By John Schneider, W9FGH


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John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC

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(Click on photos to enlarge)

Eugene F. McDonald
Eugene F. McDonald, Jr. (1886-1958) was president of Zenith Radio Corporation, and the first president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

WJAZ studio
WJAZ, the Zenith broadcast station in Chicago, occupied these elegant quarters in the fashionable Edgewater Beach Hotel.  This was the "Crystal Studio" where live broadcasts took place.  Spectators in the hotel lobby could view the broadcasts through large plate glass windows.

WJAZ Master Control
This was the WJAZ master control room in the Edwater Beach Hotel, 1922.  The control panel handled ten microphone lines.

McDonald (right) shows off WJAZ's curious "microspeakerphone", a new Zenith radio invention, to Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan.  The device was designed to combat the common problem of "mike fright" experienced by guest speakers and performers.  Behind the grill cloth, the device displayed a moving image of an audience, to whom the speaker could direct his talk.  When not used as a microphone, it doubled as a speaker.

WJAZ mobile transmitter

Zenith operated this portable broadcasting station, WSAX, from 1924 to 1926.  The entire station was built on a one-ton truck chassis. 

Transmitter in Mt. Prospect
WJAZ transmitter in Mt. Prospect, IL, 1925.

WJAZ QSL card 1926
QSL card from WJAZ, dated 1926.

W51C FM transmitter
This is a view of Zenith's Chicago FM station W51C in 1940. Zenith built the 5 kW driver and 50 kW water-cooled power amplifier.  The FM modulator (at left) was supplied by REL, and the high voltage power supply (far right) came from Westinghouse.  The combo announcer's control room was in this same transmitter room (visible at far left).  The antenna was a four-bay half wave spaced crossed dipole with a gain of 3.0. 



Eugene McDonald was one of radio’s first great power brokers. He was an early broadcaster and the first president of the NAB; he built Zenith Radio Corporation into a manufacturing giant; was a pioneer in the development of shortwave, television and FM; and played a key role in radio’s licensing of ASCAP music and the creation of the Federal Radio Commission.

McDonald was born in Syracuse in 1888 and had soon made a fortune as one of the first to offer automobile financing. He joined the Navy in World War I and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. In 1920, he heard his first radio broadcast and was instantly fascinated. This led him to buy into an existing receiver manufacturer in 1923, joining Ralph Matthews and Karl Hassel in the operation of Chicago Radio Labs, in 1923. He became its General Manager, and created the “Z-nith” brand from the company’s amateur station call sign, 9ZN. McDonald formed the Zenith Radio Corporation on June 30, 1923, as the marketing arm for the company's Z-nith products. It was not until several years later that the two merged so that both manufacturing and marketing could be carried out by Zenith Radio Corporation.  Under McDonald, Zenith quickly grew to become a major manufacturer, and the company's leader became well-known for his charismatic leadership style and ruthless competitive spirit.

In August, 1922, Zenith inaugurated its broadcast station WJAZ,and elegant glass-enclosed studios were installed in Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel. The "Crystal Studio" was on the main floor of the hotel, with walls made of three thicknesses of plate glass, giving spectators a full view of the station's operations.  WJAZ broadcast regular studio concerts, and dance music from the hotel dining room.  In the summer, concerts were broadcast from an open-air platform. The transmitter was about 300 feet away from the hotel at the site of the former 9ZN amateur station.  It was capable of about 5,000 watts, which was very high power for its time, which apparently resulted in numerous complaints from from listeners that its signals were blocking the reception of other stations.  This resulted in the sale of the WJAZ license to the Chicago Tribune newspaper in June of 1924.  (WJAZ was merged with the Tribune station WDAP, and the combined station was renamed WGN.  Meanwhile, the Edgewater Beach Hotel took over the old WJAZ studio and transmitter, and operated as WEBH until 1928.)

Despite the sale of the station, Zenith reserved the WJAZ call sign and made plans to build a new high-power station by the same name.  The transmitter  would be located outside of the Chicago area, in a less populated area that would result in fewer interference complaints. In the interim, Zenith operated a roving “portable” broadcast station, WSAX.  The entire station was built on a one-ton truck chassis. It was completely self-contained and battery operated, with a 100-watt transmitter, generator, and 53 foot telescoping antenna masts.  The audio panel controlled three microphones with 300 foot extension cables, allowing the truck to be parked outside of auditoriums for live concerts and events.  In 1925, it went on a nationwide tour of Zenith dealers, broadcasting from Pike’s Peak, Jack Dempsey’s training camp, Gay’s Lion Farm in California, and dozens of small towns along the way.

McDonald was a principal organizer of the 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition, and Zenith provided shortwave transmitters and receivers that kept the expedition team in regular contact with the U.S.  WJAZ broadcast family messages to members of the expedition each Saturday at midnight, and the expedition’s return messages were sent out using the Zenith shortwave transmitter.  The project clearly demonstrated shortwave’s superiority for long-distance communication.

McDonald strongly opposed the payment of copyright royalties to ASCAP by broadcasters. (Yes, this is not a new issue!)  In 1923, he joined with other commercial broadcasters to form the National Association of Broadcasters, and McDonald became its first president. Their goal was to negotiate a better ASCAP rate schedule for radio.  A second goal was to press for more uniform regulation of the radio spectrum than the weak 1912 Radio Act provided.

As the head of the NAB, McDonald was a natural target for ASCAP.  WJAZ regularly broadcast the Edgewater Beach Hotel’s ballroom orchestra, and so ASCAP refused to renew the hotel’s performance license unless it also took out a license for broadcasting.  This became a test case that spawned a two-year unresolved battle in Congress.  In the end, the NAB relented and negotiated a settlement with ASCAP that governed radio’s payment of royalties for over a decade.

Zenith used its portable station, WSAX, to make test broadcasts from different communities, and finally settled on a new location for WJAZ in Mt. Prospect, Illinois.   By mid-1925, the new 5,000 watt WJAZ was ready to go on the air.  But in the interim, the Chicago radio spectrum had become overcrowded, and there were no frequencies left.  The Federal Radio Commission finally authorized WJAZ to share 930 kHz with KOA in Denver, but was allotted a mere two hours a week on Thursday nights.  Incensed, McDonald chafed at WJAZ’s frequency-sharing limitation, but despite weeks of pleadings and negotiations, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover refused to grant better operating conditions for the Zenith station.  McDonald publicly challenged Hoover’s authority and his "one-man control of radio", calling him the self-appointed “radio czar”.  Hoover held his ground and welcomed a “test case”, and McDonald soon provided this to him.  On January 18, 1925, without authorization, he moved WJAZ to 910 kHz, a Canadian reserved channel.  McDonald and WJAZ were immediately branded a “pirate” station by Hoover other broadcasters, but McDonald responded by issuing publicity postcards showing his staff in the control room wearing pirate costumes.

In January, 1926, the government took McDonald to court in a landmark case, United States v. Zenith, where McDonald challenged Commerce’s authority to regulate the radio spectrum.  In its April decision, the district court indeed ruled that, under the Radio Act of 1912 – written long before broadcasting had been contemplated - Commerce did not have the authority to assign frequencies or hours of operation, or to deny a license to any applicant!

What followed was a two-year radio free-for-all, during which dozens of stations freely chose their own frequencies and transmitter powers, and Commerce was obliged to issue a license to any applicant.  The extreme interference and the subsequent listener complaints this generated finally compelled Congress to replace the outmoded radio regulations.  On February 18, 1927, it passed the Radio Act of 1927.  This created the new Federal Radio Commission, which was given the power and a congressional mandate to bring order to the radio spectrum. (After passage of the Communications Act of 1934, the FRC became today’s FCC).

Due to the controversy over this court case, McDonald stepped down from his role as president of the NAB, but he continued to be an active participant in the organization for many years.

Unfortunately for Zenith, the new FRC did not treat WJAZ kindly, as it moved it to the undesirable 1480 kHz frequency, where it shared time with WHT and WORD. Finally, in 1931, the FRC cancelled the licenses of all three stations, awarding the frequency to WCKY in Covington, Kentucky, who had pleaded that Northern Kentucky was underserved by radio. (Although WCKY later abandoned Kentucky and moved to Cincinnati.)

McDonald and Zenith stayed out of broadcasting for eight years, concentrating on the radio receiver business, but they returned to broadcasting in 1939 with the construction of two experimental stations.  The first was W9XZV, the first Chicago television station using the new all-electronic standard, which operated on Channel 1 until 1953.  The second was W9XZN, one of the country’s first experimental FM stations.   In 1940, it became W51C, equipped with a 50,000 watt custom-built transmitter and boasting a 100-mile coverage radius.    It transmitted from the top of the Field building at 135 South La Salle Street, on a frequency of 45.1 MHz.   

W51C broadcast sixteen hours daily at 45.1 MHz in the old FM band playing “only good music” from specialized high-fidelity transcription discs, ranging from classical and Latin music, to Gilbert and Sullivan.   W51C’s only advertising was one announcement each hour promoting Zenith products.  Program guides were sold to the public on a subscription basis.  When W51C moved to the present FM band, it became WEFM, which stood for “Eugene F. McDonald”. In the 1970s, Zenith sold WEFM to General Cinema Corp., and it is today known as WUSN.

Under Eugene McDonald, Zenith grew into a major radio manufacturer in the 1940s and began producing television sets in 1948.  His many contributions to radio helped shaped the industry we know today.  “Commander”, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., died in Chicago in 1958.  In 1967, he was posthumously inducted into Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame.




  • “A Tower in Babel” by Erik Barnouw
  • “Radio Manufacturers of the 1920s” by Alan Douglas
  • “The Beginning of Broadcast Regulation in the Twentieth Century” by Marvin R. Bensman
  • “The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950: A Social History” by Richard A. Bartlett
  • “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by  Tim Wu
  • “Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution” by Timothy E. Cook
  • “The Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio”, edited by Christopher H. Sterling and Cary O'Dell
  • “Encyclopedia of Radio 3-Volume Set”, edited by Christopher H. Sterling
  • “Antique Radio Classified”, December 1997:    “Zenith--The Earliest Years: The Chicago Radio Laboratory” by Harold Cones and John Bryant
  • “Literary Digest”, Nov. 8, 1924, pg. 23
  • “Zenith Radio Corporation” by Dr. Richard Hattwick. Copyright 2002, The American National Business Hall of Fame
  • Museum of Broadcast Communications:   http://www.museum.tv/eotv/nationalassob.htm
  • Wikipedia – Zenith Radio Corporation history;  Eugene F. McDonald biography


 NOTE:  This article appeared in Radio World Magazine, July, 2017


John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
Copyright, 2017