Television’s History in Helena



By Wally Peel

     Our story begins with the establishment of KPFA, Helena’s first Radio Station.  KPFA went on the air in 1937.  The studios were located in the east residence of a log building that was part of the former Intermountain College Lodges at 1306 11th Avenue, the present location of the Office of Public Instruction.  Cost of the project was reported to be $12,700 and construction was expected to be completed within a week to ten days after the steel for the tower arrived.

 KXLJ Interior 1946

    The station call letters, KPFA, stood for The People’s Forum of the Air.  Barclay Craighead was President of the Corporation.  Other members included Ed Craney of Butte, Vice President, and S. C. Ford, Helena, Treasurer.  Kenneth O. McPherson of Butte became Manager.

       Mr. Craney owned station KGIR Radio in Butte.  In 1939 station KRBM in Bozeman was added.   It was run by Ernest Neath.  The three stations, all affiliated with NBC, were known as the Z-Bar Network.  They were linked together by telephone circuits, and received national programming from the flagship station in Butte.  Two more stations, KXLK, Great Falls, and KXLL in Missoula  joined the group.

      In 1945 Craney received permission from the FCC to change all the station call letters to the “XL” designation.  KPFA in Helena became KXLJ.  Butte’s KGIR became KXLF.  In Bozeman, KRBM became KXLQ.  They, along with KXLY-Spokane, KXLE-Ellensberg and KXL in Portland became the “XL” Network.

     The same year, Craney formed the Pacific Northwest Broadcasters (PNB) with the assistance of James Manning who handled Regional advertising campaigns.  

 KXLJ Radio Control Room 1946  
 Control Room of KXLJ – 1946  Note the NBC Chimes under the turntable
Test Pattern


IT WAS 1957


 Dwight David Eisenhower was President

 Governor J. Hugo Aronson

 J. Hugo Atonson, "The Galloping Swede" was Governor of Montana

First Class Stamps were 3 cents. 3 Cent Stamp The Edsel was introduced.  A 2 door sedan sold for $2300.  A convertible was just under $3500.
     Helena's Two radio stations were playing the "Hits which included such memorable tunes as "Honeycomb" by Jimmie Rogers...Perry Como's "Round and Round"..."Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers...Paul Anka's "Diana"...and Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear" and "Jailhouse Rock".
Jimmie Rogers Records Perry Como Records Everly Brothers Records Paul Anka Records Elvis Presley
Top Shows 1957
 TV Antenna

     About town some homes sported masts that reached above the treetops with antennas that were literally bigger than the Buick in the driveway.

     Inside they were watching television.

     Those massive antennas were pulling in a signal from KXLF in Butte.  The picture was black and white, the quality of the signal was poor, but it was TELEVISION.

 Helena had entered the 20th Century


     On January 1, 1958, from the Quonset hut on North Montana Avenue, KXLJ TV in Helena went on the air.  At the time there were no other businesses nearby.  That location is presently occupied by O’Reilly Auto Parts.

KXLJ Quonset Hut  KXLJ Radio and TV 
Control Room of KXLJ TV – 1958 

January 1, 1958

     KXLJ TV came on the air Wednesday January 1, 1958.   Barclay Craighead, a stockholder and manager of KXLJ Radio was President of the newly incorporated Capital City Television.

     That was a day one announcer would likely never forget.  As the story goes, he was hosting the first live broadcast on KXLJ-TV, Understandably, the man was a bit nervous.  When it came time for him to introduce Station Manager Barclay Craighead to the viewers, he accidentally referred to his boss as “Craigley Barkhead”.  Although we have not been able to verify this story, it has been told often enough that it has become a part of the station legend.  It was our first (of many) Bloopers.

 Kennon Baird of California sent these memories of our first day…

   “I remember the day KXLJ TV signed on the air—at least I think it was the first day.  There must have been an open house at the studio, because I saw lots of local folks on the screen, many of whom were interviewed on camera by a fellow asking them where in town they lived, and how their reception was.

 During those early days, KXLJ filled the gaps in their broadcast day by showing a lot of 1930’s cartoons—the surreal ones, a la Betty Boop.  As a lad of seven, I hadn’t seen them before and they made quite an impression.”

Station Front Station Front Closeup

Kennon Baird has more memories of our early days…

     “I also remember when they’d open the big doors of the KXLJ Quonset, and televise a parade of used cars driving through the studio, while Ralph Anderson of  Capital Ford  gave out with glowing descriptions and low low prices.  They’d even do it when it was snowing, and the cars would be all wet and slushy.

     I recall some of the early Helena TV personalities: Bob Ruby, Blair Morrison, Bob Norris (“Breakfast With Bob & Blair”), Al Johnson, Doug Sutherland, Terry Bass, Wally Peel…

It was quite an era.”


Engineer Don Hoffman Don Hoffman in the studio.


     We would like to thank the late Don Hoffman of Helena for his contribution of many great pictures of our early days of broadcast, and for a wealth of information about our station.  Don began his broadcast career at KXLJ Radio in 1951, mowing the lawn and cleaning, and was an assistant engineer.  He became our Chief Engineer in 1957.  He is the man who, along with the XL engineering staff actually built this station from the ground up.  Don left Helena to work at KXLF AM-TV in Butte, and later worked for Mountain Bell and AT&T.  Upon retirement he returned to the Helena area.  For his invaluable contributions to this Station History we are extremely grateful.

Test Pattern

 Test Pattern


 Historic Coverage

     For the first time in the history of Montana, Legislators and Montana Citizens were brought closer together by the television facilities of KXLJ-TV 12 in Helena.  The availability of this local informational feature gave Montanans a chance to see and hear their lawmakers.  Legislators could quickly present their activities to people over nearly the entire state.

     From the early days, KPFA and KXLJ devoted a great deal of time on a public service basis to Government activities.  KXLJ was the first station in the country to broadcast proceedings of a State Supreme Court.

     KXLJ was the first station to develop a Statewide Network to bring listeners Statewide Election Returns, and KXLJ TV brought Statewide Election Returns to Television viewers in its first year on the air.

     It should be noted here that in 1950, KXLJ Radio was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award, the highest award in radio for its program Legislative Highlights, coverage of Montana’s 31st Legislative Assembly.  It was the first time any station in the Rocky Mountain Region had won such an award.

 Peabody Award

    During the first week of the 36th Assembly, KXLJ TV began a series of daily programs, each featuring two legislators who were allowed to speak on any subject they chose.

          On January 6, 1959, KXLJ set a milestone in Montana Television History when it filmed excerpts of Governor Aronson’s hour long State of the State message from the House of Representatives.

     On January 8, 1959, KXLJ TV ran the excerpts of the Governor’s message.  The station had sent its movie film by air for processing in South Dakota.  This remarkable technology meant we could have video of an event on the air within 48 hours of it happening.

     Shortly thereafter KXLJ TV installed film processing equipment of its own in the studios, and a sound on film camera at the Capitol.  Film of the day’s events could be processed in Helena, but since it was to be broadcast over the network facilities, each day the film was transported to Butte, processed, edited, and then broadcast on a network that included the Helena station.  This cut the turnaround time from event to air to within 8 to 12 hours.

     The Legislature held a rare Saturday session of January 31st.  That was the last of the stations Legislative coverage, as two actions by the Federal Communications Commission forced KXLJ TV to suspend operation.

Station Goes Dark

     The Federal Communications Commission authorized and licensed microwave channels which allowed cable television to grow rapidly in the 1950’s.  These CATV (Community Antenna Television) systems went unchecked by the FCC.  Commissioners felt that the developing  Cable industry was out of its jurisdiction.

     The Helena station had been on the air for a little more than a year when a competing cable company brought in signals from two Spokane stations, KHQ and KREM.

     Up to that point KXLJ TV had been showing some improvement in revenue through the sale of advertising.

     The Spokane stations duplicated some of the programming on KXLJ.  Some of those shows aired on the Spokane stations before they aired in Helena.  Other shows that aired first in Helena were shown later on the Spokane stations.   Local businesses became reluctant to spend their advertising dollars on KXLJ when many of the same programs were on the cable system.  With the duplication of programming, they had no guarantee that local residents would see their ads.

     It was difficult for the local station to compete with the multi-channel cable system.  Capital City Television (KXLJ) asked the FCC for a hearing on the matter.  That hearing was refused, and the case, Capital City Television Inc. v Federal Communications Commission went to the Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.

     The Federal Communications Commission had also closed all new VHF booster stations and directed all existing VHF boosters to shut down by June 30, 1959.  That prevented KXLJ TV from expanding its coverage area.

     On January 30th, 1959, KXLJ TV requested permission from the FCC to suspend operation.  Permission was granted, and on January 31, 1959 the station went off the air.

      In a letter to the FCC, Craighead stated that the Z-Bar Network was willing to loan more money to KXLJ –TV if the case against the Commission was decided in the stations favor.  He further stated that it would be foolish for a small market station like Helena to pump more money into a losing proposition created by a change in rules that allowed microwave channels to feed CATV systems.  He advised them that is and when there was a return to the same rules that existed when the Helena station was granted a construction permit,, KXLJ TV would borrow internally and resume operation immediately.

     In July of 1959 a Federal Court injunction blocked the FCC order that would have removed the Spokane channels from the cable system.

      The U.S. 9th Court of Appeals granted a temporary injunction that allowed the cable company to continue relaying signals from Spokane until at least August 4th.  KXLJ- TV said it would return to the air when the out of state channels were removed.

      The Spokane signals were stopped when the Court of Appeals vacated their temporary injunction on August 6, 1959.  KXLJ-TV returned to the air that evening at 6:57PM.


     In 1961 Craney sold the Z-Bar Network to Joseph Sample.  The sale included KXLF Radio and TV in Butte, and KXLJ-AM and KXLJ-TV in Helena.

     Sample then sold the Helena stations to the local Cable Company Helena TV Incorporated for $300,000.

Paul McAdam

     The new owners were Bob Magness, Paul B. McAdam and J. L. McLaughlin of Great Falls, and W. L. Piehl of Helena.  Other major stockholders were E. E. Palmquist and E. J. Palmquist.  Magness owned and operated the Cable system in Bozeman, and later created TCI Cable.  McAdam owned the Park Theatre and KPRK Radio in Livingston.  At one time he owned and operated the Rio Theatre in Helena.  Magness and McAdam were major stockholders in Western Microwave, the company that brought television signals from Salt Lake City to Helena.  Piehl owned an appliance business, Polar Refrigeration in Helena.

Bob Magness

     Piehl said “The purchase reflects the confidence of the owners of the cable company in the future growth and prosperity of Helena, and reflects their desire to make the television and radio service more responsive to the needs of the community.  It will also enable the residents of Helena and the vicinity to exercise a choice of live television network programs similar to that enjoyed by people in other parts of the country.  We intend to provide for cable subscribers not only the Spokane signals formerly received on the cable, but also the programs broadcast by CBS television station KXLY-TV, Spokane and the local station KXLJ-TV.”

     Change of ownership brought a change in call letters.  The stations became KBLL Radio and KBLL-TV.

 Why K-B-L-L???

     On the air announcers pronounced KBLL as "Cable".  Listeners would hear the phrase “Cable Radio” many times throughout the  broadcast day.

     This was a form of subliminal advertising as it was ti remind listeners of the Cable Company in the hopes that some would sign up for Cable TV Service.

     In 1962 an application was filed with the FCC for the sale of KBLL Radio and TV to Capital City Television, Incorporated, a new corporation headed by McAdam, Magness and W. L. Piehl.

1968 was a big year for us.

Tim M.Babcock - Owner

     In April of 1968 the FCC approved the sale of KBLL Radio and TV to Governor Tim Babcock and W. L. Holter of Glasgow.  The deal fell through when Holter decided not to buy.

      In September of that year Babcock filed an amended application to purchase a majority of stock from Paul McAdam and A. W. Scribner.

     Our call letters were changed to KTCM.  The TCM stood for Television Capital of Montana.

      In December of 1969, Tim and Betty Babcock announced plans to build the Colonial Motor Hotel and Supper Club on the east edge of town.  Upon completion, KBLL Radio was moved to the mezzanine of the Colonial.  It was thought the TV station would relocate to the Colonial as well, but that didn’t happen.

     The Radio station was sold to Holter Broadcasting in 1973.

Another major step was the introduction of color.

     In the beginning, all our broadcasts were in black and white.   Big cities had Color TV, but we did not.  In those early days there was a device that simulated a color picture.  It was a blue, red and green plastic film that attached to the TV screen.

      The blue field represented the sky, the red tinted area where people were most likely to appear , and the green band colored the bottom of the screen where one might expect to see grass.  As you can imagine, there were limitations, but they actually did enhance TV viewing.

Screen cover to simulate ColorTV


Nancy Goodspeed in front of the big TK-42 camera.

    That was also the year we began broadcasting in Color. 

     We had one Color Camera in the studio. 

     It was an RCA TK-42.  The camera itself weighed 300 pounds.

     The very large pedestal it was mounted on is still being used in our studio today.

    Above, Nancy Goodspeed at the weather board.  In the shadows, a cameraman operates the massive RCA Camera.
 Transmitter site on Hogback Mountain       In August of 1975 KTCM received permission from the FCC to increase its power from 970 watts to 251,000 watts.  The station transmitter at the Montana Avenue location was replaced with a new one that was located on top od Hogback Mountain north of town.  It was estimated there would be 350,000 people in the coverage area that would encompass 22,000 square miles.  At the time, that was the largest coverage area in Montana.  This was a huge step forward.

     Babcock sold the station to Lynn Koch in 1979.

The call letters changed to KTVG.

Don Bradley

     Don Bradley bought the station on August of 1985 and we became KTVH

     The TVH stood for TeleVision for Helena.
KYVH Logo 1980

     The station wasn’t exactly a Fortune 500 Company.  Through the years it struggled financially. 

     In 1988 it was sold again.  The new owner was Big Sky Broadcasting.  John Radeck moved his family to Helena, and began managing the station.  In nine years time his expertise brought the station from bankruptcy to a profitable and respected business.

  John and Janice Radek and Mac
 Sunbelt Communications Logo

     Sunbelt Communications Company purchased the station on July 9, 1997.

 Sunbelt Communications Company which operates stations in Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

     Sunbelt promised us a new facility and they made good on that promise.  On August 14, 1998 KTVH moved to a new state-of-the-art Broadcast Facility on the campus of Carroll College. It’s a home we’re very proud of.  

     In 2001 Sunbelt Communications Company expanded further into Montana when satellite stations of Helena's KTVH went on the air in Havre and Lewistown.

    Sunbelt Communications Company had further plans to include Great Falls as a new member of its Broadcast Family.

     On July 1, 2005, KBGF-LP was awarded the NBC affiliation to Great Falls, Montana and became the newest member of the Sunbelt Stations.

     At that time, the family launched a new name to represent all of the Sunbelt stations in Montana.  Beartooth NBC was the name, and a commitment to local news coverage for Helena, Great Falls, Havre and Lewistown was the goal.  

      2008 marked the 50th Anniversary Broadcasting to the Helena community. Through several ownerships and call letter changes, this station has always broadcast the NBC network for the Helena Area.

      KTVH was the first to switch to all digital in Montana .
     In our 50th year, we took a step into the next phase of broadcasting… Digital Television.  

      Although KTVH had been broadcasting in digital for some time in preparation of the switch to digital in February 2009, KTVH made the jump ahead of many other stations and switched to all digital by turning off our analog signal early.   

 Chuck Witkowski and Cheryl Reather prepare to  

     KTVH made a successful switch to all digital at noon on November 10, 2008. The FCC granted Beartooth Communications Company and KTVH the right to make the switch early fearing their engineers might not be able to safely reach the transmitter site atop of Hogback Mountain in February of 2009. 

     The nationwide digital transition was ultimately changed by the FCC to June 12, 2009. By that time KTVH had already been broadcasting in all digital and passing through NBC network HD programming for seven months. 

      KBGF-LP, however, is a low power station and was not required to make the switch to digital at this point. The Great Falls station is broadcasting in standard definition/analog. 

     In August of 2010, Sunbelt Communications Company changed its name to Intermountain West Communications Company. The name change was discussed by Owner Jim Rogers along with President/CEO Ralph Toddre.  They asked for suggestions from the employees of Sunbelt for a name which better reflects all of the markets represented by the company stations throughout the Rocky Mountain region.           

     Intermountain West Communications Company serves communities in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming.

Intermountain West Communications Company Logo

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Al Marks

Al Marks

Sports Anchor and Reporter for Beartooth NBC
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