Upside Down Under: Pembina, unique in North Dakota…

Written by: Marvin Baker

Everyone who is aware of North Dakota’s history knows that Pembina is a unique community for several reasons. Most notably, it was the first place in our state that was settled and that was in 1797.

It wasn’t part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but was, at that time, a part of Canada called Prince Rupert’s Land. A fur trading company called the North West Company set up a fort on the north side of the confluence of the Red and Pembina Rivers and that today is the community of Pembina.

If you read into Canadian history, you’ll find the British government believed the best and most plentiful furs were in the Pembina vicinity so the Hudson’s Bay Company also built a fort, in 1803, this time on the south bank of the Pembina River.
But there is something else unique about Pembina that I doubt many people younger than 50 years old would be aware of and that is television.

From 1960 to 1975, Pembina, North Dakota had the dubious distinction of being the smallest community in the United States to have a television station. It was KCND-TV channel 12. People in Glendive, Mont., might argue that point, so there is a caveat to this distinction.

KXGN, channel 5 in Glendive believes it was the smallest television market in the United States during those years. It went on the air in 1957 and it was indeed the smallest market. In fact, that was confirmed during U.S. Senate hearings held in Helena in 1959.

But here is where this gets a little dicey. During the 15 years that KCND was on the air, the population of Pembina was about 700. The population of Glendive during those same years was about 7,000. So clearly, Pembina was the smallest community in the United States to have an independent television station.

It was the smallest community vs. the smallest television market. That was because KCND wasn’t built to serve Pembina. Its target was the city of Winnipeg, 60 miles north with a population of about 700,000 at the time.

The studio, master controls and transmitting tower for KCND were just west of Pembina, but it had a sales staff that worked out of Winnipeg and competed against two other stations. KCND was affiliated with NBC and ABC and produced some of its own local programming.

Despite Winnipeg being the target, KCND served northeast North Dakota, northwest Minnesota and a good swath of southern Manitoba. Old articles in the Winnipeg Free Press indicate that because of KCND, southern Manitoba had access to “Hollywood” for seven years before a second North Dakota station in that area, WDAZ in Devils Lake-Grand Forks, went on the air.

The north end of Winnipeg was in the deep fringe of KCND, so the ownership of the Pembina TV channel offered free rooftop antennas to people in Winnipeg to get channel 12, until cable TV became a reality there in 1968.
Changes in Canadian law regarding advertising in the early ‘70s made it more difficult for KCND to compete in the Winnipeg market and it didn’t have enough U.S. advertising to support itself. So in 1975 Izzy Asper of Winnipeg offered to purchase the station.

His goal was to move it to Winnipeg and put it back on the air with a Canadian license rather than an FCC license. The station was sold and Asper moved the operation to Winnipeg. The tower that transmitted the KCND signal was later moved to the community of Minnedosa, Manitoba.

On Labor Day weekend in 1975, CKND went on the air with low power on channel 9. This was unique in that both channels were on the air for approximately three days. They both broadcast the Jerry Lewis
Labor Day Telethon. Following that event channel 12 went dark.
Since that time, CKND has grown to serve all of southern Manitoba and is the flagship station of Global, Canada’s third nationwide network.

In 1986, television returned to Pembina and channel 12. KNRR-TV is a satellite station of Fox affiliate KVRR, channel 15 in Fargo. And you guessed it, the target was Winnipeg. And when U.S. TV switched
to digital in 2009, it became harder for Canadians to receive the channel 12 signal. However, the city of
Winnipeg is still considered a fringe reception area of KNRR.

Meanwhile, in 1981 KCND resurfaced as Prairie Public Radio’s Bismarck affiliate on 90.5 FM. It became part of today’s statewide network of public radio stations.

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