Writer: Christopher Schultz
Las Cruces Sun-News
In 1919, one of the brightest engineering minds in New Mexico history put Las Cruces on the map – and on the air.
That year, Ralph Goddard, a founder of the engineering school at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, broadcast the first signals from his hand-built radio station in a small shack on the college campus.
It was one of the first radio broadcasts west of the Mississippi, and the first-ever in New Mexico.
Over the next few years, KOB could claim several firsts, including one of the first play-by-play broadcasts of a college football game.
By the late 1920s, KOB was the largest college radio station in the world, and rightfully boasted of being the “voice of the Southwest,” reaching homes 1,000 miles away.
The Mesilla Valley’s own golden age of radio might not have happened without the tenacity and unusual talent of Ralph Willis Goddard, whose life and dramatic death was tied to one of the most significant technologies of the 20th century.
As a child and teen growing up around the turn of the century in Worcester, Mass., Goddard tinkered with all things mechanical, and fixated on electrical devices, reportedly developing a small electric trolley and a motorized tricycle.
Goddard worked as an electrical contractor before entering academia as a professor at the University of Nebraska.
Arriving at New Mexico College of A&MA in 1914 to help start up the college’s first engineering school, Goddard academia as a professor at the University of Nebraska.
Arriving at New Mexico College of A&MA in 1914 to help start up the college’s first engineering school, Goddard rose to dean in 1920, and would also serve as the director of the Experimental Station, as well as director of KOB.
A married father of four, Goddard belonged to numerous national engineering associations, and was a Mason and a Rotarian. He also served as the president of the Las Cruces Union High School Board during a pivotal time for Las Cruces public schools.
In 1925, Goddard oversaw the completion of the first dedicated high school, Las Cruces Union, at the corner of Picacho Avenue and Alameda Boulevard.
He was also president when the board approved the first-ever segregation of roughly three-dozen African-American students in Las Cruces, a policy that remained until 1954.
In one account within the Ralph Willis Goddard Papers at the NMSU Archives, Goddard explained that he relented to newcomers to Las Cruces and several members of the board who demanded segregation.
Mostly, however, Goddard’s eyes and ears were focused on the radio station he quite literally built with his own hands.
On the air
During World War I, Goddard trained signal corps operators, setting up small radio transmitters and stations in the Organ Mountains, where ROTC cadets often trained.
Goddard received an amateur broadcast license in late 1919 and assembled a small radio station using leftover gear and equipment he put together.
He started the college Radio Club and got his students up to speed on the new radio technology.
The first “broadcasts” were more like telegraph signals, and included weather reports and news items.
The Rio Grande Republican reported the club had installed several transmitters that relayed “messages to points all over the western half of the country, and provided telephone and telegraph communication between the military camp in the Organ Mountains and the College.”
Goddard and his students erected a wood framed building to the immediate south side of the engineering building, and a “high aerial” transmitting tower was installed atop the dome-shaped tower.
In early 1920, work finished on the first “telephone transmitter” enabling the transmission of voice and audio.
The newspaper reported as a test of the new system, Goddard broadcasted performances by singers “Misses Van Vleck and Kerwin” and “transmitted their solos where it was received and amplified by horns for all to hear.”
Goddard became an ambassador of technology and the possibilities of radio.
The Rio Grande Republican reported Goddard and two students drove around New Mexico, and large audiences turned out in Carlsbad, Hagerman and Artesia to see Goddard show how it all worked.
In 1922, the college radio station installed a 500-watt transmitter and, in April of that year, was given the call letters KOB.
Several nights a week, KOB began broadcasting music and educational programs, many presented by the college’s faculty. Initially, the broadcast radius was about 50 miles.
Goddard had a strong sense of radio’s portability, and he built a radio telephone set from which he could broadcast from the field.
He called what is believed to be one of the first play-by-play broadcasts in college athletics, with his coverage in October 1922 of the Aggie football team’s 56-0 pounding of the Albuquerque
Indians at Miller Field on campus.
KOB started broadcasting more live musical acts, including touring and local orchestras, quartets and singers.
Much of their informational programming focused on national and state news, as well as frequent agricultural programs.
Initially, Goddard funded most of the station himself and with small donations from local businessmen, farmers and supporters. The state legislature, seeing the benefit of statewide radio, soon began appropriating some money to KOB.
By the late 1920s, KOB’s 10,000-watt system, designed and built by Goddard and his students, was one of the most powerful radio stations in the country.
Meanwhile, Goddard received his professional degree from his alma mater in Worcester, where his thesis explored the development of KOB.
All seemed good for KOB and Goddard until the afternoon of Dec. 31, 1929.
As Goddard was preparing for the New Year’s Eve broadcast, his hand accidentally brushed an exciter, which was connected to the large direct current generators, sending 12,000 volts of electricity through his body.
Las Cruces doctors Troy Sexton and Robert McBride – a former college regent and friend of Goddard – determined Goddard was likely killed instantly.
KOB remained silent that night and didn’t come back on the air until days later, when Goddard’s memorial service was announced.
In March 1934, the engineering building was named Goddard Hall in his honor.
As for KOB, financial shortfalls led to the board of regents agreeing to move the station to Albuquerque, where the Albuquerque Journal would manage its operation. It continues as an FM station today.
After its exodus, there were no radio stations in Las Cruces until the college started up KNMS in the mid-1950s. In 1960, the college established an FM station called KRWG, named for Ralph Willis Goddard.
Christopher Schurtz is a Las Cruces freelance writer and historian.