This is the Broadcast History section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Before 1912, a station could pick and use what ever call sign it desired.
Some calls were (largely due to the original usage of telegraphic code) one or
two letters. For instance, DeForest's station in New York was called
"NY." Others used various combinations of letters and numbers. The
letters "W" and "K" were randomly assigned to the USA (along
with "N") by the predecessor of the International Telecommunications
Union. [NOTE: KAA-KCZ was originally allocated to Germany, and not used in the
U.S. until 1929.] The first call signs were three letters issued in random,
sequential order, with no meanings attached, although there seem to be a few
that are more than simple coincidence. By 1922, four letters were needed to keep
up with the demand for new stations.
Original DOC policy was all combinations beginning with the letter N were
reserved for Government stations and the combinations from WUA to WVZ and WXA to
WZZ were reserved for Army stations. KDA to KZZ, with a few exceptions, were
reserved for ship stations on the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico and for land
stations on the Pacific coast. Combinations beginning with W (except WUA to WVZ
and WXA to WZZ) were reserved, with a few exceptions, for ship stations on the
Pacific and Great Lakes and for land stations on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts
and in the Great Lake region.
The dividing line between "W" and "K" for land stations
was out in the west, along the Texas-New Mexico border, where relatively few
stations existed. (W signed land stations originally existed as far west as El
Paso, Texas.) In 1923, as "ship-to-shore" service was moved from what
would become the broadcast band, the regulatory agency moved the
Starting in 1934, the FCC decided on the arbitrary usage of "W"
east of the Mississippi River (as the "logically easiest place" to
call the "middle"), and "K" to the west. Existing stations
were allowed to keep their calls, even if on the "wrong" side of the
river. It has worked, more or less, aside from areas like Minneapolis, which
straddle the river.
Hence, among others: KDKA and KQV in Pittsburgh, KYW in Philadelphia were
found east of the Mississippi. And WOW in Omaha, WKY in Oklahoma City, WOAI in
San Antonio and others were all 'grandfathered' "W"s way out west.
By 1922, stations were permitted to request unassigned calls or change their
calls to allow the station to develop marketing logos. Among the early requests
was KOP, the police station in Detroit.