Tom Jones was an FM radio pioneer, building KNXR into one of the most technically advanced and distinctive stations in the region.
KNXR took to the air on Christmas Eve 1965. The launch was a gamble for the then-29-year-old entrepreneur. Up until the early 1960s, successful FM stations were far and few between.
Back then, AM radio reigned supreme. So forlorn was the FM band that it was once called the "Forgotten Medium." Many FM license owners in the 1940 and '50s, unable to figure out a way to monetize them, simply returned them.
But Jones' vision and tenacity of purpose drove KNXR to prominence, developing in the process a devoted following through the decades and heralding FM's rise. KNXR under Jones' control would go on to a 50-year run.
Jones, 84, died June 11, five years after he sold KNXR for a song, friends say. In his later years, he became disillusioned and embittered by his treatment and departure from an industry that he had given his life to.
KNXR was a powerful 100,000-watt station whose signal covered a huge area. Its clear-as-a-bell sound reached into homes and businesses north of the Twin Cities and well into Wisconsin and Iowa.
"If you turned up and down the dial, KNXR was instantly recognizable," said Carl Rolfs, a one-time KNXR engineer. "The signal, the sound quality, was far and above everything else on the dial."
Jones was bitten by the radio bug early. As a teen, he worked out of his Rochester attic with a crank-up phonograph and radio with a coat-hanger antenna and red light on top. Drafted into the army in 1958, Jones built his first radio station for a base hospital. The experience planted the idea that Jones could build his own station in Rochester.
Forward-thinking and entrepreneurial, Jones brought a techie's programming skills and a single-mindedness to his work, friends and employees say. In contrast to its dismal reputation at the time, Jones was an "early and ardent FM advocate," one friend said.
There weren't many FM radio stations to point to as models of success. The lack of FM radios meant there was no guaranteed audience for his station.
But FM was capable of producing a superior audio quality — a stereo sound — than AM radio. For an audiophile of Jones' caliber, it was an obvious draw. The public began to notice the difference, too, making FM stations the primary vehicle for music.
"He was an absolute believer," said Steve Moravec, president of Phoenix Media Group and one-time owner of a couple of Rochester radio stations.
"Tom told me once that when he applied for 97.5, he had his choice," Moravec said. "I can't remember how many he said, but upward of a dozen frequencies were available in Rochester. He picked 97.5 because he liked the dial position."
KNXR was a "beautiful music" station, playing easy-listening and semi-classical music. It was a format that Jones stuck with through the decades, even as listenership for it declined. It featured John Doremus' program, "Patterns in Music," on weeknights. KNXR scored well in Arbiton ratings, and Jones loved to go toe-to-toe with rock and Top 40 stations locally.
Jones pioneered commercials that featured a conversation with a business owner rather than slogans and jingles. He hobnobbed with the early movers and shakers of radio, including Bill Kling, founder of Minnesota Public Radio.
"KNXR had the ears of a lot of folks around the Kahler Hotel, IBM and other places in Rochester, and really the station became a legend," said Kimball Cummings, a radio announcer who worked for Jones in the early 1970s and is now a volunteer of an online tribute radio station to Jones, 97Five.
The station started in a north Rochester location before relocating to the Holiday Inn on South Broadway and then later to a specially built site on Greenview Drive in Southwest Rochester. Jones also operated a recording studio. In contrast to today's heavily automated radio industry, Jones' station was run on old-school principles.
An engineer spun the records and operated the sound console. The announcer, separated from the engineer by a glass wall, read the news, sports and weather. The sound was first-rate, because Jones didn't stint on expensive equipment.
"He was a first-class artist and owner," Cummings said. "He wanted the best equipment, the best sound. And he paid for it, and the results were excellent."
But Jones stayed with radio and his beautiful music format longer than most broadcasters. In 2013, Minnesota Public Radio sued Jones. Jones was in a partnership with MPR at the time. The suit alleged that Jones and the corporation he led embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and deprived MPR and the partnership of revenue. MPR eventually took over the partnership, former employees say.
"The MPR thing was very unfortunate," Moravec said. "He had a very hard time. I remember him saying, 'Why is this happening to me?' "
Jones was a visionary and skilled technical person, but he did not bring similar gifts to the business side of radio. Eventually, Jones sold KNXR to an Albert Lea outfit.
"They got a steal for it, almost appalling so," Moravec said.
"It was the loss of KNXR that brought him down to the depths. He was crushed by that," Cummings said.
In 2017, Cummings and Ken Johanson founded 97Five, an online radio station. Johanson was a listener of KNXR growing up in Rochester. Johanson became one of Jones' closest friends in the last decade of his life. He suggested to Jones that KNXR's unique sound be transferred online. Jones was intrigued by the idea. Today, 97Five broadcasts 24 hours a day, running programs and music that were KNXR's style and signature.
Jones was at first a reluctant listener to the station, as it conjured up painful memories of a station he had lost. But in the last year or so of his life, he listened to it more, Johanson said.
"He did listen to it much more and would tell me how much he appreciated the fidelity to it," Johanson said.