This is the Cincinnati History section of
The Broadcast Archive
Maintained by: Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Last Update 8/20/03
Powel Crosley - The Nation's Stationer
by Barry Mishkind
[TUCSON, Arizona] - When you hear the call letters WLW, usually the
first thing that comes to mind is the history of the station as the one and only
superpower station authorized to broadcast normal schedules at 500,000 watts.
While that operation ended in 1939 after just under five years, WLW's
programming and history have captured the imagination of broadcast enthusiasts
Why was WLW the first and only station to operate with
"superpower?" The story of this one station "network" starts
with a frustrated automobile manufacturer, Powel Crosley, Jr., and a request
from his son.
Powel Crosley was a driven inventor and businessman who loved automobiles,
but never seemed to be able to make money building them. Over the years, Cosley
designed or marketed a number of items for car owners, from draft eliminators to
a flag holder with fit on the radiator cap. Yet his crowning success in mass
marketing came not from his auto accessory business, but from his son's request
for one of those "new fangled" wireless receivers.
Considering it nothing more than a toy, Crosley went shopping with his son,
and was horrified at the $100 minimum cost of a radio receiver in those days
(that represented several month's wages).
However, since Crosley was a practical man, he spent 25 cents for the book
"The ABCs of Radio," then purchased parts and built his own receiver.
Finally, he ordered a 20 watt transmitter to send something to the receivers and
8XAA was born.
Realizing many others would be interested in having a receiver, but were
without the money nor the ability to build their own, brought him to design and
build cheaper receivers the masses could afford. The Harko, for example, was
priced at $20. The sales of the Harko in the 1921 Christmas season were so
successful that Crosley stopped building anything else but radio receivers.
Of course, in those days, to sell a receiver required something we today take
for granted: programming. Radio was new, and the number of stations was small.
So Crosley applied to the government for his own station, and WLW was granted a
license on March 2, 1922. Like all "commercial" stations of the day,
it was assigned to 833 kHz, shared with the other local stations.
WLW of the early 1920s was nothing like what it would become. A little
curtained studio, made quite warm by the operation of the transmitter, would
contain the whole operation. The microphone was essentially a huge, eight foot
morning glory horn shaped affair, with an opening three feet across. The
announcer would literally stick his head halfway down the microphone and speak
up to be heard. Records could be played by putting the output horn of the
phonograph next to the microphone's input horn.
Crosley seemed to like to play "Song of India." And, he did. Over
and over again, announcing the music was coming from "WLW - the
broadcasting station for the Queen City of the West ." Another logo used
was "WLW ... The Station with a Soul." When you hear a station today
repeating one record as a stunt to get attention, just remember that the concept
is 75 years old!
However, what made Powel Crosley special was his combination of enthusiasm
for the medium and his business sense as a manufacturer. WLW did not suffer from
lack of reach. Unlike today, a hundred watts would reach out quite well. A
November 1922 contest garnered letters from 42 states indicating there was a
large potential audience ... as well as customers for Crosley radio receivers.
Yet, Crosley was far from done. His original feeling that there would be
profit in making a receiver that could be afforded by the masses proved to be
correct. So Crosley continued to design cheap radios, eventually making the
Harko for $9. The key to making this plan work seemed to be in getting more and
more power to the radios.
Crosley led WLW to seek an increase to 500 watts in 1923; 1,000 watts in
1924. It was the first US station to use 5 kW, in January 1925. Then an effort
to reduce competition brought unexpected benefits. In January 1923, Crosley
purchased the Precision Instrument Company, and its WMH. This was especially
beneficial for three reasons. First, it gave WLW access to the airwaves five
nights a week, instead of three. It provided a spare antenna that was needed
when the WLW antenna was blown over in March 1923. And although the WMH antenna
used an empty wine bottle for an insulator, it was a vertical antenna. This
helped WLW provide better non-directional coverage.
The year 1928 brought WLW to 50,000 watts. But Powel Crosley wanted yet more,
leading to an experimental authorization for 500,000 watts in 1934. The
transmitter was a combined effort, which included design by RCA design, RF
sections from GE and control circuitry from Westinghouse. It was, obviously,
serial number 1.
And it was *huge*. The statistics are almost impossible to believe in this
day of transistorization. The transmitter was fifteen feet high and sixty feet
wide. Each modulation transformer weighed 35,700 pounds, including 725 gallons
of oil. The three parallel power amplifiers used 12 PA tubes. Two 33 kV power
lines came to the transmitter building, 2300 VAC entered the building. A 75 foot
square pond held the water used to cool the transmitter, which needed something
like 10,000 gallons of cool water a minute.
It was said WLW's 831 foot, 200 ton tower was specially built with a
"fat" middle to handle the RF current received, 72 amperes carrier
current via a feedline of almost 10 inches diameter. However, this is not true.
The tower was built from two shorter towers to erect a vertical radiator. This
had just been done in Nashville at WSM, and worked well. However, both stations
ended up shortening their towers due to skywave problems.
It was said when WLW went on the "big" rig the street lights in
Mason, OH dimmed. In some homes, the lights could not be turned off. It took as
many as 17 operators at one time (from a staff of 63), to run it, not to mention
an air staff of 190 full and part time performers.
Its reach was awesome. It was truly "The Nation's Station."
There never would be another like it.
By 1939, there were political pressures to stop WLW's superpower. Whether it
was attributed to WWII or to political intrigue by WLW's competitors, on March
1, 1939, WLW returned to radiating "only" 50 kW aside from some
special broadcasts, on behalf of the US government, to send a message to
In fact, during the late 1930s and 1940s, more than 15 stations filed
applications with the FCC for power levels in excess of the "normal"
50,000 watt level. Another round of applications accompanied a "Clear
Channel Proceeding" in the 1960s. Yet, no authorizations were granted and
today the maximum power on AM remains 50 kW.
Yet, for almost five years, WLW fed an astonishing amount of power and talent
to its tower. The cheap Harko and its relatives and cousins proliferated around
the country, and radio became truly a "mass" medium.
Why was it that WLW alone achieved the "superpower" status among
The answer lies in a special person, Powell Crosley.
Copyright 1995, 2003 Barry Mishkind. Reproduction prohibited without permission.