American Radio has played a strong role in the distribution of music, culture, politics and information. Its role pushing or reflecting music trends is undeniable. At times, it is the mirror that reflects public sentiments by responding to the desires of listeners and supporters of advertising. Other times it acts as an arbiter of tastes by steady and unrelenting repetition of music that one company or another is willing to subsidize to promote sales. Radio has been there in times of crisis to keep people informed and direct them to help and safety. Radio has also been there to mislead public opinion by obscuring the truth or facts. It is also true that radio has been there to bring clarity and truth to complex public issues. Radio has been there to scare us, made us laugh, cry and listen in rapt silence from the edges of our seats.
Radio embodies, perhaps, exactly what separates us from most other animals: it communicates new ideas, culture, music and commentary. No matter how remote the listener, they are in the center of public discourse.
This discussion, however, is focused on the role of radio in spreading new music around the American countryside. Before radio, new music was generally heard in the urban centers where multiple public performances were economically feasible. If a musical group was well received in New York City, for example, they would head out on the road to tour all the other major cities. If well received nationwide, they may even travel into the smaller towns. As the audiences grow smaller though, the revenue also shrinks. The net effect: focus on the cities. If you worked a farm in the Midwest, you may or may not get a chance to hear the latest craze.
Music was big business. Tin Pan Alley churned out music sheets for national distribution. Almost every child was schooled on some instrument. Being able to read music allowed the social activity of ensemble playing. Piano, violin, banjo, mandolin and guitar were common everywhere in America. Most houses had a music room with extra instruments and plenty of sheet music. Both women and men were expected to be able to play and participate.
New York City was the center for music publishing and Chicago became the center for instrument building and distribution. Major retail outlets, including Sears-Roebuck, circulated catalogs with everything and anything that the American public could want. You could even mail-order a house to be delivered in pieces by railroad to anywhere the rails ran. They offered a wide selection of instruments, music and accessories.
The advent of Radio opened a new frontier. It was a way to reach into every household in America. As if by magic, you could talk to everyone simultaneously and instantly. It didn’t take long for the major retailers to imagine ways to use this magnificent new tool.
Brief History of Radio
AM radio began with the first, experimental broadcast in 1906 by Reginald Fessenden, and was used for small-scale voice and music broadcasts up until World War I.
XWA of Montreal, Quebec (later CFCF) was the first commercial broadcaster in the world, with regular broadcasts commencing on May 20th, 1920. The first licensed American radio station was started by Frank Conrad, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Radio programming boomed during the “Golden Age of Radio” (1920s–1950s). Dramas, comedy and all other forms of entertainment were produced, as well as broadcasts of news and music.
AM Radio – How it Works
AM radio is simpler than FM. An AM receiver detects amplitude variations in the radio waves at a particular frequency. It then amplifies changes in the signal voltage to drive a loudspeaker or earphones. The earliest crystal radio receivers used a crystal diode detector with no amplifier.
In North America, transmitter power for commercial AM stations ranges from about 250 watts to 50,000 watts. Some experimental licenses were issued for up to 500,000 watts, for stations intended for wide-area communication during disasters, but no current commercial broadcaster in the US or Canada is authorized for such power levels. Other countries can authorize higher power operation. The Mexican station XERF, for example, used to operate at 250,000 watts. Antenna design considers the coverage and directs the signal to avoid interference with other stations operating on similar frequencies.
Medium wave and short wave radio signals act differently during day and night. During the day, AM signals travel by groundwave, diffracting around the curvature of the earth over a distance up to a few hundred miles from the transmitter. After sunset, however, changes in the ionosphere cause AM signals to travel by skywave. This enables AM to be heard much farther from their antennae than is normal during the day. This phenomenon can be tested by scanning the AM radio dial at night. Because of this, many broadcast stations are required to reduce their broadcasting power (or use directional antennas) after sunset. In some cases, they are required to suspend broadcasting entirely during nighttime hours. Such stations are commonly referred to as daytimers.
In the United States, some AM radio stations are granted clear channel status, meaning they broadcast on frequencies where fewer other stations are allocated, allowing an extended coverage area. Few stations enjoy clear channel status. Commercial broadcasters generally rely only on ground-wave coverage to reach their target market for advertising.
Because of its susceptibility to atmospheric and electrical interference, AM broadcasting now supports mainly talk radio and news programming. Music and public radio mostly shifted to FM broadcasting in the late 1960s and 1970s for less interference, wider frequency response and stereo broadcasting.
With special thanks to the WLS website for this historical information.
WLS was by no means the only clear-channel AM radio station with tremendous impact on American culture. There are too many stations to mention and their contributions vary tremendously between markets and areas. We have decided to try to describe the impact of one very important station to give the flavor of what was going on during the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. One has to close their eyes and imagine young men like Chet Atkins with crystal sets late at night in rural Tennessee hearing music and entertainment that they never would have been exposed to except for the advent of radio. It was those men and women with open eyes and broadened horizons that went on to expand the American musical heritage that we take for granted today.
The early 1920’s brought the birth of commercial radio as we know it. Sears-Roebuck and Company had bought time on radio stations to address and target the lucrative farming market. By 1923 it was apparent that they needed their own broadcast outlet. The company started the Sears-Roebuck Agricultural Foundation, designed to be a clearinghouse for information and assistance through its Farm and Home Service Departments. In order to carry out the foundation, Sears originally did a farm program beginning on March 21st, 1924, with its first assigned call letters WBBX, from the studios of WMAQ Radio.
On April 9th, 1924 Sears signed on 500-watt WES (for World’s Economy Store) from its own studios in Chicago, Illinois. The small studio was located next to the Agricultural Foundation offices on the 11th floor of the 14-story Sears-Roebuck tower. The company’s drafting room served as a control room, sending the signal to the transmitter site, located in Crete. The initial night of testing featured singer Grace Wilson and the musical comedy team of Big Ford and Little Glenn. Ford Rush was both the first employee of the new Sears station and its first announcer. Glenn Rowell became Studio Director and headed up the station’s music department. Over the next two evenings (April 10th & 11th) Sears aired more test programs. The Sears switchboards “lit up like Christmas trees” with listeners calling in after hearing the broadcasts. The station officially went on-the-air on April 12th. Shortly after 6 pm, renowned dramatic actress Ethel Barrymore was introduced to begin the broadcast. However, upon seeing the new-fangled microphone, she froze up and exclaimed “Turn that damned thing off!” With those words, station WLS was off and running!
WLS program broadcasted from kitchen
On the evening of the formal dedication, Sears changed the calls to WLS Radio. The call letters stood for the ‘World’s Largest Store’, a name the giant retailer and catalog merchant had gained from their West Side Headquarters on Homan Avenue.
This was the dawn of the radio era and Sears knew they could get in on the ground floor. Sears could not only sell radios, but provide programming and farm service. The 1925 Sears Catalogue stated, “WLS was conceived in your interests, is operated on your behalf and is dedicated to your service. It is your station.” Broadcasting several hours a day, the station’s slogan became “Bringing The World To The Farm.” According to accounts, in little more than four years, WLS went from being an obscure signal to a Midwestern powerhouse. It was rumored that it could be heard as far away as New Zealand. The station aired speeches from President Calvin Coolidge, Ralph Stockton’s sermons, the comedy of Pie Plant Pete and the wit of Will Rogers. WLS even hosted a reception for Colonel Charles Lindbergh.
While the main focus was farm and civic programming, popular music, comedies and radio serials could be heard as well. Nearly 60 different bands called WLS home, while over 130 musical acts aired on the station for free. On April 19th, 1924 the station aired the first National Barn Dance program, a four-hour cavalcade of music, comedy and down-home entertainment. The program went on to become one of the most popular and longest-running country-and-western shows in history, second only to The Grand Old Opry. By 1932, the National Barn Dance program would be cut to two hours and broadcast live, originating from the Eighth Street Theater in the South Loop. One of the more popular acts on WLS and the National Barn Dance was LaPorte Indiana’s Maple City Four. The quartet, who joined the station in 1926, mixed barbershop harmonies with wildly popular comedy routines and minstrel sketches.
On March 19th, 1927, WLS made history by being the first radio station to broadcast Beethoven’s entire 9th Symphony, which a station publication at the time called “…the only complete performance of the work ever given on the air in the U.S.”.
THE PRAIRIE FARMER
By the end of the 1920s, Sears had realized that it was a retailer and not a broadcaster. The International Harvester Company as well as WENR Radio, who shared the 870 frequency with WLS were interested in purchasing the station. On September 15th, 1928, Sears Roebuck sold the station for $250,000 to ABC, The Agricultural Broadcasting Company, a newly formed holding corporation with capital stock of 2500 shares valued at $100 each. Prairie Farmer Magazine was the majority stockholder with over 1200 shares. The terms also granted Sears the right to buy back WLS within 13 months if the station “… is not or cannot become self-supporting.” The Prairie Farmer eventually purchased the remaining shares. Sears was also granted up to 12 free broadcast hours a week for the duration of the original note. On October 1st, an official on-air ceremony aired at 7 pm to herald the change in management. After the transaction, WLS’ studios were moved from Sears on Homan Avenue to the Prairie Farmer Headquarters on Chicago’s near west Side at 1230 West Washington Boulevard.
Since the station’s main focus was farmers, much of WLS’ broadcast day catered to the rural areas of the Midwest. Informing the farmers was equally as important as entertainment. Market reports aired twice daily direct from the Union Stock Yards through remote broadcast lines. WLS used these new remote lines extensively and promoted itself as being on the cutting edge of this new medium. State Fairs, corn husking contests and even live coverage from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago were just a few of the many remote broadcasts that WLS aired.
As a part of “Farmer’s Week” at the World’s Fair, this WLS Barn Dance was the biggest ever put on. Nearly 35,000 spectators attended the show at the Court Of The States. The Barn Dance played at the fair for four successive weeks on Wednesday nights.
Entertainment programs included The Smile-A-While Show, The Dinner Bell Program which aired at noon, Everybody’s Hour conducted by the WLS Orchestra and Old Kitchen Kettle. Red Foley, Gene Autry – the singing cowboy, George Goebel, Pat Buttram (who went on to star in movies and as “Mr. Haney” on the TV show Green Acres) and many others appeared on WLS and the National Barn Dance. It also offered tips and advice during Homemakers Hour, and the news of the day.
Throughout the heyday of the Prairie Farmer, listeners were able to keep up with their favorite radio stars via several publications. The Prairie Farmer Company mind you, was in publishing! Listeners were treated to “Stand By!” magazine every other week, which featured interviews with the WLS stars, a gossip column called “Fanfare by Marjorie Gibson,” a questions and answers section, as well as news of interest authored by Jack Holden and Check Stafford, cartoons and other features such as “Homemaker Tips and Recipes.” It also contained a schedule of upcoming WLS programming. Then annually, WLS would release its version of a yearbook called the “WLS Family Album,” which not only published pictures of the station’s performers but also featured portraits of station personnel and their families. Prairie Farmer owner/publisher Burridge Butler and Program Director Harold Safford went out of their way to portray WLS as being a part of the family! The conservative and no-nonsense Butler even crafted a station code of ethics, known as “The WLS Creed.”
History was made with the words of Herb Morrison on May 6th, 1937. His anguish was felt coast to coast as the German airship Hindenburg, filled with hydrogen, burst into flames before his eyes and was destroyed in a matter of seconds. Listeners in Chicago and across the country didn’t hear Morrison’s coverage of the disaster until the next day because his report wasn’t broadcast live from Lakehurst. He and engineer Charley Nehlsen had been experimenting with field recordings on huge acetate discs. They realized the gravity of their recordings as they found themselves being followed by German SS Officers! After hiding out for a few hours, the two managed to make a clean getaway and get back across the country to WLS. The chilling account aired the next day on the station and was the first recorded radio news report to be broadcast nationally by NBC.
In 1932, WLS was authorized to increase its power to 50,000 watts, first on an experimental, then on a permanent basis. It continued to share the 870 kHz frequency with WENR until 1954. As a result, both stations had only part-time schedules. When one station would sign off, the other would sign on. Vacuum tubes were used to amplify the signal to a strength of 50,000 watts. The amount of electricity to do this is staggering. In any event, the waste electricity is released in the form of heat – tubes get very hot. The first result is tube failure. The tubes wore out relatively quickly so a dedicated staff member was always present to replace power tubes as they failed. If allowed to heat up, the tubes would simply melt. In order to keep them cool enough to operate reliably, long pools of water were used for cooling. The dedicated staff member was also responsible for keeping the cooling water flowing and plentiful.
In 1941 (to participate in the war effort) the station, in cooperation with the Great Lakes Naval Training Center aired a weekly 15-minute program called ‘Meet Your Navy’. It was designed to keep listeners informed about the activities of Naval men and women. In addition to providing recruiting information, the Navy band and Great Lakes Choir would often play on the show, which was picked up nationally by the NBC Blue Network. The other armed services, such as the Army and WACS were also represented on other WLS programs. Station employees and performers planted and maintained a victory garden in suburban Burr Ridge. Many of the produce items were used fresh, but plenty was also canned in the kitchen at the Prairie Farmer Building.
The National Barn Dance merrily rolled on from the Eighth Street Theatre every Saturday night, but the post-war world was quickly changing. The American Broadcasting Company, which was spun off in 1945 by NBC (It was their less visible “Blue” Network, which owned WENR, the “other” station on the 890 frequency) and Paramount Theatres purchased a controlling share of WLS in 1954. Faced with dwindling audiences, WLS reluctantly closed down the live version of the National Barn Dance. The last audience filed into The Eighth Street Theatre on August 31st, 1957, although the program continued on-air in the WLS, and later WGN studios. By 1959, it was clear that America was changing from a rural to an ever-increasing urban and suburban society. Movies and television had already made their inroads and the Prairie Farmer folks knew it was time to cash out. ABC, sensing that they could get their hands on the huge 50,000 watt clear channel signal from Chicago, was ready to buy. They already had a television property in Chicago, WENR-TV, later WBKB Channel 7, and were beginning to pursue a license for the new radio band – FM. As a result, The Prairie Farmer Publishing Company and WLS Radio became a wholly owned subsidiary of ABC. Farm programming was soon to be a thing of the past.
May 2nd, 1960. To some, radio history was made that day, while others would argue that’s the day that radio took a turn for the worse. After 36 years of broadcasting farm information, various “polite” entertainment, country music and the National Barn Dance, the sounds of “Alley Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles crackled out of radios tuned to AM 890 that spring morning. WLS was transformed from the old, creaky Prairie Farmer outlet into a hip, urban-minded contemporary-hit station.
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(Large portions of historical information copied-edited-expanded from WLS website)