwide.

"KVTV was clearly among the first wave of stations to sign on across the country," said Ray Cole, chief operating officer of Citadel Communications Inc., which owns the station, now known as KCAU, Channel 9.

At the time, for instance, Omaha had just one TV station, and there were no broadcasts in Sioux Falls. Sioux City's second TV station, KTIV, signed on later in 1953.

In the early 1950s, television was not only new to most area viewers but also many of the KVTV employees.

"There was a lot of excitement about TV," said Roland Ball, a retired KCAU engineer who still lives in Sioux City. "I think most everybody that worked there enjoyed it. It was a fun thing."

In the early years, the station's programming was a conglomeration of offerings from ABC, CBS, NBC, and the now defunct Dumont Network. It was supplemented with local programming with titles such as the "Saturday Afternoon Dance Party," "Big Bowl," "Soap Box Derby," and "Canyon Kid's Corner." Hosted by Sioux City TV icon Jim Henry, Kid's Corner became one of the longest-running children's programs in the country, staying on the air until 1985.

In 1967, the station changed its call letters to KCAU, and became a full-time ABC affiliate, a relationship it continues today. Citadel acquired the station in 1985.

Like many early KVTV personnel, Ball started his career in radio. After 3 1/2 years at radio stations in Des Moines, Waterloo and Sioux City, Ball joined the Sioux City station in 1954 as an engineer.

In his early years, he was based in a small Quonset hut at the station's transmitter, located near the current site of North High School. In 1967, he became an engineering supervisor and moved to the station's downtown studios. He retired from KCAU in 1990 after 36 years in the business.

Ball noted station operations were much different in those early days.

"Everything was done with tubes," he recalled. "When you got done checking the tubes on a camera, you had to start all over again -- kind of like painting a battle ship."

Cole, a former general manager at KCAU, said technology changed throughout the proceeding decades. In the late 1960s, black and white broadcasts gave way to color. In the '70s, stations switched from film to video tape for news and other programming. The '80s brought the introduction of satellite technology, which allowed broadcasters to present live pictures.

There's no better example of that than the current coverage of the Iraqi war, where correspondents are using satellite video phones and uplink equipment to beam live pictures of the battle grounds into American homes, Cole said.

A long list of on-air personalities have passed through KCAU over the last five decades. Besides Henry, some of the better-known were Charles Harness, Dave Nixon Sr., Leon Patterson, Tom Peterson, Gene Sherman and Greg Lund. The station also has employed scores of off-camera personnel. Sioux City native Ron Clements, a Disney animator who recently was nominated for an Academy award for the movie, "Treasure Planet," worked at KCAU as a student.

In addition to ABC programming, KCAU-TV's schedule today includes more than 17 hours of news and information programming produced each week. It carries syndicated programming, including Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Live with Regis and Kelly, and also presents special productions, including the Iowa Boys State Wrestling Tournament, Iowa Girls State Basketball Tournament, and University of Iowa basketball.

Throughout its history, Cole said KCAU also has served the community. Each year, the station carries the Jerry Lewis Labor Day MDA Telethon and Variety Club Telethon, presents a "Best of the Class" salute to the area's top graduating seniors, and sponsors the annual "Operation Toys" project, which benefits more than 1,000 families during the holiday season.

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