Thomas H. White -- January 1, 2005
Reviews of the earliest U.S. broadcast stations are complicated by conflicting claims and interpretations, plus a scarcity of information. This is an overview of the pioneer stations granted broadcasting authorizations in the period through June, 1922, based on the standards of the broadcasting service regulations adopted on December 1, 1921.
A common -- but surprisingly difficult to answer -- question is "What was the first radio broadcasting station in the United States?" This question has more than merely academic interest, and in fact has triggered decades-long controversies and jostling for bragging rights. Even the basic definition of a "radio broadcasting station" has been open to varying interpretations, and vague qualifiers are sometimes added, such as the "scheduled", "commercial", "regular", or even "real", often in an effort to improve the ranking of a favored candidate. Some claims seem to date back to a musty publicity statement which included a fanciful date that looked too good on the press release to actually check its accuracy. And woe to the lowly intern who might try to tell station management that their station was probably "around the 300th" broadcaster on the air, rather than "one of the first ten", as has been long proclaimed by their publicity handouts.
Regulations Before the Formal Establishment of a Broadcast Service
The earliest examples of radio broadcasting date to before the establishment of government control. At first most radio stations were used for private point-to-point communication, moreover, until the mid-1910s virtually all of them used spark transmitters, which could only transmit the dots-and-dashes of Morse Code. Although most references to radio broadcasting refer to transmissions in full audio, a limited number of broadcasting services actually were established during the Morse Code era, such nightly press summaries transmitted to ocean-going ships, plus some public service broadcasts, including time signals and weather reports. However, the use of telegraphic codes greatly limited the potential audiences for these services.
In the United States, radio stations were unregulated until the late 1912 adoption of An Act to Regulate Radio Communication, with controlling authority vested in the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Navigation. One of the first steps taken by the Bureau, as recorded in the September 28, 1912 edition of "Regulations Governing Radio Communication", was to divide land station licences into eight classes:
As with most innovations, there was a lag between the development of radio broadcasting, and its formal recognition by government regulators. None of the licence classes created under the 1912 regulations included any reference to broadcasting, which meant that the embryonic broadcasting activities would be conducted under a variety of licence classifications. In the Morse Code era, press transmissions were most commonly sent out by shore stations that operated under Public Service licences, while many weather and time signals were broadcast by Government stations, which didn't require Department of Commerce licences. Later, the perfection of audio transmitters, particularly after 1915, would expand the number of licence classifications included in the broadcasting ranks. The largest number held Experimental licences, including DeForest's "High Bridge" station, 2XG in New York City, and "California Theater" station, 6XC in San Francisco, the American Radio and Research Corporation's 1XE in Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, the Precision Equipment Company's 8XB in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Frank Conrad's 8XK in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Others, including the University of Nebraska's 9YY in Lincoln, had Technical and Training School authorizations. Still other early dabblers in broadcasting, including the Detroit News' 8MK, held General Amateur licences, while Westinghouse's initial November 2, 1920 election broadcast in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania actually went out under a temporary Special Amateur authorization, assigned the call 8ZZ, although the station quickly switched over to operating under a Limited Commercial licence, as KDKA. Finally, there were government stations, including AGI, operated by the Army Signal Corps at the Presidio in San Francisco, California, WWV, operated by the Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, and the Navy's NOF-NSF, located in Anacostia, D.C.
Adoption of Broadcast Service Regulations
The primary purpose of the original 1912 regulations was the establishment of an open system of international communication, and Land stations which handled commercial messages-for-hire received Public Service licences. But a second commercial licence, Limited Commercial, was also set up, as a catch-all category for stations used for some sort of commercial activity, but "limited" in the sense that they did not accept public messages. Most of the original Limited Commercial stations were used by companies for private communication between their geographically dispersed sites.
It was only effective December 1, 1921 that the Commerce Department's Bureau of Navigation first formally established standards for a broadcasting service. These new regulations were reported in the January 3, 1922 edition of the Radio Service Bulletin. However, instead of creating a new licence class, broadcasting was set up as a service category within the existing Limited Commercial classification. (Broadcasting would not become a separate licence until radio regulation was transferred to the Federal Radio Commission in 1927).
The new broadcast service was assigned two wavelengths: 360 meters (833 khz) for "broadcasting news, concerts and such matter", and 485 meters (619 khz) for "broadcasting crop reports and weather forecasts". Thus, depending on the service offered, a broadcast station could be licenced for 360 meters, 485 meters, or for both wavelengths. Stations using the same wavelength in the same area had to share time in order to avoid interference. Also, a station licenced for both wavelengths had to switch from one wavelength to the other whenever its program fell into another service category. (This dual-wavelength setup was dropped in May, 1923 when the number of broadcast wavelengths was greatly expanded).
Under the new standards, in order to be permitted to make broadcasts intended for the general public, a station had to hold a Limited Commercial licence, and its licence also had to specifically authorize use of the broadcast wavelengths. Therefore, Limited Commercial stations that didn't have an authorization to use the broadcast wavelengths, and stations operating under other licence classifications, no longer were permitted to transmit programs intended for the public. (Government stations remained exempt from Commerce Department control, so some continued to make broadcasts).
The Bureau's introduction of broadcast service standards actually formalized developments of the previous two-and-a-half months, for at the time of their adoption at least nine stations holding Limited Commercial stations had already been authorized to use 360 meters for broadcasting purposes. The existence of this group of stations was apparently a side effect of a wavelength assignment request made by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.
Westinghouse's famous KDKA in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was first licenced on October 27, 1920. However, KDKA's original application, and its initial licence, made no reference to broadcasting -- at first the station was only intended to be used as one of a group of radiotelegraph stations providing point-to-point service between company facilities in various cities. Based on its intended use, KDKA was issued a standard Limited Commercial licence. However, within a few days the station's audio transmitter was drafted to inaugurate a broadcast service, starting with election returns on November 2, 1920. For the first few days these broadcasts went out under a temporarily assigned Special Amateur call of 8ZZ. But shortly thereafter, for reasons that are not clear, the broadcast service began sharing the Limited Commercial KDKA callsign with the point-to-point operations. Thus, this appears to be the first time that a broadcast service was conducted under a Limited Commercial licence, however, the reason for this may have merely been due to KDKA's initial incarnation as a point-to-point station. (None of the other earlier broadcast pioneers appear to have also used their stations for point-to-point service, which likely explains why they operated under Experimental and Amateur licences, instead of Limited Commercial.)
According to early publicity, most of KDKA's broadcasts through the fall of 1921 were on a wavelength of 330 meters (909 khz). With the success of KDKA, in the fall of 1921 Westinghouse set up three additional broadcasting stations -- WJZ Newark, New Jersey, WBZ Springfield, Massachusetts, and KYW Chicago, Illinois -- which initially were assigned to a variety of wavelengths. According to Louis R. Krumm's Development of Radiophone Broadcasting, at this point Westinghouse asked the Bureau of Navigation to assign all of its stations to a single wavelength, and suggested 360 meters. The first station to be issued a licence specifying operation on 360 meters was WBZ on September 15, 1921, and during the next two months the other three Westinghouse stations were also issued licences specifying 360 meters. Moreover, in the period before the December 1st adoption of the new regulations, five additional new stations being set up for public broadcasting by other companies -- WDY, WCJ, WBL, WJX, and KQL -- were also licenced by the Bureau of Navigation as Limited Commercial stations operating on 360 meters. Thus, at the time of the adoption of the December 1st regulations, Limited Commercial licences for 360 meters had already been informally established as a standard operating setup for broadcasting stations, so the new broadcast service regulations didn't require the stations already on 360 meters to make any changes. In view of this, lists of the first broadcasting stations, issued over the years by the Federal Radio Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, generally begin with these nine 360 meter assignments, starting with WBZ's September 15, 1921 grant.
Exceptions and Additions
The gradual development and evolution of broadcasting activities makes it extremely difficult -- if not outright arbitrary -- to try to identify any specific stations as being "the first". As noted above, in one sense it would be reasonable to say that there weren't any broadcasting stations in the U.S. until December 1, 1921, the date when the Commerce Department first formally defined standards for a broadcast service. However, many of the earliest stations licenced under the December 1st regulations were owned by individuals or companies which had already been transmitting regular broadcasts, operating under a variety of licence classifications such as Experimental or Amateur. In these cases, the switch to an "official" broadcasting station involved little more than a change in operating frequency and a new licence and callsign. Also, some station operators were slow to convert to the Limited Commercial licences required under the new regulations, thus their appearance as an "official" broadcasting station was delayed beyond what it might have been had they made the switch sooner. A few stations never converted, ending their broadcasting careers, while at the other extreme, a few "pioneer stations", although granted broadcasting licences, never actually made any broadcasts before they were deleted.
Unfortunately, because of a lack of information and government records, it is impossible to prepare anything approaching a complete list of the stations which made broadcasts for the general public prior to the formal establishment of the broadcast service, or even to precisely determine the exact dates for most of those stations that we do know about. However, the Department of Commerce did keep detailed records for the stations licenced under the December 1st regulations. Thus, with the above caveats and other limitations in mind, the list I've prepared is my best effort to document the pioneer broadcasting stations authorized under the December 1, 1921 broadcasting regulations. The one extension is that the nine stations which already held Limited Commercial licences for operation on 360 meters at the time the regulations were adopted are listed according to the date on which they were first issued a Limited Commercial licence.
Licencing Policies and Procedures
As noted earlier, licencing at the time of the creation of the broadcasting service was conducted under the provisions of an act passed in 1912. Although the standard since the 1927 formation of the Federal Radio Commission has been that stations serve the public "convenience, interest, or necessity", no comparable guideline was mandated by the 1912 act, and licencing of the pioneer broadcast service stations amounted to little more than registration. Licencing authority was vested in the Secretary of Commerce, and exercised through the Bureau of Navigation. This body operated on a much more informal basis than successor regulators. Moreover, control was more decentralized, with oversight, performed primarily by nine regional Radio Inspectors, generally limited to insuring that stations maintained technical standards.
The procedure normally used to procure a broadcast licence in the early twenties was as follows: the prospective station operator filled out an "Applicant's Description of Apparatus" (Form 761), obtained from the region's Radio Inspector. The completed form, which provided mostly technical information, was submitted to the inspector, who, if deemed necessary, inspected the proposed apparatus. Next the form, including the inspection report plus a recommendation on the type of authorization that should be issued, was forwarded to the Commissioner of Navigation in Washington.
In the case of new stations two distinct steps took place. First, when the Form 761 was received in Washington the station was immediately assigned a callsign, which was written at the top of the form. Later, if everything was in order, a licence was issued. (If the station equipment had not been inspected, the licence was issued with the notation "provisional".) The time period between assigning call letters and issuing a licence ranged from immediate action to as much as forty days, and according to Commerce records was usually in the range of one to three days. The assignment of the callsign was not considered as establishing a new station. Stations were not reported in the Radio Service Bulletin until the first operating authorization -- usually a licence but in a few cases a preliminary telephoned or telegraphed authorization -- was issued. Licence periods for broadcasting stations through the early twenties ranged from as few as ten days to one year, with one year licences the norm for grants made until early January, 1922, six months the standard during mid-January, 1922, and three months the norm thereafter. Licence renewal was obtained via the submission of an updated Form 761 at the required intervals.
A serial licence number was assigned to the first licence issued to a given station, which normally was carried over to later licences issued to the station. (These licence numbers were used on subsequent station licences until 1927, when the newly formed Federal Radio Commission assigned new licence numbers to all existing stations). Occasionally the same licence number was accidentally given to two different stations. In that case, a "½" was added to one of the licence numbers. Some mistakes were never caught -- according to a penciled note WBU's initial February 21, 1922 licence was supposed to be numbered "299". Instead, it was stamped "219", and this number was kept for its later licences. Also, in March, 1922 someone apparently mistook a "3" for a "5", which caused two-hundred serial numbers to be temporarily skipped, as the licence numbers jumped from 353 to 554. (After the serial numbers reached 700 in May, 1922, they went back and picked up the missing numbers, beginning with 354.)
Although the above procedures were the ones normally used, Commerce files report that in a few cases the process was accelerated by direct letters, telegrams, and telephone conversations between applicants and Washington officials. (For more information, plus examples of early Commerce Department radio station records, see Early Commerce Department Records: Examples )
Station deletions in the early twenties were performed with even less formality and consistency than licencing. When a station discontinued broadcasting before the end of a licence period, the station operator could return the licence for cancellation. However, it appears that in most cases the station owners didn't bother -- instead they just let the licences expire in due course. Moreover, the lapse of a station licence was seen as no more than the close of an operating authorization, and rarely resulted in immediate deletion from the official station lists. Generally a grace period was allowed, on the assumption that many stations would eventually be relicenced.
The timespan between the expiration of a licence and formal deletion varied greatly, and according to Commerce files most stations were not removed from the published lists until one to six months after their operating licences had lapsed. The whole process was largely dependent on the diligence of the district Radio Inspectors. (For an example of Radio Inspector correspondence, see WMAC Correspondence.) Because of the flexible deletion practices, the number of stations deleted in a given month is not a precise measure of the decline in activity for that month, as the licences for many of these stations had in fact expired a number of weeks or months previously. Likewise, official lists of this period invariably include stations no longer holding active licences, and merely awaiting formal removal.
One category of broadcasting stations has been almost completely undocumented -- that of temporary grants. These were issued for special occasions, usually lasting a month or less, and were not reported in the Radio Service Bulletin. There is little information about these grants recorded in the Commerce files, although at least seventy were issued in the period from January, 1922 to October, 1928. For temporary grants made through June, 1922, where wavelength information is recorded, the wavelength assigned was always 360 meters. NOTES: Histories for five temporary stations operated by educational organizations can be found in S. E. Frost's "Educations's Own Stations": Bancroft School, Haddonfield, NJ (WRAQ); Gardenville High School, Gardenville, NY (WGHS); Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA (WDBG); Milton College, Milton, WI (WSAM); and Northern State Normal School, Marquette, MI (WBI). For additional information on temporary stations, see United States Temporary Broadcast Station Grants: 1922-1928.
Listed below are the nineteen stations listed in Commerce files as receiving temporary grants for the period through the end of June, 1922. [NOTE: KDU, Hillman Brothers in Yakima, Washington, also appears to have been authorized sometime during this period]
Call Letter Policies
Click here for a detailed map showing the boundary change Following the adoption of the 1912 act, callsigns for most non-amateur stations were composed of three letters. Most early commercial land stations were found clustered along the coasts, and with the development of inland services, refinements were required. The original policy for land stations was that those on the Pacific coast were normally assigned calls starting with K, while calls starting with W were normally assigned to outlets along the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. As land stations, broadcasters generally have followed a "K's in the West, W's in the East" policy. The original boundary between the two groups, which was still in force during the period this article covers, ran along the eastern borders of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
The rapid expansion of the ship service during World War One required assigning four-letter calls to ship stations, including, in alphabetical order, calls from the KE--, KI--, KO--, KU--, and, starting June, 1920, KD-- blocks. During this period land stations still generally received three-letter calls, except, for some reason, during the period from June, 1920 through April, 1921, when most new land stations were instead given calls from the four letter ship blocks. So, by nothing more than an accident of their birth dates, both KDKA in East Pittsburgh and KDPT in San Diego got four-letter calls a few months before the general switchover by new broadcasting stations from three to four letter callsigns.
Beginning in the middle of 1922 most new broadcasting stations started to receive four letter calls, with Western broadcasting stations sharing the KD--, and later KF-- and KG-- blocks with ship stations, while Eastern broadcasters were assigned calls from the W-A-, and later W-B-, blocks. Some received calls outside these blocks due to special requests, and eventually individual call requests became the norm. [NOTE: In late January, 1923 the K/W boundary line was shifted eastward to the Mississippi River, the current demarcation. For more detailed information on call letter policies, see Mystique of the Three-Letter Callsigns and K/W Call Letters In The United States].
Critique of Period Sources
Some idiosyncrasies of radio station sources became apparent while researching the early stations. An important source of information for the early twenties is the Radio Service Bulletin, issued by the Bureau of Navigation, which reported monthly the changes, deletions, and new station grants made during the preceding month. Three important characteristics of the Bulletin have sometimes been overlooked. The first is that its station lists do not report the grants chronologically within a given month, as the Bulletin lists always used non-chronological formats, such as alphabetically by city of licence or callsign. Second, a few stations entered the broadcasting service classification by metamorphosis from another service category, so their debuts are recorded in the "alterations and corrections" lists, rather than the new station lists which report the appearance of more conventional entrants to the service. This alternate route was used by three stations in the period through June, 1922: KQV, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; KDPT, San Diego, California; and WRR, Dallas, Texas. Third, broadcasting station additions, changes, and deletions were not reported in a separate category until the July 1, 1922 issue. Prior to this date they were intermixed with the other "commercial land stations", so care must be taken in extracting broadcast service information. The Bulletin was not completely free from occasional typographical errors -- for example, in the January 2, 1922 issue KJB, Everett, Washington and KFL, Seattle, Washington are incorrectly listed as being broadcast grants, and one station, WGI (later WARC), Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, seems to have disappeared without benefit of official notification. However, overall there were only a few minor discrepancies between information contained in the Bulletin, and that found in government records.
Another source of licencing information proved somewhat more suspect. W. E. Downey, Supervisor of Radio at the Department of Commerce, appears to have regularly provided monthly totals of broadcasting station additions, deletions, and outstanding authorizations. As seen in the listing below there are a number of discrepancies, for the period through June, 1922, between the monthly figures reported by Downey, and the information contained in Commerce records and the Radio Service Bulletin.
Surprisingly, Downey doesn't report any station deletions until September. But review of the Commerce records and the Radio Service Bulletin clearly shows that fifteen stations were deleted prior to September, beginning with two in March. Since the Downey figures do not list specific stations, the cause of the omissions not clear. Finally, the new station totals appearing in Gleason Archer's "History of Radio to 1926" have a readily identifiable flaw. These figures are inflated, because they are actually the number of new "commercial land stations" reported by the Radio Service Bulletin. As noted earlier, this means the figures erroneously include many non-broadcast service grants, and also omit a few transfers to the broadcast service that were reported in the change lists.
List of the Pioneer Broadcast Service Stations
Included in a separate section -- U.S. Pioneer Broadcast Service Stations: Actions Through June, 1922 -- is a chronological list of all broadcasting service additions, deletions, and changes that took place during the period from October, 1920 through June, 1922. The information presented will hopefully provide a more complete understanding of the policies of the period, and permit more detailed analysis of the development of the broadcast service. For instance, the list of new broadcast station grants shows the abrupt shift from the slow initial expansion of the service though November of 1921, with the first grants dominated by northeast and midwest radio equipment firms, to the popular expansion that began in December of 1921, when owners of all kinds sponsored stations. This popularization has every appearance of a rapidly spreading West Coast fad, as fully sixteen of the twenty-two grants made from December, 1921 to January 4, 1922 were for West Coast facilities, although another possibility is that the region's District Radio Inspector was particularly quick to get the local stations to upgrade their licences to the new standard.
The 389 entries in the chart actually comprise only 385 different stations, because of the following four developments: 1): WBAJ  was a relicencing of the deleted WDZ ; 2): KNX  supplanted the earlier KGC ; 3): WEH  was deleted and then relicenced , and 4): WDAN  was supplanted by WGAQ . According to my research, 96 of the 389 entries have survived to this day, although as only 93 different stations -- in addition to the earlier mentioned KGC/KNX and WDAN/WGAQ, WFI  and WDAR  were consolidated as WFIL in 1935. Thus, based on the research list that follows, below are the 93 United States broadcast stations which date back to June, 1922 and have survived to January 1, 2005 (plus enough of the oldest survivors from July, 1922, to reach 100 stations):
Notes on Sources
The Commerce Department's Callsign and Station Owner card files were the main source for station information up to March, 1927. Additional information came from the FCC's "History Card" files, at that time located at the Public Reference Room on the 2nd floor of 1919 M Street, NW, Washington, DC. This data was double-checked against a number of sources, including the Radio Service Bulletin grant, deletion, and cumulative station lists, original 761 Forms and station licences at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD, and an undated "List of First Stations Licensed for Broadcasting" (through March, 1922, although it omits a number of stations licenced in March), which was prepared by unidentified FCC personnel, and obtained through the Broadcast Pioneers Library, then in Washington, DC.
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