Commercial Radio’s 100th Birthday

Election night at KDKA November 2, 1920

On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, commercial radio will celebrate it’s 100th birthday. It was on this day in 1920 that “the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation, which served as the radio licensing agency of the day, issued the first radio license ever to KDKA,” as told on the station’s website.

Radio Call Letters

Ironically, those famous Pittsburgh call letters – KDKA – don’t stand for anything. They were simply assigned to the station with its broadcast license from a roster maintained to provide identification for ocean going ships and marine shore radio stations. KDKA just so happened to be the next set of call letters up for being assigned with a broadcast license.

WJJW

This story is analogous to what happened at my college back in the 70s. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from North Adams State College in 1974. During my four years at NASC, I helped to obtain the college’s FCC FM broadcast license and become its first general manager. I vividly remember standing in front of a classroom blackboard with my fellow college broadcasters trying to decide what call letters we wanted the FCC to assign to our station. During this meeting a knock came to the door, and the person who knocked handed me an important letter from the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC. I anxiously opened the envelope to find that the FCC had granted our request for an FM broadcast license and had pulled the next set of unassigned call letters off the roster to go with our license. Those call letters would be “WJJW.” And like KDKA, they would stand for absolutely nothing and there again, never changed.

Call Letters

Some of the radio stations I listened to over the years had call letters that represented something, like WLS & WCFL in Chicago. WLS owned by Sears, chose call letters that stood for “World’s Largest Store” and WCFL, chose call letters that stood for “Chicago Federation of Labor,” the name of their union. WCFL proudly called itself “The Voice of Labor” at the top of every hour when it was required to give its call letters and city of license.

Do you know what the call letters for WKBW in Buffalo and KHJ in Los Angeles stood for? WKBW’s call letters meant “Well Known Bible Witness” and KHJ had call letters that stood for “Kindness Happiness & Joy.” Neither radio station would mention the origin of their call letters during their Top 40 days.  

Radio stations I worked for and managed also had call letters that represented something:

  • WBEC – Berkshire Eagle Company (the local newspaper)
  • WBRK – Berkshires
  • WUPE – Whoopee Radio
  • WFPG – World’s Famous PlayGround (Atlantic City)
  • KOEL – the first three letters of its city of license, Oelwein, Iowa
  • WLAN – Lancaster, PA
  • WSUS – Sussex, NJ
  • WOND – WONDerful Radio (Atlantic City)
  • WNNJ – Northern New Jersey

Call letters today tend to have been replaced by other forms of identification, like “Kiss,” “Froggy,” or “The River,” with the only problem being that they’ve lost their unique, one-of-kind identity that call letters branding gave them.

When I say KHJ or WBZ, you immediately know I’m talking about a radio station and that the station is located either in Los Angeles or Boston. When I say “Kiss” or “Froggy” you have no idea of which Kiss or Froggy radio station I’m referring to nor where it is located.

KDKA Covers Its First General Election

Shortly after receiving its commercial broadcast license, KDKA began planning its coverage of that year’s general election results to begin at 6pm on Tuesday, November 2nd, 1920.

Four men would climb to a little shack on the roof of one of the Westinghouse Electric’s buildings in East Pittsburgh to report on the results relayed to that shack via telephone. Leo Rosenburg delivered the results, becoming radio’s first announcer on the first licensed American radio station. You can hear a recreation by Leo of that broadcast HERE

About a thousand people tuned in to hear the broadcast and they would be some of the first people that year to learn that Warren G. Harding had beat James Cox to become the next President of the United States.

Election Night 2020

One hundred years later, election night will be quite different. People will most likely learn of the results via their smartphone, and probably not until all the votes have been counted. Due to COVID-19, we can expect that the vote counting process will take days, or even weeks, before a victor is declared.

Remember, your vote is important. Many recent elections have been decided by the thinnest of margins.

Do your civic duty and please VOTE.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Commercial Radio’s 100th Birthday

  1. Once upon a time you had to get an ok from other stations in your signal area so as not to sound like another’s. So far, in the past 1/2 century, I’ve gotten to name WWUH-FM, West Hartford CT, WNNH-FM Henniker-Concord NH and WATX-AM, Hamden CT.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah yes…remembering back to a time, when you knew all the local call letters and what the station’s format was. Now, when I read a story about some NYC radio station getting new calls, or ownership, or a format, and they do the history of the station, I think, oh, so that’s what happened to Wxxx! Of the 4 radio stations associated with my life, I think the first (WCWP named for its original owner, C.W. Post College) along with the last (WABC named after the newly formed American Broadcasting Company when it was owned by ABC) are the only two with any real meaning. Between those two there were two 3 letter calls (WHN and WOR) that meant nothing, but it was kind of neat that they were 3 letter calls. Call letters are really a relic of the past, as I feel sometimes in the world of Broadcasting! Thanks Dick!

    Frank

    Liked by 1 person

    • A great story Frank. Thanks for sharing.

      As far as being a relic is concerned, I felt like that at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and at The Henry Ford in Detroit. It’s really sad when the radio equipment you grew up on as a kid (both in broadcasting and receiving) are now all behind glass windows in a museum exhibit.
      -DT

      Like

  3. Interesting history, Dick. I can remember putting a radio on the shelf of a high window facing north so we could listen to WKBW out of Buffalo. We could get it about 10PM when the ionosphere gave us a bounce down to Pittsfield.. And, yeah, everyone knew the call letters back then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had a Grundig table radio, grounded to my radiator in my bedroom and a 100-foot copper wire antenna from my 2nd floor window out to a high tree in our backyard. I could pick up “the world” of radio with that arrangement.

      I also had a super FM antenna to listen to WDRC-FM (50,000 watts) out of Hartford, CT and WHYN-FM out of Springfield, MA.

      GREAT Radio Stations were everywhere waiting to be heard.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Walter Luffman

    For a week when you don’t have something timely and important (or possibly as a recurring theme), how about telling us about the origins of other famous and semi-famous broadcast call signs? we in your readership can contribute what we know.

    I’ll start. Memphis, TN has three stations that share call letters: WMC (AM), WMC-FM and WMC-TV (originally WMCT). Initially the three stations were owned by Scripps-Howard and too their “MC” letters from the Memphis Commercial, it’s local newspaper, later renamed The Commercial Appeal.
    While the stations (and newspaper) have since changed owners (the TV is owned separately from the two radio stations), the legendary call letters have remained with all three.

    Nashville’s two famous 50kw AM giants, WSM and WLAC, were originally owned by insurance companies and their call signs were selected to represent their respective owners. (I’ll let readers find out for themselves what the call letters stand for.)

    And in Los Angeles, a talk station has the call sign KEIB; I am sure everyone reading your column can figure out the meaning behind the “EIB” letters.

    Liked by 1 person

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