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Connecting Rural South Dakota: Ida McNeil, KGFX Radio

Ida McNeill
Ida McNeil, South Dakota Broadcast Pioneer

Most technologies become useful and popular simply because they enable people to do things that they never dreamed they could do. Consider radio. The fact that someone can speak into a radio microphone in one part of the world and anyone listening to that broadcast in a different part of the world can hear it should or at least ought to amaze the average person.

But a technology without a use won’t change the world. What counts is how people use technology. Consider radio.

Italian innovator Guglielmo Marconi established the viability of the world’s first radio transmission system in 1895. For a decade and more, radio was primarily a means for broadcasting telegraph signals. Radio’s most important use was for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication. Transmission of voice signals and music was possible and being done in a limited way by 1906, but that kind of programming was not widely available in the U.S. until the 1920s.

British Post Office engineers inspect Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy (radio) equipment, during a demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897. This was the world’s first demonstration of the transmission of radio signals over open sea, between Lavernock Point and Flat Holm Island, a distance of three miles. (Archive photo from

Amateur radio operators began broadcasting in South Dakota in 1911 or 1910 at the earliest. It’s difficult to say with certainty who set up the first radio station in South Dakota because in the early 1910s, some operators may have been broadcasting without the licensing authority being granted at the time by the U.S. Department of Commerce. It’s also possible that some operators obtained licenses but never accomplished a broadcast. A transmitter/receiver station set up in Eureka South Dakota in 1912 was likely the first to broadcast in South Dakota.

Also in 1912, Dana McNeil, a railroad conductor working the line between Pierre and Rapid City, applied for and received an amateur radio station license from the Department of Commerce. In 1916, McNeil applied for and received an upgraded amateur license, only the twelfth such license in the U.S.. McNeil set up a transmitter in his home, and began sanctioned broadcasting of telegraph signals.

Dana McNeil

Dana McNeil's 1916 Broadcast License

In 1921, Dana McNeil married Ida Anding. Ida was well known in the Pierre area. She was as secretary to historian Doane Robinson and, at Robinson’s request, designed the South Dakota State Flag in use from 1909 until 1963.

Ida Anding, 1908

Shortly after the McNeils married, Ida learned Morse code. The couple began communicating via wireless radio when Dana McNeil’s work called him away from home. Technology and license upgrades allowed the McNeils to begin broadcasting voice signals in 1924. Theirs were the first broadcasts from a station that would be licensed in 1927 as commercial radio station KGFX. KGFX continues to operate from studios in Pierre.

In the early 1920s, many South Dakotans were either buying or building radio receivers. So called “crystal set” receivers were cheap and could receive and translate radio signals without a power source - and there were programs available. By the mid-1920s, South Dakota had several radio stations, most notably WNAX in Yankton, which began broadcasting in 1922. The radio station that would become KUSD in Vermillion and the home of South Dakota Public Broadcasting radio also began broadcasting in 1922.

People in range of the McNeil’s broadcast signal began listening to their conversations and communications and the couple began to realize that their radio hobby could be of service to others. Some listeners wrote letters to the station simply to let the McNeils know that they had an audience but one listener wrote to ask for a favor. Could Mrs. McNeil ask Mr. McNeil if he could possibly pick up a dress in Rapid City and bring it to Pierre. Before long, people were asking for not just delivery service, but information relay. Mrs. McNeil began broadcasting personal messages between distant listeners, acting as a go-between in a part of South Dakota where telephone service was still uncommon. She was soon broadcasting local news tidbits, community event announcements, station program information, and official weather reports compiled from data that she and a small staff collected from weather-monitoring equipment in Pierre. Mrs. McNeil would read birthday announcements and play the “Happy Birthday” song to mark the occasion. She read her advertisers commercials live on-air.

Ida McNeil Broadcast on KGFX, Pierre, 1951

Around 1928, Ida McNeil received a request from a woman in Onida, South Dakota. The woman wanted to know if Ida would call the Pierre hospital for an update on a patient and relay the information via the radio. The hospital provided Ida with the information and it was broadcast. So began many years of hospital update broadcasts. Mrs. McNeil would call St. Mary’s hospital in Pierre every day for a patient report. She would then go on air with information about patients’ conditions, when they were scheduled to be released, and even whether they were expected to live or had died.

St. Mary's Hospital, Pierre, SD 1930

In a KGFX Radio interview recorded in the 1970s, Ida McNeil recalled that the hospital was very supportive of the service. Some doctors saw it as a way to limit the number of hospital visitors. McNeil also noted that many roads in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the West River country, were in very poor condition. Rural people needed time to get from their farms and ranches to Pierre and no one wanted to make a long slow trip to town only to find out that the patient they cared about would not be released as scheduled.

Ida McNeil Interview, 1970

During World War II, KGFX radio was called upon to help with an aircraft emergency. A squadron of U.S. Army Air Corps aircraft had been ordered to land at the Pierre airport. The pilots were uncertain about the airport's location. Ida McNeil received a phone call from the military. She was asked to keep her transmitter running beyond the station's licensed hours so that the pilots could home in on her signal. The aircraft found Pierre and landed safely at the airport.

Ida McNeil rarely, if ever, spoke her own name over the radio. Regardless of whether or not listeners knew her true identity, the KGFX audience called her “Mrs. Pierre.”

Dana McNeil continued his railroad work but helped run the radio station until his death in 1936.

Ida McNeill was inducted to the South Dakota Broadcast Hall of Fame in 1972 and the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1978. She passed away in 1974.

Content and background for this blog post was provided by Diane Deis, KGFX Radio General Manager; Chuck Hanson, KGFX Production Director; and Jeri Smith, KGFX radio journalist.

Remembering "Mrs. Pierre"

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