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McElroy, Ralph J.
(March 6, 1910–February 16, 1965)

–broadcasting pioneer–founded the Black Hawk Broadcasting Company, parent company to KWWL radio and KWWL television in Waterloo, Iowa. In his short career, he rose from a school dropout to a successful advertising salesman to the owner of a media company. His legacy, the McElroy Trust, is one of the largest in the state of Iowa.

    McElroy was born near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. His childhood was plagued with problems associated with poverty and an alcoholic father. Dropping out of school after the eighth grade, he eventually took a job as a stock boy with F. W. Woolworth during the day while he attended school at night. He entered the company's manager training program, but after uninspiring stops in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he changed careers. While working in Cedar Rapids, he became interested in radio and accepted an advertising sales job in WMT radio's Waterloo office. His gregarious style and expert salesmanship made him a success, and his handsome looks and popular "man-on-thestreet" interview program brought him celebrity status. He was involved in local Service groups and was a supporter of the Waterloo baseball franchise and an unabashed booster for Waterloo. During World War II, he sought an officer's commission but was rejected because he did not have a high school diploma. He ultimately served as a supply sergeant in the U.S. Army, spending part of his time in the Pacific Theater.

    On his return to Waterloo, McElroy used his popularity to attract 31 local investors to establish the Black Hawk Broadcasting Company and KWWL radio. He developed the station as a community-oriented alternative to KXEL, a much larger clear channel operation owned by Joe DuMond. The station went on the air on November 4, 1947, and was a modest financial success, in part due to McElroy's frugal salary scale and his workaholic attitude. In 1950 he hired Warren Mead as manager. Mead brought much needed stability and improved ratings.

    In 1952, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made one VHF television license available to Waterloo, both KWWL and KXEL applied. Although Joe DuMond had substantially more reSources: And capital, he made two critical mistakes. He constructed and equipped a television station prior to receiving a license, in direct violation of FCC rules, and he intimidated local businesses into boycotting KWWL to pressure McElroy into withdrawing his application. McElroy sued DuMond in federal court for conspiracy and restraint of trade. When McElroy's legal team produced an audiotape of DuMond recorded by Mead advocating a boycott, DuMond admitted defeat and offered to withdraw his license application if McElroy dropped the lawsuit. KWWL purchased KXEL's equipment and went on the air on November 26, 1953, initially as an affiliate of the DuMont Television Network and then with NBC in 1955.

    McElroy's organizational strength was in sales, not management. For the next 11 years the television station operated on a limited budget, with outdated equipment and continual staff and on-air personality turnover. Cedar Rapids stations WMT and KCRG regularly outranked KWWL in the Nielsen ratings for the shared market area. But the station was profitable enough to purchase television stations in Austin, Minnesota, and Sioux City, Iowa, along with three radio stations. McElroy remained a strong and active proponent of Waterloo growth and continued his Voice of Northeast Iowa man-on-the-street interview program until 1959. In 1956 he married Betty Fullar.

    McElroy died unexpectedly at age 54 of cardiac arrest after surgery for a ruptured abdominal blood vessel. He was survived by his wife and stepson along with sisters Jeanne and Leslie. After his death, Black Hawk Broadcasting came under the leadership of his friend and business associate Robert Buckmaster, who reinvigorated KWWL with new equipment and personnel. The management transformation was rewarded with first-place rankings in the Waterloo-Cedar Rapids market.

    In 1980 Black Hawk Broadcasting's assets were sold to AFLAC for more than $47,000,000 for its television, radio, and commercial businesses. McElroy had determined that his estate, after his family had been provided for, would be put into the McElroy Trust "for the benefit of young people."He believed that successful entrepreneurs should reinvest some of their profits back into the community to assist those who, like himself, did not have the advantages of a good education or supportive family. The sale of Black Hawk Broadcasting provided the trust with assets of over $50,000,000. Proceeds have been distributed in scholarships, grants, and gifts to thousands of young people, educational institutions, and human and cultural organizations.
Sources The Papers of the Black Hawk Broadcasting Company in the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting History, Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, and the R. J. McElroy File at the Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa, contain useful primary sources. See also David F. McCartney and Grant Price, "The Battle for Channel 7: A Media Showdown in Waterloo," Annals of Iowa 59 (2000), 261–97; Warren Mead, Black Hawk Broadcasting: The McElroy Years (1977); Robert Neymeyer, R. J. McElroy, A Biography (1997); and Jeff Stein, Making Waves: The People and Places of Iowa Broadcasting (2004).
Contributor: Robert Neymeyer