The Original Howard Stern Resided in Lousiana, on the 50kW KWKH
courtesy Clifford Doerksen
Hello, doggone, here’s a telegram from Gulfport: “We in Gulfport get a kick out of your unique program.” When I listen to those dignified announcers on the chain stations of the north, I don’t wonder. —William K. Henderson, 1928
As a radio personality. Henry Field of KFNF was often observed to be especially popular among farm women. No one ever said the same of Field’s notorious contemporary, William K. Henderson—a.k.a. “Doggone” Henderson, “Ol’ Man” Henderson, and “Hello World” Henderson—owner and operator of station KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Where Field played the upright and temperate Christian gentleman to perfection, Henderson personified an opposite rural social type, the crossroads hell-raiser: bawdy, profane, and according to many hostile listeners, often “beautifully soused.” The good-ol’-boyishness of the Henderson phenomenon is captured by the following exchange between the broadcaster and his fans. In February 1928 Henderson received a telegram of friendly greetings from “Henry and the boys” at the Cozy Cafe in Bremen, Texas, accompanied by a request that he play a hillbilly record entitled “I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do.” As the requested disk was being cued up, Henderson replied, “We know where Henry gets his lovin’. Right down on Matamora Street in San Antonio, Texas. Try and deny that, Henry.” What backslapping hilarity ensued down at the Cozy Cafe can only be imagined.
Owner and president of the Henderson Iron Works and Supply Company, a concern specializing in the manufacture of oil drilling and saw milling equipment, Henderson caught the radio bug from a Shreveport wireless enthusiast named William Patterson, who, with the intent of stimulating a local market for radio receivers of his own manufacture, had been broadcasting locally under the call sign WGAQ since 1922. In 1923 Patterson invited Henderson to help capitalize an upgrade of the station’s low-watt, jerry-built transmitter. Initially dubious, Henderson came on board as a minority investor, but by 1924 he had become sufficiently enthusiastic about the project to purchase a controlling share in the station. A year later Henderson was obsessed with radio and had rebuilt his rambling country estate in Kennonwood, eighteen miles north of Shreveport, into a broadcasting compound complete with its own power plant, a new one-thousand-watt transmitter, studios on the first and second floors of his mansion, and dormitories and a commissary to accommodate technical personnel and visiting guests. A third studio, for remote broadcasts, was installed in Henderson’s offices in Shreveport. All three studios were outfitted with special phonographs called panatropes, designed for the high-fidelity broadcast of phonograph records.
A raging extrovert, Henderson approached broadcasting less as a business proposition than as a platform for self-expression, an agenda reflected in his 1925 request to the Commerce Department that his station’s call letters be changed to WKH “in honor of William K. Henderson who so unselfishly has given his time and money to the development of his community and country.” Informed that call signs for all stations west of the Mississippi had to start with the letter K, Henderson settled for KWKH and parsed it as standing for “Kennonwood, William K. Henderson.”
The format Henderson developed was simple, economical, and prescient, anticipating the emergence of both the disk jockey of the 1940s and the present-day shock jock. On the air only at night, when atmospheric conditions allowed for the widest possible coverage, Henderson always began his broadcasts with some variation on this greeting, delivered in a peculiar croaking drawl that suggested a talking bullfrog: “HELLO, WORLD—This is KWKH at Shreveport, Lou-ees-i-ana. Shreeve-port on the air, telling the world. Don’t go ‘way!” The salutation was followed by unstructured hours of Henderson’s impromptu remarks, punctuated by the playing of phonograph records requested by listeners, who communicated their preferences to him by letter, telephone, and telegram. This listener-request principle was set forth in the station’s theme song, “The KWKH Blues,” commissioned by Henderson from a regional black jazz band, Eddie and Sugar Lou’s Hotel Tyier Orchestra: “I got the KWKH, KWKH blues / I got the KWKH, KWKH blues / So just tune in baby / I’ll dedicate these blues to you.”
Although he was a college-educated millionaire living on inherited industrial capital, Henderson styled himself a “country boy” and spoke like one. The bulk of his discourse was aptly described by a Commerce Department field agent in 1928 (one of several assigned to monitor and transcribe Henderson’s nightly tirades) as consisting of “vile epithets and accusations directed at the senders of telegrams of acknowledgement and request in general.” A large contingent of early radio listeners found this rustic insult comedy enormously entertaining. “Early in the days of the Radio,” explained a correspondent for Radio Digest in 1929,
Mr. Henderson found out how to get and keep an air audience. The way, he found, was to set off plenty of verbal pyrotechnics—bawl out somebody unmercifully—give them a good show. Whether or not they like what he is telling it, they listen and come back for more. They like to hear him get hot. And when he shows signs of cooling off they send him a batch of scathing, blistering telegrams to make him hotter, and he responds obligingly to this form of prodding. “People don’t care about gentle modest talk,” Mr. Henderson said a short time ago. “They want it strong. They want to hear you ride somebody. If not, why do they spend their good money for telegrams? They want to be entertained. They razz me and wait for me to bawl them out over the Radio. I never disappoint them if they sign their names.” And that’s why KWKH, even though its facilities for musical programs are limited largely to phonograph records, remains one of the most popular stations in the South and likewise one of the most popular in the country.
Although it was not strictly necessary for KWKH listeners to goad Henderson in order to receive a personalized portion of his bile, a lot of his correspondents went out of their way to rattle his cage. “We have a telegram here from Helena, Montana, which I shall read,” announced Henderson in late September 1927. “It says, ‘We don’t care for your station or the South!,’ signed by I. M. Smart. He thinks he is smart. He no doubt is a cross between a hyena and a gila monster, gotten in a nigger graveyard and raised by an idiot. We will consider the source of this telegram and dedicate the next selection to him, which is ‘Good Night.'” A similar challenge from a Des Moines, Iowa, listener read, “Get off the air—we want to hear something worthwhile.” Provocations like these never found Henderson at a loss for a resonant retort, such as the following:
“What’s the matter with you, you sawed-off, hammered-down, pusillanimous lollypop!
Here you low down dirty pup, why didn’t you sign your name? You’re as yellow as this telegraph blank I have in my hand.
Why in hell don’t you turn the little knobs of your radio set? Every radio set has little knobs on it. You made an ass out of yourself by sending me this telegram.”
The tenor of Henderson’s discourse changed little on the occasions when he spoke out on the larger issues of the day. His commentary on the presidential race of 1928, for example, consisted largely of slurs on the character of Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, whom he variously maligned as “a harebrained ninny-com-poop,” “a yellow shit,” “a Quaker skunk,” “a son of a bitch,” “a half-assed Englishman,” and “a cross between a jackass and a bulldog bitch.”
Inevitably, Henderson’s nightly harangues triggered an avalanche of complaints to Commerce Department officials and, after 1927, to the Federal Radio Commission. It is a curious comment on human nature that Henderson’s critics seemed to have been almost as fascinated by him as his fans were. “One night several months ago,” wrote a conflicted complainant in 1929,
“I listened for about three hours to a tirade of billingsgate, semi-profanity and vulgar abuse from the man who does most of the talking or announcing from this station. I had listened to this man’s peculiar, characteristic utterances several times before but this night, as near as I could judge, he was drunk and repeated his abusive remarks over and over again. I listened in for the purpose of seeing how long he would keep up this disgusting sort of thing and to the best of my recollection it was almost three hours.”
“I am a frequent ‘listener in’ on Radio Station KWKH of Shreveport, Louisiana,” wrote another hostile yet spellbound listener, “and believe that the disgusting language and profane remarks by W. K. Henderson over the air from said station are sufficient reason for the Federal Radio Commission to invoke its own Rules and Regulations and revoke the license of such station.”
By all indications, however, affronted yet regular listeners such as these stood at the margins of a much larger audience who simply adored Henderson. “There is no doubt,” wrote the regional radio supervisor Theodore G. Deiler to his superiors at the Commerce Department in 1928, “that KWKH is rendering a distinctive service of its own, particularly to its followers who are very numerous.” In a 1929 brief on the station, FRC chairman Eugene Sykes concurred: “That KWKH is a station of considerable popularity cannot be gainsaid.” Sykes had witnessed an impressive material demonstration of this fact earlier in the same year when he summoned Henderson to appear at hearings relating to the continuance of his license. The broadcaster arrived bearing 163,000 notarized affidavits of support raised on short notice from his listeners across several southern and midwestern states. He later furnished the commission with a glossy studio portrait of the trophy he received from Radio Digest magazine in 1930 naming KWKH the “South’s Most Popular Radio Station.”
Next to Henderson’s foul mouth, KWKH’s most valuable programming asset was its collection of some six thousand records, the contents of which were alphabetically listed in a catalog that Henderson made available by mail to listeners to facilitate their requests. An undated edition of the “Directory of the Musical Library of KWKH” surviving in the files of the Federal Radio Commission reveals KWKH’s musical offerings to have covered a more eclectic range than did those of the midwestern farmer stations profiled in the previous chapter. In addition to a predictable preponderance of cowboy songs, gospel hymns, old-time fiddle tunes, sentimental Tin Pan Alley ballads, and banjo breakdowns, the KWKH library also included a substantial number of jazz records by the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, and Bennie Motten, as well as “hot mama” blues numbers such as Ethel Waters’s “Shake That Thing” and Sadie McKinney’s “Brownskin Flapper.” How a farmer station got away with playing such music, typically abominated by rural listeners, is something of a mystery. It is imaginable that there existed alongside the pious, upright, and jazz-hating rural audience served by the Shenandoah school of broadcasting a significant number of rural listeners who enjoyed being exposed to the forbidden urban sounds of sin and syncopation. It seems reasonable that such a subset of the rural population would have been the same one disposed to appreciate Henderson’s brand of humor. Then again, it is possible that Henderson was musically way out in front of his public but that the latter prized his wit so highly that they were willing to tolerate his predilection for jazz. According to the station’s engineer, interviewed by the graduate student Lillian Jones Hall in 1959, the songs most frequently requested by KWKH fans in the 1920s—”My Horses Ain’t Hungry,” “Missouri Waltz,” “Dead Cat on the Line,” and “Them Golden Slippers”—were all solidly in the old-time tradition. In any case, it was widely conceded that the main draw of the station was not the music but the man. As one fan put it in 1930, “Practically every station on the air has [jazz], but only one station has ol’ man Henderson: KWKH.”
KWKH also deviated from the general run of farmer stations in that it was not originally operated for profit. Between 1924 and 1928 Henderson financed the station entirely out of his own pocket and frequently boasted on the air that “this station don’t sell or advertise.” Periodically he even lashed out on the air against broadcast advertising, proposing that all stations operated for profit should be sequestered on a single wavelength in order to clear the air for altruistic stations like his own. By mid-1928, however, Henderson’s anticommercial principles began to slip as he began making experimental forays into the direct merchandising game. The seeds of change lay in Henderson’s habit of calling for coffee while at the microphone and then remarking that it was “doggone good coffee.” A spate of listener inquiries as to where they could purchase some of the same brew inspired Henderson to package a souvenir brand of beans in tins bearing his own image and market it C.O.D. over the air-waves. Despite a steep price tag of one dollar per pound, “Hello World Coffee” proved to be a great success, moving at a reported rate of a hundred pounds per day.
Once having tasted the fruits of direct merchandising, Henderson quickly stepped up his retailing. By early 1929 KWKH was plugging a wide range of mail-order goods, including radio aerials, whisk brooms, a lockable gas tank cap for automobiles, patent medicines, insurance policies, truck tires, citrus fruits, and a privately published biography of Henderson, The Life of a Man. After 1930 Henderson was also promoting a variety of get-rich-quick investment schemes, including shares in an oil-drilling venture called the Depression Oil Company, a pecan farming operation called the Mayhem Pecan Orchards, and sundry pyramid sales schemes. At about the same time he began selling time to a real estate interest, the National Property Exchange, whose prerecorded transcription program, ancestor of today’s late-night infomercials, rounded out the closing hours of the KWKH schedule between 1930 and 1932.
Characteristically, Henderson was not at all embarrassed about this sudden reversal of policy. “I am not a charitable institution,” he told the Federal Radio Commission in September 1932; “I expect to make some money with my station.” When pressed by FRC examiners to explain the appearance of bad faith on the issue of advertising, Henderson contended, like Field and May of Shenandoah, that he had consulted his listeners and that they had approved KWKH’s new commercial agenda. “I had never done any advertising whatsoever on my station,” he testified. “Then I went on the air and I asked my friends and listeners if there would be any objection to my advertising, and said if they said there was I wouldn’t do it. There wasn’t a dissenting vote; in fact they told me I was crazy for not doing it because all the rest were doing it.
Henderson’s conversion from philanthropic to commercial broadcasting coincided with an intensification of his interest in political matters. He had always enjoyed speaking out on current affairs, but prior to 1927 he had hewn to no particular cause beyond an intense antipathy to the growth of the national debt and twinned commitments to the superiority of the South over the North and the Democratic Party over the Republican. Following the passage of the Radio Act of 1926, however, Henderson became increasingly voluble on the subject of broadcast regulation, and by 1927 he was nightly assailing the newly appointed members of the Federal Radio Commission by name as “crooks,” “skunks,” and “grafters” working on behalf of what he called “the electrical and financial monopoly.” Were the commission allowed to continue unopposed, warned Henderson, it would deliver to this “infernal chain Combine” a complete monopoly over the American airwaves, which “from top to bottom” would carry “nothing but chain,” to the exclusion of independent stations like his own. “The Teapot Dome Scandal,” he roared, “would fade away in comparison with the stealing of the air away from the American people.”
In late 1929 Henderson became obsessed with a second political cause: the rural crusade against chain stores. Particularly strong in the South, this strain of antiurban populism had been gathering steam since the 1910s, as chains of variety, grocery, and shoe stores began penetrating the countryside and threatening the livelihoods of independent crossroads merchants. Organizing in their own defense, the mom-and-pop retailers of the countryside charged that the chains were diverting profits to the cities, evading their fair share of local taxes, and undermining regional cultural character with their standardized inventories. The message caught on among the rural electorate, and by 1927 several southern legislatures were attempting to levy special punitive taxes on chain stores and to place statutory limits on the number of chain outlets per county. The regular reversal of these popular measures in state supreme courts further fueled local perceptions that chain stores represented an omnipotent threat to regional autonomy. Henderson was brought to the cause by a Shreveport banking official, Phillip Leiber, who had been making the rounds of local civic clubs for some time with a speech entitled “The Menace of the Chain Store.” Already battling against the radio chains, Henderson invited Leiber to speak over KWKH in late 1929 and by his own account underwent an instantaneous conversion while listening to him. Henceforth, Henderson conflated the networks and chain stores into a single conspiracy, “the chain gang interests.”
In early 1930 Henderson undertook the organization of a nationwide voluntary association for small merchants and their supporters. Dubbed “the Modern Minute Men,” the club had attracted thirty-two thousand members by September of that year, despite steep annual membership dues of $12. Hard times notwithstanding, the Minute Men promotion quickly netted Henderson donations reportedly in excess of $373,500.
The Commerce Department flagged Henderson as a troublemaker as early as 1926, on the grounds of his coarse language and reliance on phonograph records. A regulatory bias against “canned music” dated back to the earliest days of broadcasting, when phonographs and player pianos had been tiresomely ubiquitous staples of “wireless concerts” transmitted by amateur radiotelephone operators. Adopting the position that such programs provided inferior sound reproduction while duplicating services elsewhere available to the public, the Commerce Department began giving preferential treatment to stations foreswearing mechanically reproduced music in late 1922. Official opposition to the broadcast of records was not lessened by the dramatic improvements in recording technology after 1925, which dramatically narrowed the gap in fidelity between a well-engineered phonographic broadcast and a live performance. Because their superior capacity to furnish live entertainment put them in a class apart, the corporate stations and later the networks favored strictures against the use of phonographs, as did leaders of the record industry and major recording stars, who, prior to the 1940s, saw broadcast exposure of records as a threat to sales rather than a potential promotional boon.
Lacking the resources to enforce an outright ban on records, in 1927 the Federal Radio Commission instituted a new policy whereby canned music was permissible so long as it was clearly identified as such, a directive designed to prevent “fraud upon the listening public.” Small independent stations did sometimes connive at misrepresenting records as studio appearances by famous performers, but Henderson was above such chicanery and always forthrightly defended the legitimacy of canned music as broadcast content. “You have never heard anything better than these records,” he told his listeners on one occasion. “We can give you Caruso if you want him. There are 12,345 artists here in the room waiting for me to stop talking.” Another time he interrupted the opening bars of a record to bawl into the microphone, “Isn’t that good? If it wasn’t good, they wouldn’t can it!”
A third trait that made Henderson a thorn in the side of Commerce Department officials was his Napoleonic attitude toward signal coverage. Perpetually unsatisfied with his station’s reach, Henderson was continually lobbying the government for higher power and a better wavelength. Following the Zenith Corporation’s successful 1926 legal challenge of the Commerce Department’s right to assign frequencies to broadcasters and limit their hours of operation, Henderson unilaterally moved KWKH’s signal to a portion of the spectrum previously ceded by federal treaty to Canada and then boosted his signal power up to three thousand watts. Although the resumption of federal regulatory power in 1927 was supposed to bring a comeuppance to “wave-jumpers” and “pirates,” the Shreveport station did very well in the ensuing reallocation of wavelengths, receiving a favorable wavelength at 394. meters and holding on to its self-authorized power boost. The best was yet to come for KWKH, however, after the passage of the Davis Amendment to the Radio Act in 1928. The fruit of a sectional backlash against the Northeast’s domination of the airwaves, the amendment mandated an equal division of licenses and wavelengths among the five geographical zones created by the Radio Act. In the resulting second reallocation of wavelengths, KWKH was awarded the use of one of forty coveted clear channels, a privilege Henderson grudgingly time-shared with WWL, a New Orleans station operated by Loyola University. With clear channel status came a power increase to five thousand watts, followed by another authorized increase to ten thousand watts in 1930. Though it is hard to state with precision the range of KWKH at any given moment in its history, by 1927 Henderson was already a national presence on the airwaves, reliably reaching listeners as far away as Seattle, Washington, and Pennsylvania and, depending on meteorological conditions, enjoying intermittent coverage throughout North America.
Even as he pushed for permission to boost his signal strength, Henderson seems to have regarded the power limits imposed by the FRC as little more than a baseline for what he could get away with on the sly. Internal memoranda of the Radio Division of the Commerce Department reflect awareness that KWKH was surreptitiously exceeding its assigned signal strength in 1926. By 1928 Henderson had abandoned any pretense of compliance and was overtly boosting and lowering his signal power from moment to moment according to his mood, barking on-air orders at his engineer to “give us some more power, doggone you, give me all the power you’ve got.” Irksome as all this was to federal officials, the Radio Division’s field agents found themselves unable to catch Henderson red-handed, owing to the fact that the KWKH transmitter was situated at the center of Henderson’s sprawling estate, such that it was “impossible to make a surprise inspection without sufficient time for the power to be reduced.”
KWKH’s programs would have been a provocation to regulators even had Henderson not been given to broadcasting blistering ad hominem attacks on members of the FRC or calling the regional supervisor of radio, Theodore G. Deiler, at his home in New Orleans and baiting him on the air. But this ongoing campaign of abuse personalized the tensions between broadcaster and regulators to such an extent that in 1929 FRC member Orestes Caldwell publicly charged Henderson with having precipitated the death of the commission’s first chairman. Rear Admiral William Bullard, with his relentless slanders upon the latter’s name. That Henderson was able not only to remain on the air but also to increase his privileges as a licensee in the face of such official enmity was primarily a function of his shrewd cultivation of friends in high places. Taking advantage of his strong signal coverage of the South and the Midwest, Henderson had at an early point in his broadcasting career adopted the habit of placing his station at the disposal of senators, congressmen, governors, and other elected officials from Louisiana, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Montana, Missouri, Alabama, and Kansas. At times his political friends would join him in the studio to assist in reading listener letters and dedicating requested records; on other occasions they would call in by telephone to chat on the air.
By far the most valuable of Henderson’s political patrons was Louisiana governor Huey Long. A friend and associate of Long’s since the late 1910s, Henderson had been one of the Kingfish’s early financial backers, contributing ten thousand dollars and the propagandizing powers of KWKH to Long’s first, unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1924. Henderson again supported Long in his second, triumphant campaign of 1928 and thereafter frequently brought him on the air as a guest star. Henderson was also generous in giving air time to Long cronies such as the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, whose jeremiads against the utility companies and other corporate interests were regularly broadcast over KWKH via remote pickup from Smith’s Shreveport pulpit.
In return for these favors, Governor Long made KWKH’s cause his own, treating any proposed regulatory action against the station as an intolerable infringement on the sovereignty of Louisiana. The evening of 5 March 1928, for example, found Long at Henderson’s side at Kennonwood propounding the theory that the relative population densities of the Northeast and the South justified maximum signal power for KWKH. “Stations in the congested districts of the east,” reasoned Long, “could reach thousands of listeners with only a few watts whereas the stations in this vicinity in order to reach the listeners desired would have to have much more power as we have to reach 2000 to 3000 miles.” Long further warned the members of the FRC that any regulatory sanctions against KWKH would not be tolerated: “You’re going to have to fight Louisiana and other states too, buddy, and you won’t get away with it. We are going to expose you and not allow you to steal the air.” Assured of Long’s protection, in early 1931 Henderson went so far as to declare that the Louisiana state militia stood at his disposal in the event of any federal attempt to interfere with his station.
That Long’s protection was fundamental to Henderson’s success in defying the government is suggested by the fact that federal radio officials, having tolerated Henderson’s arrogance for years, moved against him with sudden assurance once relations soured between Henderson and Long in late 1931. Then again. Long’s decision to break with Henderson at that time may have reflected an intuition on Long’s part that Henderson’s days on the air were numbered once the FRC’s power to deny license renewal on the basis of previous performance had been tested and affirmed before a federal court. In any case, in the autumn of 1931 Long, now a U.S. senator, traded his affiliation with KWKH for a similar sweetheart relationship with WWL, the Jesuit university station with which Henderson had uneasily been sharing his clear channel wavelength since 1928.
Fresh from regulatory victories over comparably vexatious rural broadcasters such as Dr. Brinkley and Norman Baker, and armed with hundreds of hours of transcripts of Henderson’s harangues and numberless listener complaints, in 1931 the FRC moved in for the kill with a final series of hearings on the renewal of KWKH’s license. Primary among the charges under consideration was the accusation that Henderson routinely used “near-profanity” on the air. Dismissively likening the concept of “near-profanity” to “near-beer,” Henderson’s legal team initially denied that he was guilty of verbal impropriety, attributing any such perception to a cultural gap between northern and southern standards of polite usage. Moreover, asserted Henderson’s lawyers, the defendant was “not ready to believe that the power of this great Government was meant to be applied to the standards attained by Oscar Wilde or even with the character, opinions, and doings of Madam DuBarry.” As the review process wore on, however, the KWKH legal team began to give ground, allowing that the demands of Henderson’s ongoing battles on behalf of the “common people” had perhaps caused him “to fight with weapons and language probably without a due regard to their propriety.” Suddenly stricken by the thought that “any one of the innocent children of this Nation could hear anything over Station KWKH coming from my mouth that could, in the slightest, shock their tender sensibilities,” in early 1931 Henderson pledged himself to reform his speech, enabling his lawyers to claim in December of that year that “from the first part of February, Mr. Henderson has at no time or any occasion used any language which might be considered objectionable to the most refined and technical moral person.” In actual practice, the supposedly reformed Henderson displayed a technical bent of his own by delegating the pleasures of broadcast swearing to his listeners, who accommodated him with letters and telegrams peppered with “hells” and “damns.” These Henderson would read o n the air while legalistically covering himself with fig-leaf caveats such as “I didn’t use those words; I merely read them out to you.”
Even as Henderson stretched himself to accommodate the conflicting demands of his semi-profanity-loving listeners and the censorious FRC, the latter body was pursuing other avenues of inquiry into the affairs of KWKH. Of particular interest to the commission was the fate of the monies Henderson had raised through his anti-chain-store league, the Modern Minute Men. After stonewalling the commission on this issue for several months, Henderson came forth with a less than reassuring account of the Minute Men’s finances. According to Henderson, the gross sum of donations collected was actually $350,846, owing to bad checks received. Of this amount, $150,330 had been absorbed by the organization’s pyramidal system of recruitment, which, like that of the contemporary Ku Klux Klan, paid incentives to members leading new joiners into the fold. Employing an arithmetic all his own, Henderson calculated that these deductions left to the Hello World Broadcasting Corporation a sum of $250,516. Of this, he testified, another $89,119 had been defrayed by administrative expenses—”printing, stationery, postage, telegrams, telephones, salaries, etc.—” leaving the corporation with just $111,396. Without actually accounting for this sum, Henderson used the diminished figure to dispute the FRC’s charge that he had diverted $151,800 of the Modern Minute Men’s funds to paying off debts of the Henderson Iron Works and Supply Company. He stopped short, however, of actually denying that he had used Minute Men funds to bail out his ironworks, whose finances had been wobbly since the market crash of 1929.
Despite the loss of Long’s protection, Henderson kept up a bold front throughout the waning days of KWKH, swearing that “if monopolistic tyranny can only be resisted and met by offering myself as a burning sacrifice on the altar of liberty and an untrammeled medium of communication, then I say to all enemies of Constitutional Government and the Shylocks of the jingling guineas: ‘Come and get me.'” Henderson apparently also held a contingency plan up his sleeve: according to an Oklahoma listener, Henderson boasted in early 1929 that if he lost his license he would relocate to Mexico to “set up a stronger plant which will cover all wavelengths in the U.S.A.” When push came to shove, however, the bankrupt Henderson quietly folded his hand. Apprised by his lawyers that he stood no chance of retaining his broadcast license, in September 1932 Henderson sold KWKH to a group of Shreveport investors for fifty thousand dollars. Although Henderson’s threatened Mexican pirate station never materialized, for the first year after the sale he and his audience enjoyed a period of mutual weaning, during which Henderson was permitted brief daily access to the air-waves to air his thoughts and opinions.
After KWKH’s studios and transmitter were repatriated from Kennonwood back to Shreveport in late 1933, the station’s new management opened negotiations with the Columbia Broadcasting System, and in October 1934 the station became an affiliate of that network and thus a slave of “the chain gang” that Henderson reviled. Henderson slipped into obscurity, although in the summer of 1935 he took a stab at a comeback with an advertisement placed in the Shreveport Times. Entitled “I’m Still W. K. Henderson,” the announcement read: “I have everything I used to have except money. I’m not in any business and I don’t know what business I’d get in if I had any money. But you can bet I’m still Old Man Henderson to my friends throughout the land.” Henderson optimistically signed off with the hint that “maybe you have some ideas to our mutual interest” and included his postal address for the benefit of interested parties.
Speaking to a reporter from his deathbed in 1945, Henderson looked back on his broadcasting career and regretted nothing. “I was right, you know,” he said. “I was right about the chain stores. I was right about the government control of radio. I guess I was fighting for free speech and free enterprise.”