One glance toward the sky revealed the city's success story: airplanes. With Boeing, Beech and Cessna turning out hundreds of B-29s, AT-11s and T-50s for the US military, Wichita quickly became the air capital of the world. An influx of aircraft workers soon arrived in Wichita, and other businesses sprang up to cater to the needs of these families. Students attending one of the two Wichita high schools - East & North - found plenty of activities to occupy their time on weekends and after school. Many gathered at Kings-X for a burger and caught a movie at the Miller Theater or the local drive-in. Some spent the day at Joyland or swam at the Municipal pool in Riverside Park. Others attended dances or band concerts at the Forum. But everyone listened to the radio.
In the mid-1940's radio was king. Commercial radio broadcasts began twenty years earlier, but by 1940 nearly 90% of US households owned at least one radio. In fact, most popular shows were attracting 30 million listeners a week. Certainly, there was money to be made in radio, and a young seventh grader at Hamilton Middle School stumbled onto an opportunity.
On his way home from school one day, Lonnie Hephner found a fountain pen. It was a real beauty, too. When he showed it to one of his friends, the friend offered to trade Lonnie the fountain pen for a crystal radio set that he had made. Intrigued, Lonnie asked to see the crystal set. After the friend showed him how it worked, Lonnie agreed to the trade. "I was cheated," he laughs. The pen must have been worth a dollar and the radio about 30 cents. Hephner thought about the trade and resolved to be on the profitable side from then on. "I got to thinking that if he could make a crystal radio, then so could I," Lonnie recalls. Using the traded radio as a pattern, he began to make his own crystal sets from an old lump of crystal he found at his house. He began either trading the sets to his friends or selling them for a dollar or two.
By the time Lonnie reached eighth grade, these sets had provided him with a basic knowledge of radio theory. Soon Lonnie obtained a job at Southern Sound and Radio delivering radios on his bike for .25 an hour. Demonstrating an early aptitude for business, young Hephner diversified his ventures as he grew older. As a ninth grader, Lonnie persuaded a hospital supply firm to sell him test tubes for 3 cents each. He then took them to the YMCA swim classes where he sold them for a nickel each, marketing them as toy whistles.
Before long, R.E. Florence, the owner of Southern Radio, allowed Lonnie to tinker with the tube radio sets. Hephner's developing skills proved useful when his family needed a new radio for themselves. His parents, Lena and Irvin, had long been saving a dollar from every family paycheck to replace their aging tube radio. They were thrilled when Lonnie offered to build them a new 5-tube radio from scratch - saving them a lot of money. By the time Lonnie entered East High School, he eagerly enrolled in all the radio and electrical classes offered.
In his sophomore year of high school, Lonnie left Southern Radio to wire neon signs for Miracle Sign Company. He then went to work for Tarrant Electric Machinery Co in his senior year, rewinding transformers and motors. Besides working these formal jobs, Lonnie continued to pursue side ventures. Throughout his high school years, Lonnie always had at least two lockers full of government surplus electronic equipment to sell. He once sold the Board of Education 1,000 two amp fuses for their film projectors. Additionally, he began to fix radios for customers in his home on South Washington. His bedroom was soon filled with radio parts and tools.
When Hephner graduated from East High School in 1949, he headed to Wichita State University for a degree in electrical engineering. The radio repair business continued to flourish and soon outgrew his bedroom. Lonnie and his father built a 12' x 12' garage behind the house using salvaged lumber. In 1950, someone at City Hall learned of his radio business and told him he needed a license. "I coughed up the $10, bought a license, and I was in business," Lonnie recalls. Hephner Radio was born.
Lonnie's radio business continued to grow, but the golden days of radio were quickly coming to an end. Even as Americans laughed with Bob Hope and shuddered with "The Shadow," another form of entertainment would soon transform Wichita home entertainment. In 1953 an Oklahoma City television station installed a transmitting tower that reached southern Kansas, and a few televisions began to appear in Wichita. Lonnie built his first antenna tower, a 50-foot TV tower, atop his old garage shop. He recalls, "About 50% of the time we could get a picture; it wasn't good, but we could get a picture." In the evenings, he and his friends gathered around the TV set with their hamburgers in hand, waiting for a picture. But it wasn't the entertainment value that prompted Hephner to spend the huge sum of $300 on a 17" Black & White Philco console TV. Hephner recognized that TV would soon transform America. He knew having a television to tinker with was the first step in learning how to repair one. "I thought it was something I had to do if I was going to be ahead of everyone else," he said. Hephner's foresight paid off when Wichita's first TV station, KTVH -12 went on the air July 1, 1953. KTVH was soon followed by KAKE-10 in October, 1954 and KARD-3 in September, 1955.
The introduction of television brought three changes to the business in the mid-1950's. Hephner needed more space, more manpower, and a new name. He added a 12' x 20' addition to the existing shop, giving him a total of 384 square feet of workspace. He also hired his first technician, Raymond Babcock. With no TV repair schools around, Lonnie and Raymond practiced TV repair by taking turns putting a glitch of some kind in the TV, and then challenging the other to find and repair the problem. Furthermore, Lonnie changed the business name to reflect the new technology - Hephner Radio became Hephner TV & Radio.
In 1957 Lonnie's business afforded him yet another opportunity. Lloyd & Marie Warden were having problems with their television set, and their 19-year old daughter, Bonnie, knew just who to call. She had briefly met Lonnie Hephner during a Youth for Christ rally and knew he had a reputation for honesty and quality work. Lonnie came to the house, fixed the TV, and asked Bonnie out on a date.
Two years later, they were married. The couple bought a house at 737 S. Washington - just 1/2 block from the TV shop. One year later, they decided to tear the front porch off of their house and build a new 1100 sq. ft store between their house and Washington Street.
More space allowed for more work, and Lonnie needed to hire another experienced technician. Hephner found the right man in Charlie Jansen, Owner of Jansen Radio & TV. Hephner told Charlie that he would buy all of his inventory and equipment if Jansen would come to work for Hephner TV. Jansen agreed and became the third technician on Hephner's team.
Expansion of a different kind came in 1961. Lonnie & Bonnie had a baby girl, Lori, and in 1964 Greg was born. By 1965 the Hephners were outgrowing their home and their store. After purchasing a larger home in south Wichita, Lonnie tore down the old house behind the store and built another 1000' addition to back of the store, effectively doubling the existing space.
Television continued to evolve and improve during the next decade. Color Television and many more sizes and styles became available. As radio developed into HiFi & Stereo, manufacturers began to combine televisions and stereos into one piece of furniture. In the 1970's Hephner TV began to sell cassette and 8-track tape players and recorders, CB radios, microwave ovens, and room air conditioners. The service business also diversified as Hephner TV started to sell, install, and service intercoms, telephones and nurse call systems.
By the mid-1970's, Hephner TV was bursting at the seams. Lonnie and Bonnie decided to design a new building unlike any other electronics store around. They blended classic old world architectural elements with the ambiance of the New Orleans French Quarter. In the winter of 1975, they broke ground on the new two-story 12,000 square f oot facility. The new building was literally built around the old one. Labor Day of 1976 was moving day. Employees, friends, and family helped carry the entire inventory of new goods, service equipment, parts, and tools from the old building into the new store. The transition was accomplished during that weekend, and Hephner TV was open for business Tuesday morning without missing a day of work.
Always changing and expanding, the consumer electronics business introduced even more innovations in the 1980's. Magnavox launched the first video gaming system, Odyssey, and GE manufactured the first Big Screen TV's. VHS and Beta VCR's battled for dominance, VHS eventually emerging victorious. Laserdisc from Magnavox and CED by RCA captured the videophile's imagination with high quality playback of movies. Philips and Sony invented CD's, offering the listener unmatched musical sound quality. Additionally, portable VHS recorders with video cameras allowed anyone to feel like a member of a Hollywood camera crew. It was into this 80's world that Greg Hephner reentered the family business. After earning a business degree from Mid-America Nazarene University in 1986, Greg chose the family business as his career. Greg became President of the company in 1996 and took over as sole owner in 2004.
In January 2011, Greg and Peggy's son, Michael, joined the family business after graduating with a Business and Communications degree from Mid-America Nazarene University. With the addition of Michael, Hephner TV now has three generations of Hephners working in the business (Lonnie still works part-time in the company). As the Television and Home Entertainment industry progresses at a rapid pace, the Hephner TV team stays one step ahead of the changes and continues to be Wichita's Television and Home Entertainment leader. Wichitans know they will find the latest products, accurate information, quality installation, and affordable prices at Hephner TV. They also know they will receive service after the sale. Whether they need help operating their new remote or 3-D glasses, customers trust their hometown electronics store, Hephner TV. After all, we've got our roots in Wichita, not just our branches.