WWJ turns 102: How Michigan’s pioneering radio station paved the way

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Just about every newsie in Michigan knows the call letters WWJ. The Detroit radio station turned 102 on Saturday, but its history extends beyond state lines, even national borders — not just Canada.

While Pittsburgh’s KDKA is widely considered America’s first commercial radio station, WWJ first took to the airwaves as an extension of The Detroit News. The Michigan station has experimented in many different ways, bringing live music and sporting events across the country while delivering the news and playing a key role in keeping communities connected in times of emergency.

The history of WWJ begins with William E. Scripps. He was the son of James Scripps, who founded Detroit’s Evening News, and after merging with several competing newspapers became The Detroit News. William succeeded his father as publisher of the Detroit News after his father’s death.

At the start of the 20th century, radio was a wide open frontier. There were no commercial radio stations and the spectrum was only used by amateurs, connecting with other like-minded people across the broadcast spectrum.

When the United States entered World War I, radio receivers were banned from private use. When the ban was lifted in April 1919, it piqued the curiosity of William J. Scripps, William’s son. Scripps Sr. noticed how infatuated his son was with technology, sending and receiving messages in Morse code, but he knew the technology was far from his ceiling.

‘THE DETROIT NEWS RADIOPHONE’

It took Scripps almost a year of haggling with his board of directors to get him to approve the launch of a radio station. Several members were concerned that the radio shows would lead to lower newspaper sales when the shows had no clear way to generate revenue.

By May 1920, the board was on board, and Scripps had signed a $750 contract for a set of radio equipment. According radio historian John F. Schneidera 19-year-old radio enthusiast was hired to help install equipment in the second floor of The Detroit News headquarters as well as an antenna on the roof.

The News applied for and was granted an amateur broadcasting license and received the call letters ‘8MK’. “The Detroit News Radiotelephone” was officially born.

The station began performing test transmissions on August 20, 1920, at the low end of the amateur spectrum. According to Schneider, a 16-year-old office assistant named Elton Plank was chosen to voice the shows because he had a “nice voice”. Plank kicked off WWJ’s first-ever broadcast, saying “It’s 8MK calling, The Detroit News radiotelephone.” A second person then played two records on a phonograph and asked listeners to call in and report what they heard.

This bulletin appeared on the front page of the August 30, 1922 edition of the Detroit News announcing its new radio broadcasts called “The Detroit News Radiophone”. (Public domain)

After successful testing, The Detroit News decided to begin running nightly shows on the newspaper’s front page, beginning August 31 to cover the election results of the state’s primary races. Reports and music were broadcast from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Election ballots were reported every half hour until signature at midnight. Historians estimate between 300 and 500 people listening to this first broadcast.

Scripps considered the early broadcasts a major success and moved forward with a regular schedule: two broadcasts a day, six days a week, including news and weather summaries from The Detroit News staff and music played from a phonograph.

In the wake of 8MK’s first transmissions and KDKA’s Nov. 2 broadcast of the presidential election results, commercial radio took off. According to WGBHthere were 600 commercial radio stations within four years of these first broadcasts.

In the fall of 1921, new government regulations were issued to help organize spectrum and reserve space for information and entertainment companies. In this transition, 8MK received a new frequency and new call letters WBL. According to Schneider, many listeners wrote to The News complaining about the new call letters, saying they couldn’t hear her clearly or understand her. News staff took their concerns to federal regulators and on March 3, 1922, officially became WWJ.

The Detroit News Orchestra performs to a live radio audience on June 1, 1922. The microphone is perched on a shelf at the far right of the photograph. (Public domain)

A SERIES OF FIRST

Despite growing competition, WWJ has played an outsized role in pushing the industry forward, experimenting with new ideas and programming, like editorials and even children’s stories.

According to a WWJ promotional brochure from 1936the station was the first to broadcast regular newscasts, the first to broadcast football and baseball games nationwide, the first to broadcast full seasons of local baseball and football teams, and the first to broadcast regular religious programs on Sundays.

One of WWJ’s most popular programs was its live concerts. The radio staff had developed a shortened version of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra called The Detroit News Orchestra. The 16-piece ensemble would perform live at the radio studio broadcasting nationwide.

A 1923 news report noted that an orchestral performance was heard to Waikiki, Hawaiiover 4,000 miles. According to a mapfrom The Detroit News, the radio signal could also be picked up as far east as Nova Scotia and as far south as Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Panama.

A map published by The Detroit News in 1922 shows the range of WWJ broadcasts. (Public domain)

Edwin “Ty” Tyson led the way by announcing live sporting events. Tyson first broadcast a football game for the University of Michigan in 1924. The university only agreed to allow it because it had sold out tickets and feared the radio show would cut ticket sales. The show proved otherwise after being inundated with ticket requests the following week.

Tyson broadcast every Detroit Tigers home game during the 1927 season and eventually became one of the nation’s most popular sportscasters, calling the 1935 and 1936 World Series for NBC.

TO ADVANCE

Years after 8MK’s first broadcasts, WWJ was a staple in Michigan and the Midwest, but the broadcasts were still primarily offered as a public service by The Detroit News. Seeing success, Scripps continued to invest in the radio station but had yet to find a way to monetize it.

It wasn’t until years later that WWJ started running ads and became profitable. In 1936, WWJ moved out of the Detroit News building into its own offices, complete with a brand new transmitter and antenna.

As radio – and eventually television – continued to grow, government regulators reshaped the spectrum to avoid interference and stations spilling into each other’s frequencies. Since AM radio signals could travel so far, especially on clear nights, Mexican and Canadian authorities were asked to discuss how to properly allocate the broadcast spectrum.

The talks resulted in the North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement of 1941. WWJ was moved to a new frequency – 950 kilohertz – where it remains to this day.

With the advent of FM radio, WWJ dropped its music programming in 1973, moving to news programming. The station was purchased by CBS radio in 1989. CBS merged with Entercom in 2017, which is now known as Audacity.

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