Mayo Family Owns KLER, Rochester’s Second-Ever Radio Station #ThrowbackThursday

Charles W. Mayo and his wife Alice drive with Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Governor, Adlai Stevenson II in 1952
Dr. Charles W. Mayo and his wife Alice drive with Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, II, in 1952.

According to a recent article in the Post-Bulletin, the Mayo family owned the second-ever radio station in Rochester, Minnesota. KLER was on the air from 1948 to 1952 and was nominally launched by Alice Mayo, wife of Dr. Charles W. Mayo. "Dr. Chuck," as he was known, published a candid memoir in 1968, called Mayo: The Story of My Family and Career, in which he describes the radio venture.

After returning from his wartime service in November 1945, Dr. Mayo says, "My problems over money seemed to be worsening. Higher costs in every area were making it impossible to run Mayowood and keep up the Mayo tradition of hospitality there, but I could not abandon either." He sold off pieces of the Mayowood estate, "which never failed to grieve me."

Those real estate sales also were contrary to Mayo Clinic policy at that time: "It was forbidden that clinic doctors should have an outside income, but I was growing desperate," he wrote.

Then, a financial lifesaver appeared, a patient named John Edward Noble, who had years earlier "bought a company that made little round candies and had the idea to put a hole in them and called them Life Savers." With the fortune that ensued, he purchased a radio network then known as the Blue Network and renamed it ABC.

"On this occasion, when I was visiting him in his hospital room," Dr. Chuck wrote, "Ed was grousing because he couldn't listen to his network while in Rochester."

Dr. Chuck asked why he didn't start an ABC station in Rochester. Noble liked the idea, but it was Mayo who borrowed the money and put the plan into action in 1948. "We put up four 350-foot towers in a field near Mayowood and called the new station KLER."

To avoid clinic rules about outside income, Alice was named president, "fearing the wrath of the clinic's Board of Governors, I kept in the background as much as possible."

Then, however, "the local newspaper reported at some length about Rochester's new radio station and made prominent mention of the Mayo name—mine, to be specific. I waited, knowing that a terrible row with the (Board of Governors) was in the offing. Associates urged me to head off the storm by selling the station at once, but I wouldn't back down. My position wasn't too vulnerable, since the board couldn't fire me."

A special meeting was called to discuss the KLER matter. "I remember telling the board in some heat that no one there knew how much money my father had left me, or about the condition in his will, which was financially disastrous for me, or about the poor trusteeship of that will, or what I held to be poor trusteeship," he wrote, "The plain fact was, I continued, that I was heavily in debt and obliged to sell my land to keep from sinking."

Board members expressed surprise that he was in financial trouble. They gave him a pay raise and some expense relief for the "high cost of hospitality" at Mayowood. But they nonetheless advised him to get out of the radio business. "I replied that I would not and took that opportunity to point out that Harry Harwick, a board member and the clinic's financial administrator, was also on the board of directors of radio station KROC, my chief rival in Rochester."

The board responded that Harwick wasn't a doctor and was only a board member. So Dr. Chuck quit the board of KLER but declined to part ways with the station. "The meeting finally ended, and we went our ways, all of us feeling mangled by the encounter."

Alice Mayo continued to run the company for three years until it was sold to the Gentling family and KROC. According to Dr. Chuck, "we made no profit on the deal, my luck being consistent in that regard, but for a wonder, we didn't lose either."

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Alyssa Frank

Alyssa Frank is a Marketing Associate at Mayo Medical Laboratories. She supports marketing strategies for product management and specialty testing. Alyssa has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2015.