Flashback : Dallas

A Miscellany: History, Ads, Pop Culture

Give a 15-Year-Old 8,400 Pounds of Soap and He’ll Carve You a Radio Transmitter — 1930

Michael Owen, Jr., boy soap-carver 1930

by Paula Bosse

In 1930, 15-year-old sculptor Michael G. Owen, Jr. carved a replica of the WFAA transmitter building out of 8,400 pounds of Ivory soap. And why not? It was a big draw at that year’s State Fair of Texas.

Mike Owen, a student at well-to-do Highland Park High School (although Dallas artist Olin Travis, who had him as a pupil at about this time, described him as being “very poor”), had been sculpting all sorts of things, from the age of 3. He had begun winning awards when he was 13 or 14, one in an earlier “soap modeling” contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Not only did that soap-carving award result in young Mr. Owen being commissioned by Sanger Bros. to carve a model of the downtown skyline (I’m not sure this commission was ever actually completed), he was also asked to create an attraction for the State Fair: a replica-in-soap of the WFAA transmitter plant located on Northwest Highway near Grapevine (see a photo of the transmitter building and tower here). Owen worked from blueprints of the building and a bronze model supplied by the Belo Corporation (owner of WFAA), and Proctor & Gamble supplied the huge bars of Ivory soap (12 bars, each weighing 700 pounds). The finished piece was an “exact replica” of the 50,000-watt transmitter plant and was touted by Procter & Gamble as being the largest soap sculpture ever executed. It was a big hit at the 1930 State Fair of Texas.

Michael Owen went on to become a professional artist, with early enthusiastic support from Jerry Bywaters. He was associated with the Dallas Nine (and was, by far, the youngest member affiliated with that somewhat amorphous group), and I will address his more serious non-soap forays into the art world in a later post. But, first, back to soap!

The photo below shows Mike Owen’s finished product, which took him 12 days to complete.

owen_wfaa-soap_degolyerBelo Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU

It’s difficult to tell what the size of the finished work was from this photo, but it was described as being five feet high and seven feet wide. So… big. When it was displayed at the fair it was, for some reason, bathed in blue light. After the 12 days it took Owen to complete this sculpture, I bet that kid was squeaky-clean and positively reeked of Ivory soap.




Sources & Notes

Photo of Owen’s soap carving of the WFAA transmitter plant is from the Belo Records collection, DeGolyer Library. Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University; more information on this photo can be found on the SMU website here.

Other Flashback Dallas posts on artist and sculptor Michael G. Owen, Jr.:

  • For a look at Owen’s professional career as a sculptor, see my post “Michael G. Owen, Jr., Dallas Sculptor of Lead Belly” here.
  • To read about the Peruna monument SMU commissioned him to produce in 1937 (when he had just turned 22), see my post here.

UPDATE: Read about a recently discovered large painting by Owen up for auction in Dallas in 2019 here.


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.


WFAA & WBAP’s Unusual Broadcasting Alliance


by Paula Bosse


I looked at this photograph and thought, “That’s odd. Two competing radio stations from two competing newspapers from two competing cities used the same radio transmitter. How did that happen?” And then I read about the extremely unusual time-sharing arrangement that WFAA (which was owned by The Dallas Morning News) and WBAP (which was owned by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram) maintained for 41 years.

I’ll link to a story that fully explains this extraordinary arrangement, but, briefly, WFAA and WBAP both broadcast on two frequencies, trading off throughout the day. A typical schedule looked like this:


The two frequencies were 570 and 800 (later 820) kilohertz on the AM band. When WFAA was broadcasting on 570, WBAP was broadcasting on 820. On the agreed-upon time, the stations would switch over to the other frequency. Back and forth. Over and over and over. All day long. They were independent stations with independent programming, network affiliations, on-air talent, and advertising departments. And this went on for FORTY-ONE YEARS! Until 1970! How had I never heard of this?

Apparently it wasn’t all that big a deal to the stations or the listeners. Things were getting a little strained by 1969, though, when WBAP went whole-hog into playing country music (and eventually became one of the most successful country stations in the United States). It was time to go their own ways. The split was amicable, and both stations felt that the unusual partnership had worked well for all concerned.

So why did this happen in the first place? Because of the 820 frequency. 820 was a clear channel frequency, which meant that the station that owned it could broadcast at an incredible 50,000 watts — enough to be heard all over the Western hemisphere; 570 boasted a measly 5,000 watts, and, as someone said, “people might hear you in Sherman … but maybe not.” Neither WFAA or WBAP wanted to give up the clear channel powerhouse, which is why their piggy-backing partnership lasted as long as it did. But, ultimately, WBAP got 820 and was a major broadcasting force to be reckoned with. WFAA radio got the short end of the stick and sputtered along at 570 on the AM dial for a few lackluster years but never recovered from losing its half-share of 820 AM. In the WFAA-WBAP showdown: Fort Worth 1, Dallas 0.


Look at this crazy billboard from 1963 — it flashed which frequency WFAA was currently broadcasting on.

WFAA-WBAP_broadcasting_042263Broadcasting, April 22, 1963


Sources & Notes

Photo of the transmitter building from WFAA, WBAP, KGKO Combined Family Album (Dallas-Fort Worth, 1941). Yes, there was actually a THIRD station involved in all of this for a while — KGKO out of Wichita Falls! Here’s an ad from the 1941-42 Texas Almanac, via the Portal to Texas History (click to see a larger image):


Sample schedule is from the definitive article on this bizarre broadcasting alliance: “You Have Half a Station, We Have Half a Station” — How WFAA in Dallas and WBAP in Fort Worth Shared Radio Frequencies for Four Decades by John Mark Dempsey, from the Spring, 1999 issue of Legacies magazine, which can and SHOULD be read, here.

For another photo of this transmitter building, see a previous post here.


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.


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