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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 for years.

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 Germany.

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 radio stations?

The answer lies in a special person, Powell Crosley.


Copyright 1995, 2003 Barry Mishkind. Reproduction prohibited without permission.