Radio Station Return to its Roots

By Beacon Staff

John Hendricks and George Ostrom recently sat in the renovated KGEZ radio building recalling the 1950s, a time of great transition for media in the Flathead Valley. Television was just arriving, as was the region’s second radio station.

From 1927 until the arrival of KOFI in 1955, KGEZ was the only radio station in Northwest Montana. It’s the second-oldest station in the state. Hendricks grew up listening to KGEZ, thumbing through a local publication to carefully examine the daily programming schedule. And he’d turn the dial over to KOFI as well, to see what Ostrom had to say.

If KGEZ is part of the very foundation of Montana’s radio culture, so too is Ostrom, a member of the Montana Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. Beginning with a radio gig for KOFI in 1956, Ostrom developed a dedicated following through the decades. He’s endearing, enduring and now, in his 80s, he’s back.

John Hendricks, right, and George Ostrom talk about the history of the KGEZ radio station in one of the renovated broadcasting booths.

“I think people will be glad to have me back talking to them,” Ostrom said. “And I’ll be very glad to be back talking to them.”

Ostrom paused to consider his lengthy radio career.

“I was old when I started in this business 55 years ago,” he said.

Three years after leaving KOFI, Ostrom is joining the team at Hendricks’ KGEZ 600 AM. The building, property and radio towers are owned by Todd and Davar Gardner as part of a bankruptcy settlement involving previous owner John Stokes. While the Gardners will maintain ownership, Hendricks is fully in charge of KGEZ’s programming and day-to-day affairs through a local marketing agreement.

Hendricks was raised in the Flathead Valley. He left behind the Big Sky state to carve out a successful career in radio and television, in locales as varied as Seattle, Denver and New York. But he never forgot those Montana voices of his youth, the men like Ostrom who commanded the airwaves and established themselves as local celebrities.

A couple of years ago, Hendricks returned to his native Flathead, to get back in touch with his roots and, perhaps, reacquaint himself with those voices. When the Gardners took over KGEZ, he saw a unique opportunity to meld an institution of his childhood with his own modern ambitions. He approached the Gardners and they liked what they heard.

“He came to us with a good plan and we were willing to give it a shot and see how it works,” Todd Gardner said. “We were really impressed with his enthusiasm and the direction he wanted to go with the radio station.”

He added: “It’s really community oriented and John seems focused on taking KGEZ back to its roots.”

George Ostrom laughs while telling a story about his early days on the radio in one of the recently renovated broadcast booths at KGEZ.

Last week, Hendricks was overseeing final renovations before launching his station’s official programming, scheduled for Feb. 8. In the meantime, the station was live, playing 10,000 straight songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Old pop tunes from that era will be the music staple at KGEZ, though Hendricks has a lot in store than just music.

Hendricks is open to experimenting with his programming, based on what listeners want. Current plans include news provided by the Associated Press and localized as needed. On Sundays, Emmy award-winning Rabbi Allen Secher will host a show. When Ostrom is on air, he will have the freedom to provide his own brand of news and comment, Hendricks said. The station’s lineup will constantly evolve.

“What we are today is probably way different than we’re going to be in a year,” Hendricks said. “We’re going to be flexible. We haven’t really ruled out any ideas for special programs.”

Hendricks believes KGEZ will represent the culmination of his career.

“This thing is going to take all the skill and all the experience I’ve ever had in my 40 years of radio,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but I think it’s going to be very fun.”

Both the Gardners and Hendricks are eager to usher KGEZ into a new era, one that more resembles its heyday of decades past. Gardner said he’s spoken with the city about its need to purchase the radio towers in order to address a long-running concern over municipal air space. But city officials have indicated such a move is years away. When it happens, Gardner is confident a deal will be struck that pleases all parties.

“We’ve always communicated with them that we’re good neighbors and we’ll be glad to work with them,” Gardner said.

Hendricks said the well-publicized disputes involving Stokes are “history.”

“We’re beyond that,” Hendricks said. “We want to do something the community’s proud of. We want to inform, entertain and, hopefully, inspire.”

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