600 Huntington Avenue – KOIL Radio Station
I grew up in southwest Iowa listening to two radio stations: KOIL (Omaha) and KMA (Shenandoah). I did not realize that 1) both stations were founded to promote the founder’s business, not to generate income- as has been the purpose of radio stations for decades; 2) KOIL was actually born in Council Bluffs in 1925; 3) the O-I-L in KOIL spells “oil”. KMA was founded to promote Earl May products. KOIL was founded to promote the MonaMotor Oil Co.
Dr. Richard Warner of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County and the nomination of the Park/Glen Avenues Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places are the sources of information for this story. We are very grateful to have this documented research available and shared.
It all began in 1895 with the founding of Monarch Manufacturing by the Searle family: E.P. Searle, president; Harry A. Searle, secretary/treasurer; and Fred Searle, superintendent. The company manufactured and sold axle grease. As time went on, they added a variety of high-grade greases, lubricating oils, and lighting fuels. The original plant was located at Sixth Street and 11th Avenue. The business grew and the building was expanded. A new laboratory and manufacturing facility was built at 1124 South Sixth Street. With the advent of the automobile, the name was changed to MonaMotor Oil. Harry A. Searle, Jr. was president and general manager. The year was 1925. Radio was new. Life was good.
The MonaMotor Oil Co. chose a spot on a high bluff near Fairmount Park to build a radio station to “further their progressive image and advertise their products”. It is believed to be the first building in the nation to be built specifically to house a radio station- for soundproofing and to “insulate the structure from interfering waves”. Two 165-foot towers, each set in 14-foot concrete foundations, were positioned 300 feet apart- one on each side of the building. The station went on the air July 10, 1925. It was the first ABC affiliate west of the Mississippi River and the second NBC affiliate west of the Mississippi River. Programming was sometimes carried nation-wide.
Because equipment to record sound was not yet of a quality high enough for broadcasting, most stations recruited choirs, small bands and other artists to perform live – and free. KOIL claimed to offer better quality programming, becoming “the first station in the region to use primarily paid artists”. The station had an auditorium, an electronic pipe organ, and two orchestras. Audiences could watch the performance through glass.
According to Dr. Warner, it wasn’t until magnetic recording technology taken from the Germans in World War II that recording could match live. In 1946, Bing Crosby convinced NBC to let him pre-record his shows. Others followed.
In 1930, KOIL opened a satellite studio atop the Brandeis building in Omaha to accommodate Omaha performers. The property was sold to Central States Broadcasting Company in 1935. In 1937, all programming was moved across the river to Omaha and the original building became a private residence. It was later converted to five apartments. The transmitter was moved to the South Omaha Bridge road in 1937, the power was increased, and it remained there until the mid-1960s. KOIL continued to operate in Omaha.
The Prairie School/Craftsman-style building was built with living quarters for the caretaker on the ground floor and studios on the second floor. The building, with gabled dormers, retains many of the original Craftsman-style windows. Other Craftsman details include the wide eave overhang and exposed rafter ends of the gabled dormer, and the cantilevered gabled porch hood over the front entry. The Prairie School influence is seen in the strong horizontal emphasis of the form of the building achieved by the contrast of different exterior materials on the first and second floor walls and the low pitch and wide eave overhang of the main roofline. The building sits on a corner in a quiet neighborhood across the street from Fairmount Park.
The last song played as the KOIL radio station went off the air on September 2, 1976, was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”.
Preserve Council Bluffs acknowledges the following sources of information for this series: National Register of Historic Places nominations, the reference department of the Council Bluffs Public Library, the auditor’s office of the Pottawattamie County courthouse, Council Bluffs Community Development Department, homeowners, family members and individual research.