This is the General History Section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Superpowers Crank It Up
is the second
in a series of 6 articles about the history of clear-channel AM radio stations.
discussed last time how early regulatory agencies tried, more or less
unsuccessfully, to respond to the explosive demand for AM broadcast frequencies,
and how the Chaos of 1926 led to the formation of the Federal Radio Commission.
The FRC’s first major proclamation came in 1928 as General Order 40. By
its structure, this order finally demonstrated some regulatory consistency, and
it would send a signal to broadcasters that they could commit to improving their
to high power
1930 the FRC authorized 50-kilowatt operation on 20 of the 40 channels
previously reserved for wide-area coverage. Two years later, it officially
recognized the term “clear channel,” and in 1933 authorized full power on
all 40 of the wide-area frequencies.
immediately began to improve their facilities.
By the mid-1930s many stations were cranking out 50 kW and building solid
transmitter plants, many of which are still in operation.
But even with 50 kW, the coverage of medium-wave stations had its limit, and
the need for solid nighttime service to the “white areas” remained a
front-burner industry issue. Proposed
solutions included more stations and/or higher power.
The idea of massive
transmitter plants certainly had sex appeal. Power levels “several dB above 50
kW” were the usual suggestions. And Radio News combined high power with
the use of the Long-Wave band. In a
well-researched proposal in its April 1931 issue, the publication suggested that
seven geographically dispersed, one megawatt stations, operating at low
frequency (200 kHz), that would cover the entire country with fade-free
reception. These stations would be connected by landline. They called it “Direct
National Coverage”. The devil, of course, would be in the details.
Federal Radio Commission was not interested in licensing LW operation, or in
solving the coverage problem by other means, until it had optimized the use of
the existing MW spectrum.
the next few years, two events occurred that would affect the battle to define
nighttime MW service. First,
through a series of court actions and rule makings, 10 of the 40 protected
channels were duplicated. (Some channels were actually constricted with the
consent of the Licensees, not always for valid technical reasons but sometimes
as a quid pro quo for regulatory relief). These
“I-B” duplications would set a precedent for future shared use of the clear
second development occurred on May 2, 1934, when WLW in Cincinnati began what
was to be a five-year experiment, broadcasting under Special Temporary Authority
at a “super-power” of 500,000 watts on 700 kcs.
WLW went super-power at the same time serious opposition to the broadcast
giants was beginning to materialize. One of the reasons the opposition to
clear-channel operation was so intense was that WLW’s 500 kilowatt signal
raised the specter of “domination by the few”.
the Franklin D. Roosevelt years, Congress, in response to pressure for new radio
regulation, enacted the Communications Act of 1934, creating a Federal
Communications Commission. One of
the early tasks facing the new FCC was the resolution of the legal and political
attacks on the clear-channel stations by competitors and “have-nots.” As
large targets, the clears were challenged from all sides, from Petitions To Deny
to cross-filing on license renewals. In two such cases, John Shephard III
applied in 1934 for full-time operation on 640 and 830 kHz, and forced the
operators on those channels through long and expensive hearings until his
challenges finally were denied in 1936.
the FCC had more to do than think about clear channels, and its reputation as a
“body deliberate and informed” often was in question. As an act of
protection, in 1934 a number of large stations united behind Edwin Craig of WSM
to form the Clear Channel Group, later known as the Clear Channel Broadcasting
Service. CCBS operated as a
cooperative, typically including about 16 of the largest stations, and was the
primary advocate for the protection of the clear channels.
The CCBS was careful to limit membership to those operators who
demonstrated a clear commitment to the preservation of clear-channel service.
Because of concerns that some of the networks had “dealt away” some
of their 1-A protection in deals with the FCC, the by-laws initially denied
membership to “network owned-and-operated” stations.
White areas remain
the end of the 1930s, all of the clear-channel stations were operating at 50 kW.
While the stations on some duplicated I-B channels had to directionalize,
the others operated full-time, non-directional, as the only domestic nighttime
assignment on their frequency. Their combined sky-wave service covered a good
part of the United States, but there remained a large under-served nighttime
white area, primarily in the West.
FCC wanted to solve the white-area problem, but it had other matters before it
in the mid-1930s. It was focused on preparing the U.S. position for the upcoming
North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement.
That NARBA would bring about a major frequency reshuffle in 1941, to
accommodate the needs of neighboring countries.
In developing its proposed station-inventory list in the 1930’s, the
FCC engineering staff evaluated the overall health of the AM broadcast band and
asked for proposals to better utilize the spectrum.
In a 1937 report, FCC
Engineers Ted Craven and Andy Ring outlined a comprehensive proposal to make
better use of the MW band. They
proposed across-the-board power increases and suggested six channel classes, to
be defined by service area, from 100 watt “locals,” to wide-area “A”
channels of 50 kW-plus. While
they recommended continued protection of 25 A channels for single-station
operation, they also suggested that co-channel duplication on those clears might
be a better use of spectrum, but only if the stations were separated by
at least 2,500 miles.
1937 suggestions by the FCC engineers are of interest to us.
They would be cited by both sides in the coming battle to dispose of the
try for super-power gold
and Craven stopped short of recommending super-power, but in positioning for the
upcoming NARBA, the FCC said publicly it might authorize power in excess
of 50 kW on the 25 U.S. I-A channels. In response to this notice, several
stations immediately applied for increased power. The accompanying box lists
those applications, on their original, (pre-NARBA) frequencies (many of these
stations would be assigned a new dial position in 1941).
Two radio stations applied for 500 kW on 540, but had their requests
turned down, probably because the United States was negotiating with Mexico to
reserve 540 as a Mexican clear.
super-power applications were tendered while WLW had its STA for 500 kW.
Other stations may have been doing high-power experimenting as well.
According to Radio News of April 1932, “Anticipating the continuing and
increasing rapid growth of broadcasting service, KDKA has recently built a new
400,000-watt transmitter at Saxonburg, Pa. The new station has been operating
experimentally between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.”
of these super-power applications subsequently were withdrawn or dismissed.
The applicants would file again, but that’s getting ahead of our story.
operation demonstrated the real-world impact of expanded power levels on
adjacent-channel interference and on the economics of advertising sales.
It also caught the attention of Congress. In 1938 the Senate passed a
resolution “against powers in excess of 50 kilowatts.” The FCC politely
declined to be ordered about by such resolutions.
But super-power had a lot of broadcasters concerned, and politicians have
always been responsive to the broadcasters in their home states.
Special Test Authority lasted five years, kept afloat by repeated requests for
additional time. The reasons the FCC finally stopped the operation are no longer
clear. It’s probable that interference was a major issue. (Early on, WLW had
to directionalize at night, to protect a Canadian adjacent-channel station some
350 miles away.) It’s also likely
the FCC staff would have weighed in at some point with an “energy-consumption”
edict. Radio veterans recall a
World War II mandate to drop power by two or three dB, to conserve energy (that
power restriction was lifted for daytime operation on Sept. 1, 1945, and fully
lifted in October of that year).
One might speculate
that the tangible returns to WLW didn’t justify the cost of high-power
operation, but the record does show that WLW tried to keep its super-power
authorization. On June 19, 1941, it applied for 500 kW, directional night. It
then modified that request to 500 kW day, 50 kW night.
WLW finally withdrew its application on April 7, 1943 (for the “war
But that wouldn’t
be the last of the super-power action, as we’ll see.
Copyright 2000 by
Might Have Been:
KNX applies for 500 kW on 1050 kHz
WJZ (now WABC) applies for 500 kW on 760
April 27: WHAS applies for 500 kW, then for 750 kW, on 820
June 1: WJR applies for 500 kW on 750
June 5: KDKA applies for 500 kW on 980
June 15: KFI applies for 500 kW directional on 640
June 24: WSM applies for 500 kW on 650
July 2: WOAI applies for 500 kW on 1190
July 2: WOR applies for 500 kW on 710
Sept. 24: WGY applies for 500 kW on 790
Oct. 1: KSL applies for 500 kW on 1130
WBZ applies for 500 kW on 990
WHO applies for test authority at 500 kW on 1000