WDZ started in 1917 in the office of the James Bush Grain Elevator Company in Tuscola, Illinois. The original call sign was 9JR and the original intent of the station was to broadcast grain prices, making it the first radio station to do so. The station later started mixing some music in with the agricultural reports.  In January, 1922, the call letters WDZ were assigned to the station.


       The new commercial WDZ would offer grain reports, but now saw a chance to help the poor and down-and-outs of the Depression Days in Illinois and nearby states with a little entertainment. The new manager of the station was "Mom (Edith) Bush". In organized confusion, singers and performers were wandering all over the grain and radio operation. As it was described, "the corn was green." Mom Bush insisted that all entertainment be performed live and in one room to prevent complete chaos. A song would be written by the famous Smiley Burnette about Mom Bush, entitled, "Momma Don't Allow No Music Played in Here."


       About 1930, a gangling kid was hired at WDZ. He was a song writer and singer and would stay at the station for a number of years. Ray Livesay tells the story of Smiley Burnette. He said that "Lester "Smiley* Burnette was a talent at the Tuscola station from 1930-1934, when he was hired by Western star and singer Gene Autry.  Autry had come from Chicago to audition Burnette in Tuscola. Burnette later gained stardom as Gene Autry's sidekick in more than 60 motion pictures with Autry and in several with another legendary cowboy star, Roy Rogers.  A singer, actor and comedian who could play dozens of musical instruments, Burnette was also well-known on national radio and television. He was featured as engineer Charlie Prattin in the "Petticoat Junction" series. Livesay ended his story of Smiley Burnette by stating that Burnette was a native of Fulton County and died in 1967.


       Ray Livesay recalls other popular talents at the old Tuscola WDZ. One performer was from Jewitt in Cumberland County, His name was Denver Darling and he played the guitar and sang on the station in the early 30's. He later made over 120 records in New York City* He died in 1981 at the age of 72.   Livesay also mentioned "Blue Grass Freeman", a balladeer and "Lazy Jim Day", a comedian who sang the news in the late 1930's. He put everything in rhyme, including the news.


J. L. Bush - 1929

From Tuscola.org

        For many years, Tuscola was known over a wide area as the home of radio station WDZ. It was the third radio broadcasting facility in the nation. Only KDKA, Cleveland and KMOX, St. Louis predated the local station. Work toward establishing the station began in 1918, when James L. Bush, local grain broker encouraged Clyde Wiley to build a 10 watt transmitter. Mr. Bush planned to use radio communication with outlying elevators. He had been telephoning grain elevator operators with market quotations but started broadcasting the quotations which would be cheaper. In March or April 1921, experimental station 9JR began. Curtis Marsh, a 14 year old errand boy, would put on a record to signal an upcoming report. When he was handed the report, he would run to the microphone, stop the record, strike a gong, and then read the report. This whole process lasted less than five minutes. This happened twice an hour. They rest of the hour was dead air until 1929. Raymond Muir, the manager of the commodities company, gave the opening and closing market reports each day with Marsh presenting all others.

In the spring of 1927, the station was given a fulltime 100-watt license. The station slogan was “the buckle of the corn belt.” The station was now given a license to broadcast at 1070 AM. and was confined to daytime only broadcasting.  In 1930, Edith Bush, wife of owner James Bush, became the station manager after the short tenure of the station’s first manager, E. J. Donaldson. Ruth Moore became the assistant manager. In March, 1936, the WDZ’s frequency again changed, this time to 1020 a.m. and power increased to 250 watts. In 1939 a final power increase took the station’s power up to 1000 watts, still as a daytime only station.

WDZ EARLY EQUIPMENT TO TRANSMIT AT NIGHT AROUND THE WORLD                                                                                                                                                                                         

This was the second of four transmitters used by the station. The 50-watt transmitter shown was used from 1923 until 1931. This station used A and B storage batteries. This was before electronics experts had learned how to convert alternating current into direct current.




WDZ Medallion

Lazy Jim Day


Mary and Kay Key, Sisters

Smiley Burnette with Mrs. Bush.  Smiley was later tagged to star in TV Show: Petticoat Junction.

Lester Burnett began performing and announcing on WDZ in early 1930. It was on that show that he took a character name, “Mr. Smiley”, a name with which he eventually became famous as: Smiley Burnette. 

Other members of the staff and entertainers included: Jimm Seaney who at ten years old sang with a church group on WDZ and became a regular member of the staff after high school; Grace and Delbert Cooley. Delbert was the “Lonely Farm Boy” in 1935 until he married Grace and they formed a band called, “Suzanne and the Covered Wagon Boys.” Cora Kennedy sang for Kennedy Hatcheries about 1931; Betty Lindenmeyer came in 1944 and played eight shows a day; Mary Kay Lamb was secretary for three years and when in seventh grade, she and Jean Burmeister played a clarinet duet; Georgiana Feeler Gire played her electric accordion when local girls began playing over the air in the late 30’s and 40’s; Ada Wells Farris and Opal Wells Barbee were once know on WDZ as the Wells twins. They were in fact sisters, not twins. They sang on “Aunt Ruthie’s Birthday Party” every Saturday morning.

Albert K. Walls played the fiddle on the “Kitchen Barn Dance”, “Ranch Hands” and “Al and Judy.” Other names include: Fern Bialeschki, Johnny Ambrose, Bertha Milby Bratton, Dorothy Michael Newlin, James Musker Albin, Clarice Brewer LaBarr, Frank Jennings, Fay Walls, Troy Gibbs, Gib Buchanan, Kenneth and Goldie Hudson, Margaret, Mary and Daisy McQueen, Jerry Cassena, Martha Toopes Dales, Elwood Farmer, Juanita and Francis Beck and many others.

The station remained in Tuscola until 1949. After moving to Decatur, an auxiliary studio was operated in Tuscola by Curt Marsh until 1956. The studio was moved from the abstract office to the McCumber Building that year, and Rosemary Nussel operated it until 1958.

May, 1956

Wib Hoel,

Smiley Burnette,

Aunt Ruthie Moore,

Curt Marsh,

Sherman Marsh




Return to the Radio History Home Page

Learning On-Line Home Page