This is the Broadcast History section of
The Broadcast Archive

Maintained by:
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer

Where did the "W" and "K" call letters come from?

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 "divider" eastward. 

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.