ABC 6 News - KAAL TV History

This television station made its debut in Austin August 17, 1953 with the call letters KMMT.
It has been telecasting over channel 6 since that day. The first TV Station Manager, L.L. McCurnin stated in a media release that the KMMT call letters really didn't stand for anything, they were just what the FCC selected from a list of suggested call letters submitted with the station application.

The original owners were four Austin businessmen, Martin Busted, Harry Smith, Palmer Ulland and George Wilson. At first it was a low power CBS/ABC/Dumont station. Its primary affiliation was CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting Company but it was also affiliated the ABC, the American Broadcasting System and Dumont. The debut newspaper ad for KMMT noted that they were serving a population of 500,000 in Southern MN and Northern Iowa. In late 1954 KMMT became, and continues to be, exclusively an ABC affiliate. At that time, ABC was the smallest of the three networks. The new television station shared a building with KAUS radio on Highway 105 South in Austin.

The first KMMT broadcast was from 5:30 to 10:20 PM on August 17, 1953. According to an Austin Daily Herald newspaper article the first programming that viewers saw was a fifteen-minute organ recital by Eddie Schofield of Charles City, Iowa. He was the staff pianist for WHO TV in Des Moines and brought a Hammond organ to the TV studio for the event. The recital was followed by a mystery film entitled "$5 Tip" at 5:45 PM. Local news, weather and sports took the air from 6 to 6:30 PM. Entertainment programming was scheduled from 6:30 to 10 PM and the first programming day concluded with the news at 10:00 and the weather at 10:15 PM. Sign-off was at 10:20 PM.  The second phase for expanding the programming day was planned for late September or early October to coincide with new fall network programs. The third, and final, phase of getting to full operation was based on cable hook-up to live programs from the networks.

KMMT produced local programs in addition to news, weather and sports. The Hemingway Talent Show was on the air in 1953 and 1954 with Gloria Kopet as the station piano accompanist as confirmed by Stan Stydnicki, former Vice-President of Operations. Pastor Joe Matt began recording THE FAMILY HOUR, his weekly religion program in KAAL studio on May 1, 1955. It continued until April 2001 and as far as we know, held a record as the longest running, locally produced religious program in the United States. THE FAMILY HOUR broadcasts ended with the retirement of Pastor Joe Matt.

We became exclusively the local ABC affiliate. Ownership changed hands between 1956 and 1957 when Blackhawk Broadcasting, based in Waterloo Iowa purchased KMMT. There were several significant milestones during the Blackhawk period of ownership.

KMMT 5th anniversary on August 17th was marked by extending the broadcast day from 10 AM through midnight.

KMMT launched new local show to boost family audience. Staff Announcer, Buff Setterquist (better known as Uncle Rob) started “The Funny Company” his own program to appeal to anyone who could laugh. He emphasized that it was not aimed at a specific age group and became very popular.

Color broadcasts began.

The call letters were changed to KAUS

The television station and KAUS radio became separate companies.    We began carrying the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon and continued that partnership through 2001, over 30 years.  Our role involved news anchors in-studio to encourage donations and interview guests, area medical professionals and members of public coming in with their donations. There was also an in-studio phone bank of volunteers. 

The call letters were changed to KAAL
to represent Austin and Albert Lea. In the same year, the TV station moved to current site at 1701 10th Place NE, just off Interstate 90 and the 11th Drive NE exit in Austin. The building was converted from the former Johnny Kaiser Volkswagen dealership and showroom.

Blackhawk Broadcasting sold KAAL to News, Press and Gazette Company based in St. Joseph Missouri. Under their ownership the news department was expanded and KAAL became the first station in the market to add equipment for live, on-the-scene news reporting and live production capability. Technical improvements included converting to an SVHS videotape system, which was state-of-the-art at that time. The Traffic Department made transition to computerized broadcast logs, billing and traffic orders. KAAL made excellent use of its live, on-location capabilities and earned the market distinction for being highly involved throughout the viewing area by presenting up to 6 live high school football and basketball games each season. We also produced and aired a live telecast of the Miss Minnesota Scholarship Pageant Coronation Night during prime time for 8 consecutive years, concluding June 1991. It was a 5-camera operation, live from Riverside Arena in Austin, and was up-linked to five other television stations to reach audiences for all contestants in the state pageant. KAAL also produced two support pageant specials during the week of competition hosted by news anchors.

Dave Kopp took on the role of Sports Director.  His innovation soon earned KAAL recognition as the regional sports leader in our market with comprehensive daily coverage and broadcasting numerous live broadcasts of high school football and basketball games. He established the weekly Dave Kopp Sports Challenge in 1987. It received a “Best Sports Series Award” from the National Association of Television Sportscasters. He invited viewers to submit challenges from silly to serious and continued it for many years. 

Award winning documentaries were a distinction during this decade. Community Relations Manager Janet Anderson collaborated with news team as writer/producer on a broad range of topics. “Brave in the Attempt” (1983) and A World of Winners” (1984) created greater awareness about Special Olympics programs in viewing area. We focused on regional history with “Rochester - A Proud Heritage”, a tribute to its 125th anniversary and A Holiday at Mayowood” (1984). “Laura Ingalls Wilder – American Pioneer Girl” (1985) featured visits to three of the places where the famous author actually lived. At that time, KAAL was airing the syndicated program “Little House On the Prairie. “The Time is Right: Positive Choices for the Mentally Handicapped” earned a state award from MN ARC.  We produced special programs to mark honor history, “Mayowood 75th Anniversary” (1986), “50 Years of SPAM” (1987) and the “Williams Fund: Past and Present” (1987).

In December, Wooster Republican Printing Company/Dix Communications purchased KAAL. It operated under the name of MDM Broadcasting-Midwest KAAL Corp.

In November we began broadcasting ABC programming in stereo. Other technology upgrades included new studio CCD cameras for all studio and ENG work and the transition began for going from mono to stereo.

Technology and equipment upgrades included CCD cameras for all studio and ENG (Electronic News Gathering) work.

June was a busy month. News Anchor Beth Bednar was nominated for the MN Broadcasters Association 3rd Annual Outstanding Broadcaster Personality Award. We produced a live telecast of the Miss Minnesota Scholarship Pageant Coronation Night during prime time for the last time as the finale of our 8 year pageant partnership. It was a five-camera operation, live from Riverside Arena in Austin, up-linked to five other television stations to reach audiences for all contestants participating in the state pageant. One week later, we worked with a New York production team to produce and air a live 1-hour program in prime time, “Hormel 100th Anniversary…The Progress Continues”.  Hormel Foods Corporation is based in Austin.  On September 23, KAAL launched “6 News This Morning” as the first early morning newscast in this market.  It was anchored by Dawn Stevens, Lou Arens and Meteorologist John Madura.

KAAL open a second news studio in Rochester in May as part of campaign to become the first regional TV station in the viewing area. As part of this effort the title of newscast was changed to Region 6 News. Due to need for equipment to create the Rochester news studio, the live truck was dismantled. As a result we no longer had the technical capability to produce live sports events or other special programs. Station management believed that a stronger news presence was a higher priority.   

Significant weather technology upgrades.

KAAL became the first 24-hour broadcast television station in this market with full resources of CNN. General Manager, Dave Tillery noted in his annual “State of the Station Report” that over $150,000 was invested in capital improvements including Kavouris Triton i7 weather equipment which made us the only TV station in this market with access to both Minneapolis and Des Moines NexRad radar sites.  KAAL formed a partnership with the Marine Corps Reserves annual Toys for Tots campaign with goal of creating more awareness of the need and motivating viewers to donate new, unwrapped toys for ages infant through teens. It continues to be an effective community project.

KAAL changed owners again in 1997 when Grapevine Communications, based in Atlanta Georgia, purchased it. Our official name became Grapevine Broadcasting of Austin. Under Grapevine ownership the news department made a transition to a computerized system. This was quickly followed by the close captioning of local newscasts to serve hearing-impaired viewers. Grapevine Communications sold KAAL to GOCOM under the legal name, GOCOM of Austin License sub LLC effective January 1, 2000

One year later, Hubbard Broadcasting Inc. purchased KAAL TV from GOCOM effective January 1, 2001. Hubbard Broadcasting now owns all ABC Affiliates in MN including KSTP in Mpls/St.Paul, WDIO in Duluth, KAAL in Austin plus ABC satellite stations in Alexandria and Redwood Falls and satellite station serving The Iron Range of northern Minnesota. KAAL's license is listed as KAAL TV LLC.  HBI also owns TV stations in New Mexico, New York. There have been significant changes in technology, philosophy of operation, and staffing since becoming part of the HBI Broadcasting family.  KAAL TV started marking Hubbard milestones in mid-June 2001 with the arrival of a new “live” truck that increased the news coverage capability dramatically. Chief Engineer Wendell Nelson explained that the mast camera with the ability to raise the mast to 50 feet creates tremendous versatility and enables us to report from places that were out of range with the old equipment.” It was put to good use immediately with live coverage of parades in Albert Lea and Austin, Weather Team Backyard BBQ segments from throughout the viewing area, live reports during the SPAM Jam in Austin that attracted visitors from 42 states and 14 countries and most importantly live, first on-the-scene coverage of a massive fire in Albert Lea that went on for 3 days.  We also launched new image campaign “6 News – When You Need to Know”.

A major February highlight was completion of remodeling and technology upgrade for Master Control and Production Control. In April the weather center was one of the first TV stations in the country to debut state of the art Meteorligix RT 3D weather graphics with Storm Commander and Dopplercast system. Midwest Wireless sponsored this major equipment purchase. June 2002 introduced the first season of KAAL “Our Town” half-hour local programs. Co-producers Carla Johnson and Janet Anderson and crew spent the summer showcasing area cities with 17 half-hour programs. Johnson was also the primary anchor and editor for each show and other members of the news team rotated as co-anchors. Anderson was co-producer, researcher and writer. The “Our Town” show continued through four summers and earned MN Broadcast Association Media Best Award in the Community Service Non-Metro Television category each year it was produced with 49 summer shows plus two holiday “Our Town” specials for a total of 51 local programs.  2002 continued with strong focus on local investigative programs continued with response to high interest topics. “Ground Zero – Closer Than You Think” was a 10-part series of reports by Lou Arens and Karla Hult from NYC. Reporters accompanied Rochester firefighters who were discussing disaster response/recovery procedures with local officials. It earned a Community Service Award from the Rochester Fire Department. “The Meth Test: Take It for Your Family” was produced by co-anchor Dan Ruiter and was an excellent fit with KAAL mission of “Watch 6 News – When You Need to Know.” Fall 2002 KAAL 6 Sports earned the distinction of being the TV station in our market with the longest record of saluting both male and female high school athletes with the weekly “Prep of the Week” recognition and this popular initiative is still in place throughout each school year. Dayport streaming video system became operational in November. We began broadcasting the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon feed from KSTP, our sister station in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

KAAL committed to a partnership with the prestigious Jefferson Awards for Public Service with goal of strengthening community connections by recognizing remarkable accomplishments.  Nominations from public area were encouraged and a citizen review panel selected “6 News Salute to Unsung Heroes” award winners. The first Awards Gala was held April 22, 2004 at the Historic Paramount Theatre in Austin and we continued the Jefferson Awards for 4 years. Our final Awards Gala held at the Rochester International Event Center on April 19, 2007. Over 4 years we honored 30 outstanding local volunteers and recognized over 70 nonprofit organizations that benefitted from their time and talents. Anchor Carla Johnson won AP 1st Place Award in writing category for non-metro TV.

6 News First Good Morning was expanded to 90 minutes. The annual summer “Our Town” half-hour programs continued with 10 cities on the schedule. Anchor Carla Johnson and Community Relations Manager Janet Anderson took on the same co-producer roles. Sports Director Jason Howland started a new, locally produced program titled “Vikings View”. It aired Tuesdays after MN Vikings home football games and was taped at the former Aquarius Club in Rochester.  It featured interviews with Vikings team members.   

6 News First received regional and national attention for major flooding in five area counties in September. Momentum continued with our most in-depth news series so far with the 14-part “Huisentruit File” reports during the November 2004 Sweeps period. Weeknight Anchor Josh Benson and Assistant News Director Gary Peterson invested nearly a year in re-examining evidence to reveal new clues about the unsolved 1995 disappearance of Mason City TV news anchor, Jodie Huisentruit. This series earned the prestigious Eric Sevareid Award from the Northwest Broadcast News Association for Best Series among all small market entries in Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.  It was also nominated for an Upper Midwest National Television Emmy Award in the Investigative Report-Series category. September 2005 6 News First presented a timely local documentary, “The Flood of 2004: One Year Later” hosted by Senior Reporter Carla Johnson. In December KAAL was presented with MN Outstanding Media Support award for our Public Service Announcement to create greater awareness and participation in the annual March of Dimes Walk America fundraising events.  

Included welcomes and farewells. David Harbert took over as General Manager in September. Traffic Manager Lora Lee Bauer retired after 34 years of service – one of the longest tenures so far for KAAL staff. 6 News First Good Morning won an Emmy Award for Best Daytime Show in 140+ DMA and Reporter Donny Rowles was honored with a State Award from the MN Chapter of the North American Association of Mental Illness for his in-depth, 3 part, mental health series that aired during May Sweeps. July marked the official launch of the Hubbard Wide Orbit traffic system. November marked a significant milestone of broadcasting in HDTV for ABC Primetime plus some sports programming.

Kicked off in sync with New Year’s resolutions. Weeknight co-anchors Nicole King and Brandon McElwain teamed up with United Way Mower County for a 9-week “Get Fit Challenge” reinforced with news reports on healthier lifestyles. In April we launched a new look with graphics title change to ABC 6 News. We added an Internet Marketing Director position and Sheryl Barlow was chosen to lead our website update and make it more user-friendly. Over the summer ABC 6 News and KSMQ (PBS) collaborated to air three Town Meetings with a live audience hosted by ABC 6 News Co-Anchor Brandon McElwain and a KSMQ representative. They led a panel of experts to discuss local hot topics. In August we welcomed News Director Mike Schram and Business Manager Deb Nerud. The most significant change was rushing the addition of our 5 PM newscast in August in response to delivering comprehensive coverage of devastating floods in SE Minnesota. It was anchored by Erika Miller. We also worked with partners to coordinate a Flood Relief Drive August 23 & 24 which raised nearly $25,000 to support the work of American Red Cross SE MN Chapter. We ended 2007 with an extensive remodeling project for our Rochester office and studio. December marked an important milestone when the Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation began providing grants to KAAL to distribute to local nonprofit organizations. Recipients in Albert Lea, Austin and Rochester were selected to receive grants.  

One of the most notable changes was launching real-time captioning for all 5, 6 and 10 PM newscasts in June plus all severe weather alerts and coverage. We also added a sky-cam on top of the 26 floor Broadway Residence and Suites building in downtown Rochester for weather shots and panoramic live images. This camera has incredible zooming power and can shoot man-on-the-street interviews taking place a block away in Peace Plaza.  ABC 6 News Good Morning won an Emmy Award for 2nd consecutive year for Best Daytime Newscast for a small market TV Station with co-anchors Shelley Hexom and Jason Howland. In September the Minnesota State High School League presented our Sports Department with a Media Award for Excellence in High School Athletic Coverage. It recognized consistent coverage of more than 50 schools in 10 conferences in MN and IA and more than 18 different sports over 3 seasons.  Our Sport team included Ezra Broder, Caleb Ostrander and TJ Were. KAAL welcomed Heather Holmes at Marketing Director. She teamed up with Internet Marketing Director Sheryl Barlow to launch Chooz Rochester, an innovative campaign designed to dazzle perspective clients with web marketing options. We also launched “YouNews” and won Best Television Website award from MN Associated Press. Excellent Educator profiles began airing weekly in our 5 PM newscast in April as part of our Assignment Education initiative. It celebrated teachers and administrators nominated by the public with profile reports which were also featured on our website. ABC prime time hit Extreme Makeover Home Edition featured a project in our viewing area. ABC 6 News Reporters and Photographer Chad Corey filed live on the scene reports throughout the project in rural Freeborn County.

Started year with January 19th debut of dual location newscast for ABC 6 News at 5 PM. KAAL Chief Engineer Wendell Nelson worked closely with Ray Conover, HBI Engineering Consultant to develop a successful, cost-effective way to connect the Rochester news studio to the Austin main control room. This fiber system enables the news team to broadcast news from Rochester and weather and sports from Austin studio with seamless on-air look for viewers. David Springer joined the News Team as Assistant News Director. He is a 5 time New York Emmy Award winner and 2 time recipient of the national Edward R. Murrow Award for news writing. The ABC 6 News Anchors Ericka Miller, Nicole King and Sarah Swistak and photographer Joel Pino earned MN AP Awards. We completed installation of live weather camera technology in three key cities in our DMA, Albert Lea, Austin and Rochester.  These tower cameras enable us to enhance weather reports and give viewers a 24-hour panoramic view of their communities. A major milestone this summer was welcoming Betsy Singer to the news team as 5 PM Anchor. She is well known broadcast journalist in this market and ABC 6 News is thrilled to have her on our team after a two-year hiatus. In July 2009 a major news story close to home was Albert Lea being featured as the first city in the US to become part of the AARP Vitality Blue Zone project. This distinction brought ABC Meteorologist Sam Champion to Albert Lea for a live GMA broadcast. KAAL also broadcast our entire Morning newscast on locations with Sam as our special guest.  ABC 6 News ended analog broadcasts on June 12, 2009 after several months of promotion and information sessions for viewers to prepare for this transition.   

Reaching out to the communities were serve is high priority so Marketing Director, Heather Holmes announced the establishment of an ABC 6 News $1,500 scholarship in partnership with Rochester Community and Technical College made possible by a grant from the Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation. It was awarded in April to an RCTC student pursuing a major in Mass Communications. James Wilcox joined Ericka Miller as weeknight co-anchor. He is a native of this viewer area so started off with well-established fan base.     

ABC 6 News launched our Assignment Education initiative in February. It reinforced our commitment to comprehensive coverage of education issues, innovation and recognition. We also added the ABC 6 News Students Care Competition as our own initiative to support the ongoing Toys for Tots partnership with the Marine Corps Reserves. The goal of is to get more students involved in helping neighbors in need. The first school to earn first place honors was Southland Middle School in Adams. Anchor Betsy Singer was the Keynote Speaker at the 37th Annual Conference of the MN Alcohol and Traffic Association held in St. Cloud. Her presentation focused on media working closely with State Trooper plus giving the audience a glimpse of the ABC 6 News room in action. In June 5 the ABC 6 News team was honored at the MN Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the Page 1 Awards Banquet in St. Paul. Reporter Ellery McCardle and Photographer Brandon McElroy won in the Feature category. Reporter Sarah Swistak and Photographer Chad Corey won in the Mini-Documentary/In-Depth Series category. The Young Journalist of the Year award was earned by Reporters Sarah Swistak and Gordon Severson. 


General Manager David Harbert started the year by inviting Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation grant recipients with celebration lunch to present checks to representatives from 5 area nonprofit organizations. ABC 6 News established a strong support with Rochester Community & Technical College Beat the Odds Scholarship program as part of our Assignment Education initiative. News Anchor Betsy Singer was the Emcee and General Manager David Harbert was keynote speaker. The news team did compelling profile reports to honor the high school students who have overcome tremendous odds to become personally and academically successful. These profiles were first shown at the awards ceremony and then aired in newscasts to create more awareness about the Beat the Odds program. In March ABC 6 News established our “Stuff the Studio” initiative to motivate viewers to donate non-perishable items for local food shelves in partnership with Channel One Food Shelf and Food Bank.  March is MN Food Share Month so there is a matching program for donations. The ABC 6 News team was honored with AP Awards at Banquet in March. Reporter/Anchor Laura Lee and Photographer Ben Bicknese earned 1st Place in the Feature category.  Reporter Dietrich Nissen and Photographer Chad Corey brought home Honorable Mention in the Spot and Hard News Category. 

ABC 6 News team stepped up with our “Get Fit” initiative to start of the new year. The ABC 6 News Good Morning team of Ellery McCardle, Kenny King and Jim Peterson are working out with YMCA staff in Albert Lea, Austin and Rochester to bring reports and motivation to viewers.  A partnership with area HyVee grocery stores to promote heathy eating is also featuring a series of special reports. The ABC 6 News “Made in the Midwest” reports received such enthusiastic response that they are continuing the showcase innovative area enterprises. So far they have delivered reports on 21 companies and ABC 6 News will continue to shine the spotlight on products Made in the Midwest.

In April, ABC 6 News Anchor Laura Lee was honored with the Life Source Media Partner of the Year at the Donate Life Celebration for her compelling report about a local family who donated the organs of their 8 year-old son who died unexpectedly. “Christian’s Gift” was shown at the annual celebration event and received an AP Honorable Mention Award which is shared by News Director David Springer and Photographer Chad Corey. In May - the ABC 6 News team was honored at the MN Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists Page One Banquet. Anchor James Wilcox won 1st place in the Special Project/In-Depth Series Category for “Rochester’s Hidden Problem – Homeless Youth” and 3rd place in Feature Category. Anchor Ellery McCardle earned 1st place in the Investigative category for her series, “Synthetic Drug Use Spreads in SE MN”. ABC 6 News Anchor/Reporter She also Ellery McCardle won her first Murrow Award for this Investigative series. It is one of the industry’s highest honors recognizing a standard of excellence. Anchor Laura Lee brought home 2nd place for investigative report “Inside Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program.  Photographer Chad Cory won awards for all four of these reports. Chief Meteorologist Chris Kuball earned the American Meteorological Society’s Certified Broadcast designation which recognizes the quality of his weather broadcasts. In April ABC 6 News Morning Anchor Kenny King was presented with the Golden Apple Award during annual meeting of the MN Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. He earned the award for his weekly “Fresh & Simple” segment with the Austin HyVee Dietician. “Fresh & Simple is also featured on a TV screen in the Austin HyVee store produce department. Summer highlights included on-site newscasts at Mayo Clinic 150th Anniversary celebration in downtown Rochester and the opening game of the Honkers Baseball Team. As News Director David Springer noted, “live, on-site newscasts are a valuable tool that showcases our versatility and commitment to the communities we serve without forfeiting our ability to cover live, breaking news.” We ended 2014 with significant staff additions; Rachel Wick joined the morning news team. She is well known in viewing area as popular anchor for another TV station but left that position after the birth of her first child. Meteorologist Cindy Morgan also joined the ABC 6 News Good Morning team. Jeanna Radz joined the Sports Department after an internship in Detroit. ABC 6 News sponsored a 1st District Congressional Debate in partnership with the League of Women Voters.           

A significant change was underway in Rochester 
To convert 9,500 square feet of space in the TJ Maxx Plaza in Rochester into a state-of-the art news studio and office to house over 45 staffers including news team, administration, sales plus production department.  This will also complete our transition to full broadcasting in High Definition which required new cameras, switcher and other technology. This estimated cost of this expansion project is nearly $1 million. We will continue to maintain operations in Austin with Master Control, Traffic Department, office of Chief Engineer, reporters and support staff in Creative Services and Sales. The new Rochester address is 1320 Salem Road SW. News Director David Springer announced that viewers are responding favorably to the strong ABC 6 News focus on local communities and news coverage.  The website averages almost one million users every month and Facebook “Likes” recently topped 50,000.

January 31st was a major milestone when ABC 6 News became fully operational in presenting all newscasts from our new Rochester studio and office complex in Rochester. It brings the news team together under one roof. Prior to this change, all 3 meteorologists worked out of the weather center in in Austin and the morning and weekend newscasts originated in Austin. The news and sports anchors for weeknight newscasts at 5, 6 and 10 PM were located in Rochester and were broadcast in sync with Austin so that it appeared as if they were all in the same location.   “Going live” successfully with newscasts on January 31st was the result of two months of intensive work by KAAL TV engineers working closely with HBI experts. Chi

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