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Tue Aug 20, 2019, 11:42 AM

99 Years Ago Today; The First commercial radio station, 8MK (now WWJ), begins operations in Detroit.

https://tinyurl.com/ya4u66ov (Wikipedia link for WWJ Detroit)

WWJ, 950 kHz (a regional broadcast frequency), is an all-news AM radio station located in Detroit, Michigan. Owned by Entercom, its studios are in the Panasonic Building in Southfield, and its transmitter site is near Newport. WWJ is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast in the HD Radio format. It is also simulcast on an HD subchannel of sister station WXYT-FM.

On the air for nearly a century, WWJ began daily broadcasts as the "Detroit News Radiophone" on August 20, 1920, while operating under an amateur radio license with the call sign "8MK". Over the years the station has claimed the titles of "America's Pioneer Broadcasting Station" and where "commercial radio broadcasting began."

In her 1960 review of the station's history, Cynthia Boyes Young cautioned that: "The actual beginnings of the Detroit News radio station, later to be known as WWJ, were not recorded at the time, and the story can only be partially pieced together from the reminiscences of radio pioneers." Three years later, Robert Preston Rimes found that "...fragmentary, incomplete, and sometimes, inaccurate histories existed".

WWJ has traditionally recognized August 20, 1920 as its founding date. This was the day that the Detroit News inaugurated daily broadcasts from a studio established in the newspaper's headquarters building, located at the corner of Lafayette and 2nd Avenues. These initial broadcasts, by what was then called the "Detroit News Radiophone", were sent under an amateur station license operating with the call sign "8MK".

Radio pioneer Thomas E. Clark provided technical advice during the planning stages (1922 advertisement)

The person most responsible for establishing the Detroit News Radiophone service was the newspaper's vice-president and managing director, William E. Scripps. The Scripps family had a long history of interest in radio developments. In 1902 Thomas E. Clark founded the Thomas E. Clark Wireless Telephone-Telegraph Company, in order to supply vessels in the Great Lakes region with radio (then commonly known as "wireless" ) communication equipment. James E. Scripps, father of William E. Scripps and then-publisher of the Detroit News, took his son to witness a demonstration, and was also an early investor in Clark's company. On April 4, 1906 the News publicized the receipt of an order, via radiotelegraphy, by the advertising department from the Clark-equipped steamer City of Detroit. However, Clark was ultimately unable to compete with the predatory practices of the United Wireless Telegraph Company, and around 1910 ceased the Great Lakes installations. He subsequently opened an electrical shop in Detroit, and remained in contact with the Scripps family.

In April 1917, due to the entrance of the United States into World War One, it became illegal for private citizens to own radio receivers. This wartime ban was lifted effective April 15, 1919, and William E. Scripps' son, William J. Scripps, became interested in radio as a hobby, spending hours listening for distant stations. Most radio transmissions at this time were still being sent with the dots-and-dashes of Morse code. However, William E. Scripps later stated that it was his son's brief reception of an audio transmission that led to his initial investigation whether the News could set up its own broadcasting station. Drawing on advice from Thomas E. Clark, Scripps soon determined that the idea was in fact practical, primarily due to recent advances in radio transmitter technology, especially the development of vacuum-tube transmitters.

Sometime during 1919 Scripps and Clark prepared an expansive proposal that was brought before the newspaper's board of directors, requesting financing for the building of a powerful radio station capable of providing service throughout the Great Lakes region. Although initially resistant, the board eventually approved the request. However, significant modifications had to be made to the original plan. The proposal specified a 3,000 watt transmitter that would be constructed locally by Clark's Tecla Company, based on the design of General Electric's CG 4000 transmitter. Clark was subsequently sent by Scripps to New York, presumably to General Electric's headquarters at Schenectady, to make further arrangements, but he was unsuccessful in reaching an agreement. After this Clark largely withdrew from participation, to the degree that his first visit to the station didn't take place until 1937.

At this point a new group of individuals became involved. Beginning in 1907, inventor Lee de Forest had been the leading proponent in the United States trying to introduce organized radio broadcasting, especially by newspapers. However, due to technical and financial issues, he had made little progress in making converts to the idea. In late 1916 the DeForest Radio Telephone & Telegraph Company began broadcasting a nightly "wireless newspaper" entertainment and news program from its experimental station, 2XG, located in the Highbridge section of New York City. This station had to suspend operations during World War One, but was revived shortly after the October 1, 1919 lifting of the wartime ban on civilian stations.

March 25, 1920 advertisement for Radio News & Music, Inc.

In early 1920 Clarence "C. S." Thompson, a New York City associate of Lee de Forest, and John F. Hubbard formed Radio News & Music, Inc., which in March 1920 took up the promotion of newspaper-run broadcasting stations, offering local franchises and asking in national advertisements "Is Your Paper to be One of the Pioneers Distributing News and Music by Wireless?" The Detroit News would become Radio News & Music's first and ultimately only newspaper customer.

In a May 28, 1920 letter, the News made arrangements to lease a DeForest OT-10 radio transmitter through Radio News & Music, in order to develop a broadcasting service. An initial equipment shipment was made the same day, and Radio News & Music hired a local teenaged amateur radio operator, Michael DeLisle Lyons, to install the transmitter in a second floor room of the News headquarters building, connected to an antenna constructed on the roof. The May 28th shipment never arrived, so a replacement was sent from New York on July 15th. After Lyons did some initial installation work a financial dispute broke out between him and the newspaper's management, so the News hired Frank Edwards to take over engineering responsibilities. Elton M. Plant, an aspiring reporter who had a good speaking and singing voice, was drafted as an announcer.

De Forest had sold the commercial rights to his radio patents to the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1917. However, he retained the right to sell equipment for "amateur and experimental use", so the station operated under a standard amateur radio license, with the call sign 8MK. William E. Scripps was very enthusiastic about the project, and kept close track as the equipment was being tested. However, the work was done with very limited publicity, and there are reports that some at the newspaper worried that a radio station might adversely affect paper sales, thus measures were taken to hide the direct involvement of the Scripps family, including originally licensing 8MK in Michael DeLisle Lyons' name.

Scripps' original proposal had envisioned operating on an uncongested frequency somewhere within the 600 to 1600 meter (500 to 187.5 kHz) band normally reserved for government stations. However, as a amateur station 8MK was required to transmit on the standard thus interference-prone amateur wavelength of 200 meters (1500 kHz), although contemporary newspaper accounts stated that it sometimes operated on other, less congested, wavelengths. In addition, the OT-10 transmitter was only rated for 20 watts, far less than the 3,000 watts contemplated in Scripps' original proposal.


Front page announcement in the August 31, 1920 Detroit News introducing the "Detroit News Radiophone"

8MK began nightly trial broadcasts on August 20, 1920, in order to check if the equipment was ready for regular service. However, because the station was still unpublicized the original audience consisted only of a small number of interested local amateur radio enthusiasts. The test programs proved satisfactory, so on August 31, 1920 the Detroit News announced on its front page that, starting that evening, nightly (except Sunday) broadcasts would be transmitted by the "Detroit News Radiophone" service. That evening's debut program featured regularly updated returns for a primary election held that day, plus vocal performances by Lois Johnson. Malcolm Bingay, managing director of the Detroit News, was the broadcast's master of ceremonies.

The front page of the next day's News contained enthusiastic reports attesting to the success of the election night broadcast, which had begun "promptly at 8:10 p. m.", with the newspaper declaring: "The sending of the election returns by The Detroit News Radiophone Tuesday night was fraught with romance and must go down in the history of man's conquest of the elements as a gigantic step in his progress." The paper also reported receiving "numberless telephone calls to The News office asking for details of the apparatus".

Daily broadcasts, most commonly between 7 and 8 p.m., continued through September. Although the initial programs consisted mostly of phonograph records interspersed with news announcements, programming also included fight results from the heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Billy Miske on September 6, and, in October, play-by-play accounts as the Cleveland Indians bested the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1920 World Series baseball championship. Weekly vocal concerts were begun on September 23, with Mabel Norton Ayers as the first featured artist. By late October, the paper was boasting that "hundreds of Detroiters are now the possessors of wireless receiving sets by which they get the news bulletins, music and other features sent out by The News Radiophone", as the station prepared to broadcast returns for that year's presidential election on November 2.

August 1920 publicity photograph. L-R: Howard J. Trumbo, manager of the local Thomas A. Edison Record Shop, operating a phonograph player; Elton M. Plant, Detroit News employee and announcer, behind 8MK's DeForest OT-10 radio transmitter; and engineer Frank Edwards.


In fairness, KTLA also claims to be the first commercial broadcasting station:


By 1919, after the war, radio pioneers across the country resumed transmissions. The early stations gained new call signs. A few early stations, notably 8MK (later known as WWJ in Detroit) were started by newspapers, but in those early years, radio and newspapers regarded each other as competitors. One early station, 8XK in Pittsburgh, became KDKA in 1920; its ownership has asserted that it was the first radio station in the USA, but that claim is controversial There were other stations on the air around the same time as KDKA, including a station at Union College in Schenectady, New York that became known as WRUC; 8MK in Detroit; 1XE in Medford Hillside MA, and several others. KDKA received a commercial license and began broadcasting on November 2, 1920.

Nonetheless, to 8MK, despite their infamous promotion known as the Turkey Drop of November, 1920.

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Reply 99 Years Ago Today; The First commercial radio station, 8MK (now WWJ), begins operations in Detroit. (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Aug 20 OP
JohnnyRingo Aug 20 #1
Dennis Donovan Aug 20 #2

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Tue Aug 20, 2019, 12:14 PM

1. K&R

Long read, but I love this kind of history.

Thanx for posting!

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Response to JohnnyRingo (Reply #1)

Tue Aug 20, 2019, 02:47 PM

2. One of my favorite Ken Burns documentaries is Empire of the Air

A very fascinating look at how personal and impersonal the radio pioneers were towards one another.

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