DETROIT - A 2020 CENTENNIAL STATION
By John F. Schneider, 2020
The Detroit News station WWJ began test broadcasts on August 20, 1920 using the call sign 8MK. A phonograph horn attached to the transmitter’s microphone is picking up recorded music on a borrowed Edison phonograph. Seen here (L-R) are “disc spinner” Howard Trumbo, announcer Elton Plant and engineer Frank Edwards.
after beginning operation, 8MK engineers abandoned the acoustic
phonograph coupling in favor of attaching a microphone directly to the
phonograph pickup. Engineer Frank Edwards (L) is seen here operating
the transmitter while Keith Bernard listens.
Fred Lathrop is at the controls of WWJ in 1922. The Western
Electric 1-A 500-watt transmitter is in the rear at left, with its
electrical control panel at right. The desk contains only a
microphone, audio amplifier, radio receiver and a wavemeter (frequency
monitor). Another room behind the transmitter contains a
motor-generator set and banks of storage batteries, which supply D.C.
power to the transmitter (power rectifier tubes had not yet been
In 1925, WWJ’s power was increased to 1,000 watts with a new Western Electric 6-B transmitter (far left). The latest in broadcast technology, it featured 100% Heising low-level modulation, a water-cooled final amplifier tube, and crystal frequency control. Only one of the transmitter’s two cabinets is visible in this image. The assembly of audio control and monitoring equipment has grown considerably in three years.
This was the WWJ operating staff in 1922: Back row (L-R): unknown; Walter Hoffman, engineer; Genevieve Champagne, Secretary; Keith Bernard; Elton Plant, announcer. Front row (L-R): Charles Kelly, station manager; Howard Campbell, engineer; Bill Holliday, program manager; G. Marshall Witchell, reporter. Four other engineers are not shown. This was the WWJ operating staff in 1922: Back row (L-R): unknown; Walter Hoffman, engineer; Genevieve Champagne, Secretary; Keith Bernard; Elton Plant, announcer. Front row (L-R): Charles Kelly, station manager; Howard Campbell, engineer; Bill Holliday, program manager; G. Marshall Witchell, reporter. Four other engineers are not shown.
Here is the renowned sports announcer Ty Tyson (1888-1968) calling the play-by-play action of a Detroit Tigers game in the late 1920s. Tyson joined WWJ as an announcer in 1922 and broadcast a variety of events before being recognized for his sportcaster abilities. He broadcast the Detroit Tigers games on radio from 1927 to 1942, then on television from 1947-51, and then returned to radio. Tyson retired in 1953.
This is an aerial view of the WWJ towers on the roof of the Detroit News building, dated 1937. The Detroit River and Ambassador Bridge are seen in the background. By this date, the main WWJ transmitter was located on Eight Mile Road, and these towers were only used for backup. They were dismantled in 1943 and their steel was donated for the war effort.
This new WWJ studio building, designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn and built at a cost of $1 million, opened in 1936. It was located across Lafayette Blvd. from the Detroit News buildings. An underground tunnel connected the structures.
In 1936, WWJ raised its power to 5,000 watts and moved out of the News building to this new transmitter building and tower on Eight Mile Road. Like the studio building opened the same year, the transmitter building was also designed by architect Alfred Kahn. Its granite block façade was highlighted by leaded glass windows towering above the doors.
WWJ outfitted this news truck in 1938, containing the latest technology for live broadcasting and photojournalism. It contained a custom-built 100-watt shortwave transmitter and receivers. A reporter wearing a backpack transmitter could transmit back to the truck for rebroadcast to the WWJ studios via shortwave.
WWJ’s ultra-shortwave “Apex” station W8XWJ broadcast from 1936 to 1940 on 41,000 kHz. Here, Chief Engineer C.H. Messer attends to the 500-watt high fidelity AM transmitter in the Penobscot Building. Carroll Leedy operates the control console. W8XWJ later became W45D, one of the nation’s first FM stations (now WXYT-FM).
It was shortly after World War I that Clarence Thompson, a partner of Lee de Forest, formed a new company - Radio News & Music, Inc. in New York. His goal was to encourage newspapers to broadcast their news reports by wireless, using de Forest transmitters. The franchise offer – available to only one newspaper in each city – offered the rental of a de Forest 50-watt transmitter and accessories for $750. Just one newspaper signed up for the deal – it was the Detroit News, led by publisher William E. Scripp. He had been interested in wireless since investing in Detroit experimenter Thomas E. Clark’s wireless company in 1904. Scripp’s son, William J. “Little Bill”, was also an active ham radio operator, operating a station in the Scripps home.
Scripp proposed accepting the Radio News & Music offer and building a Detroit News radio station in 1919, but he met resistance from his board of directors. It was not until March of 1920 that he was given the go-ahead to sign a contract. The de Forest transmitter was shipped to Detroit on May 28, 1920, but was lost in transit; a second transmitter was constructed and sent on July 15. This delayed the installation of the station until August.
Radio News & Music hired a Detroit ham operator, 19-year-old Michael Lyons, to install the transmitter on the second floor of the News building and to erect a rooftop antenna. A license would also be needed, but broadcasting in 1920 was just an experimental activity and broadcast licenses did not yet exist. The handful of pioneer broadcasters then in existence were operating under a variety of license classes, including amateur, experimental, and “Commercial Land Station”. The News decided that an amateur license was the most expedient option, and a license was quickly obtained with the call sign 8MK. Scripps initially worried about the optics of a newspaper giving away its news reports for free over the air, and so he wanted the appearance of an arms-length relationship with the station. For this reason, the 8MK license was registered in Lyons’ name. In a 1973 letter, Lyons recalled:
I'll never forget the Tuesday we started broadcasting, and the reporters would not publish the fact, because they were afraid people would laugh at the Detroit newspaper. Besides, I was told, there was a chance the radio news would deter people from buying newspapers to get the news.
8MK made its first transmission on August 20, 1920, on a frequency of 200 meters (1500 kHz) - the bottom of the amateur band. It was just a test of the new equipment, and so it was not publicized. It’s estimated that no more than 30 people heard the broadcast that night. Elton Plank, a 16-year-old office boy, was given the task of being the first announcer because of his pleasing voice. At 8:15 PM, Plank placed a megaphone against the transmitter’s mouthpiece and announced, “This is 8MK calling, the radiophone of the Detroit News”. He then signaled Howard Trumbo, operating a borrowed hand-crank Edison phonograph, to play two records - “Roses of Picardy” and “Annie Laurie.” Listeners were asked to telephone in their signal reports to the newspaper, and 8MK signed off the air.
After several more test transmissions verified the equipment was working properly, 8MK made its first publicized broadcast on August 31, 1920, the night of the state’s primary election. A front-page announcement in the News alerted the public to the upcoming broadcast: “Miscellaneous news and music will be transmitted from 8 until 9 o’clock so that operators may adjust their instruments. Election bulletins begin at 9 o’clock and will continue on the hour and half-hour until midnight”. An estimated 500 listeners heard that night’s broadcast.
After that auspicious debut, 8MK began a schedule of two broadcasts per day, six days a week, featuring news and weather summaries from the pages of the Detroit News combined with entertainment from phonograph records. Each day, the program schedule of the “Detroit News Radiophone” was published on the front page of the newspaper. Encouraged by the positive results of his radio experiment, Scripps transferred the 8MK license into the name of the newspaper and dedicated more resources towards his fledgling operation. A staff of three was assigned – two engineers and a program manager. New program concepts were tried: in September, there was a remote broadcast of live dance music by the Paul Specht Orchestra, and the results of the Dempsey-Miske boxing match were announced. The Brooklyn-Cleveland World Series baseball play-by-play scores were sent out in October. On November 2, 8MK broadcast the Harding-Cox presidential election returns, the same night as KDKA’s famous first broadcast. Live Christmas carols were broadcast in December. Lectures, dramatic readings and poetry were added in 1921, and live music was increasingly being heard. Although still operating under an amateur license, 8MK was a commercial broadcaster in all aspects, operating from a business establishment with a paid staff and professional content.
In the fall of 1921, new government regulations were issued that prohibited amateurs from broadcasting news and entertainment. This meant that the Detroit News, along with dozens of other pioneer broadcasters, were required to apply for a new class of license called “Limited Commercial”. Subsequently, in November, 1921, the “Detroit News Radiophone” received a new license with the randomly-assigned call letters WBL, and it moved to the new shared broadcasting frequency of 360 meters (833 kHz). But when listeners had trouble hearing the call sign correctly, a new call sign was requested, and the Detroit News station became WWJ on March 3, 1922.
Scripps now poured considerable resources in his radio operation. A new WWJ studio-office suite was built on the fourth floor of the building. A 290’ antenna was stretched between the News building and the Fort Shelby Hotel in 1921, and a 500-watt Western Electric transmitter was installed in 1922 – just the second factory-made broadcast transmitter in the country. With these improvements, WWJ was now being heard across the country at night. By summer, there was a full-time staff of nine. Live broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra began in February, and in May a new 16-piece WWJ Orchestra was organized, comprised mostly of symphony musicians. Regular church services were broadcast on Sundays. Star performers appeared on the station, including Fanny Brice and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. Nightly news reports with running commentary were delivered by Albert Weeks, billed as “The Town Crier”. Children’s bedtime stories were being read nightly.
As local live talent was hired to broadcast on WWJ, some refused to believe there was really an invisible audience hearing their performances. They were accustomed to the immediate feedback of a live audience, but the microphone offered only silence. When future radio comedian Will Rogers made his first ever radio broadcast over WWJ in October, 1922, he didn’t believe that people were really listening, “I don’t think you can hear me,” he announced. “If this isn’t the bunk, let me know if you can hear me.” To his great surprise, he received letters and postcards from all over the Midwest. Even Henry Ford had heard him, using a receiving set he had built himself.
Live remote play-by-play broadcasts on WWJ began in October, 1924, when Chief Announcer Edwin “Ty” Tyson called a University of Michigan football game from the stadium. The university allowed just this one broadcast because the stadium was already sold out, but when they were flooded with ticket requests for the next game they agreed to allow regular broadcasts. In 1927, Tyson broadcast the entire season of Detroit Tigers home games over WWJ. He soon became one of the country’s foremost early sportscasters, and called both the 1935 and ‘36 World Series games for NBC.
In 1923, WWJ moved to 517 meters (580 kHz), sharing the frequency with the new Detroit Free Press station WCX (now WJR), and then in 1925 it moved to 850 kHz, operating full time with a new 1 kW transmitter. After the company’s new parking garage was completed across 3rd Avenue in 1926, the transmitter moved into the garage building, and two new towers suspended the antenna 265 feet above street level between the garage and the paper warehouse. (WWJ was shifted to 920 kHz in 1928, and then to its current 950 kHz frequency in the NARBA Treaty realignment of 1941.)
As radio entered its “golden age” in the 1930’s, backed by the ample resources of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, no expense was spared to make WWJ a first-class station. When the NBC Red Network was organized in 1926, WWJ became its Detroit affiliate. In 1936, a new showplace five-story studio building was built for a cost of $1 million, and an opulent 5kW transmitter building and new tall tower were inaugurated. Both structures were designed by the famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn. Frequent remote broadcasts originated from a fleet of remote trucks and the Detroit News aircraft. “Radio Jake”, the WWJ Interference Engineer, prowled the city in his own vehicle, solving interference complaints for citizens as a free public service.
The Detroit News had operated WWJ entirely as a goodwill service to the public. By 1928, it had reportedly invested $466,000 in the station, despite earning not a penny in return. There was no way knowing if WWJ benefitted the company through increased newspaper sales. This was the conundrum of radio in the late 1920’s – it was now an essential public service, but had no clear source of revenue. It was not until advertising was permitted in the early 1930’s that radio became a profitable medium.
WWJ was continually at the forefront experimenting with new broadcast technologies. In 1938, it transmitted a radio newspaper during overnight hours to facsimile printers in local residences. In 1936, it inaugurated an experimental “Apex” high fidelity AM station, W8XWJ, broadcasting on 41,000 kHz from the top of the Penobscot Building skyscraper. In 1940, the FCC eliminated the AM Apex stations and instead allowed the construction of the first FM (Frequency Modulation) stations on the old 42-48 MHz band. W8XWJ ceased operations that year, and it was replaced in 1941 with Michigan's first FM station, W45D.(now WXYT-FM). And in 1947, WWJ-TV took to the airwaves (now WDIV).
May, 1971, WWJ ended its MOR ("Middle of the Road") music format in
favor of news and talk programming, which has continued successfully
The 65-year relationship between WWJ and the Detroit News ended in 1985, when The Gannett Company bought the newspaper and spun off WWJ/WJOI to a group of local businessmen. Then in 1989, they were purchased by CBS Radio, who invested in a major power increase to 50 kW in 2000. In 2017, CBS Radio merged with Entercom today’s owner of WWJ, which coincidentally also owns pioneer stations KDKA and KNX. The original WWJ de Forest transmitter was donated to the Detroit History Museum in 1959, where it can be seen on display today.
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originally appeared in the September 16, 2020, issue of RADIO WORLD