Six hundred and eighty. To be exact. That is how many polka compact discs are inside the small KWNO radio station on Main Street in Arcadia, Wis. For the last five decades, "Arcadia on the Air" sent over the air waves thousands of classic polka songs to listeners as far north as Eau Claire.
The brain child of famed bandleader Ernie Reck, the one-hour program inserted the toe-tapping music into the daily routines of area residents, business owners, even truckers passing through town. But, after more than 50 years on the air, the beloved radio show "Arcadia on the Air" will soon end. Current torchbearer Ruth Gappa is reluctantly walking away from her hosting duties this Saturday, but not without a heartfelt trip down memory lane.
Before a proper introduction was made on a chilly, pre-snowstorm Wednesday afternoon recently, Ruth Gappa refilled her Miss Wisconsin 1971 cup with boiling hot coffee. She said that this was not her first, or last, interview about her retirement from "Arcadia on the Air." Nevertheless, a very matter-of-fact Gappa took her place in the worn brown leather chair that once belonged to the program creator himself, Ol' Ern. As a longtime friend of the polka master, Gappa never saw herself having a career in radio.
However, after the death of Reck in 1996, she couldn't let the radio program, which was a staple in thousands of lives, fall to the wayside.
"I was working part time for Ernie when he passed away, and I filled in for two weeks while they looked for someone to replace him," Gappa explained. "This was just supposed to be a two-week job. But, I've been here for almost 17 years. I have no idea why I stayed, but I suppose it is because I was born and raised on polka music. So, here I am."
Humble beginnings, prosperous future
It started in a small Winona studio in 1949. Reck, an already well-known musician in the area, had been touring with his polka playing posse, Ernie Reck and the Country Playboys, all over the United States and Canada since he was a young lad. In an attempt to localize his passion for waltzes and schottisches, Reck began a weekly radio program on KWNO in Winona. The live program was broadcast Saturday evenings from the radio station studio. From there, Reck set his sights on something bigger.
A handful of years later, Reck built a home on the property of the former Trempealeau County fairgrounds, complete with an in-home radio studio in his basement. The humble abode, named Fairfield Ranch because it sat at the corner of East Jefferson Street and Fairfield Avenue, is the birthplace of what would become the longest-running remote radio station in the United States.
Nearly a decade later, the once-weekly radio program was famous for promoting area events and playing live polka music. In 1958, Arnold Checklaski suggested a daily program, "Arcadia Polka," later dubbed "Arcadia on the Air," and co-wrote with Reck the theme song that is now known to all show listeners. Soon after, the Ernie Reck Show was aired seven days a week.
"He would play polka music, of course, and waltzes, and Christmas music during the season," Gappa said. "There were weather reports, [agriculture] prices, corn prices. He would basically do local news for our hometown listeners."
Longtime friends, Gappa and Reck were avid parade announcers during county events. She was familiar with portraying an on-air personality, but never thought about making a career out of it.
"I was a secretary most of my life, and I was just announcing parades for fun," Gappa admitted. For several summers, she dragged along her old card table, a Marti RPI Series remote transmitter from the 40s, and secured a small, portable radio tower to the roof of her van. She and Reck, side-by-side, would announce each decorated float, marching band, and twirling baton that came down the street. "When Ernie would ask, I would do it. We did a lot together. I couldn't say no to Ernie."
In archived news articles about Ol' Ern and "Arcadia on the Air," Reck is portrayed as a local celebrity at county fairs, local barbecues, and outdoor musical events. One reader was quoted as saying that "it wouldn't be the Trempealeau County Fair without our Ernie Reck."
His love of all things polka, and passion for community involvement, gave Reck hometown hero status. Later, he hired Gappa to work part time keeping the station's records in check. However, Gappa was only on the job for three years before Reck passed away in 1996. KWNO morning broadcaster Bob Sebo said the transition was "a bit weird," but handing over the show to Gappa was a natural progression that worked out even better than most hoped.
"Everybody I knew wanted this show to continue, despite the fact that Ernie died," Gappa said. "I was asked if I wanted to keep the show running and I said 'yes.' I think people would have missed the polka music. It's more popular around here than one would think. And, [the show] is a good source for local news. I never thought it would happen this way, but it did."
'Hello friends and neighbors'
Throughout her last 17 years at KWNO in Arcadia, Wis., Gappa has yet to regret her decision to carry on the tradition. Even though she sits in the small studio by herself, she said she doesn't feel alone.
"I've been asked if I ever get sick of talking to myself, but I don't fee like I'm talking to myself," she said. "I'm talking to friends, hardcore listeners, older people who are fans. I'm not just talking to myself."
If she ever needed proof that her broadcasts were not falling on deaf ears, she received it when hundreds of postcards flooded the office mailbox one year.
"After the first five or so years that I was hosting the show, we wanted to know that our listeners were still there," Gappa explained. "I told people to send in postcards that would enter them into a contest to win prizes. I was told that I should only expect about one tenth of our listeners to actually participate. But, shortly after, I received 500 postcards. I think it's safe to say that people still listen to polka."
A trademark sign-on for Ol' Ern was his enthusiastic, "howdy friends and neighbors," at the beginning of each broadcast. Although she kept just about every aspect of the show the same, Gappa changed the greeting slightly from howdy to simply hello.
The more she became comfortable with her new gig, the more Gappa proved to be the right successor for "Arcadia on the Air." The one-hour, seven-days-a-week program was received well after Reck passed away, but Sundays in the sleepy Wisconsin town were more lively when its National Football League team started winning games. In an attempt to appease football lovers in the area, and more importantly, not interrupt the now sacred day of lounging, Sundays became her day off.
Her listeners continued to groove along to American and German polka classics, hear about Gappa's childhood dancing adventures and her grandchildren, as well as musings about those who have passed on.
"I think our listeners get a closer look into my life when they turn [my show] on. I always tell people when I'm a grandmother or great-grandmother again," Gappa said. "This radio show has given Arcadia a lot of entertainment, a lot of information about local events, and a lot of local obituaries have been read. It is a very historical radio program that I think is going to be missed. Radio never goes out of style because you turn it on when you are driving in your car, and many people still get their news from the radio. And, of course, to get their fix of polka music."
When Gappa pulled up Reck's chair to the padded microphone nearly 17 years ago, she gave back to Arcadia and the surrounding area the gift of music and local newsworthy stories. She not only filled the big shoes of a great polka master, but she also gained small-town fame from loyal listeners of "Arcadia on the Air."
"I was in Independence yesterday, and a gentleman came up to me and asked if I was Ruth Gappa," she said. "And, I said 'yes, I'm her.' And, he had an excited look and asked if I was really her. I've met a lot of great people, but I'm just a hometown girl. Everybody knows me and, from what I've heard, everyone is really going to miss this show."
As her last live broadcast draws ever closer, Gappa is reminded of just how special "Arcadia on the Air" really is in terms of originality. With advanced technologies allowing for pre-recorded segments and eliminating the need for a radio personality to always be at the microphone, Gappa said she is most proud of the fact that "Arcadia on the Air" remained a true, live radio show for half a century.
"A lot of radio stations just have to push a button and their shows play. But, that's not this program. When you hear me talking, I'm really there," she said.
On Saturday, Gappa will broadcast live for the final time at the Arcadia Area Historical Society, surrounded by family, friends, KWNO co-workers, local supporters, and fans.
Ruth "has been an ambassador for western Wisconsin for all these years and she has helped us to better serve those people," Sebo said. "We appreciate all that she has done at KWNO, but she deserves to retire too. We can't thank her enough."
It is a bittersweet notion to think of the end, Gappa admitted, but said it is with a smile, sincere gratitude, and the strong love of her community that she reluctantly bids farewell not only to a beloved radio station, but also to the legacy of her dear friend Ernie "Ol' Ern" Reck.
"I've enjoyed having all my listeners as friends, and I always knew you were there, whether or not I could see you," Gappa said. "This is a hard pill for me to swallow, but what else can I say except polka music is universal. Polka music is in my blood. Polka music is happy music. How can you not smile when you are listening to polka music?"
A celebration in honor of "Arcadia on the Air," Ernie Reck, and Ruth Gappa will take place at the final live broadcast at the Arcadia Area Historical Society, 401 S. Washington Street in Arcadia on Saturday, December 29, 2012, at 12:45 p.m. There will be live music along with traditional polka dancing, and refreshments will be served.