GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – Almost every Michigan newsie is familiar with the call letters WWJ. The Detroit radio station turned 102 on Saturday, but its history stretches across state lines, even national borders — and not just Canada.
While Pittsburgh-based KDKA is widely considered America’s first commercial radio station, WWJ first aired as an extension of The Detroit News. The Michigan station experimented in a variety of ways, bringing live music and sporting events across the country while simultaneously breaking the news and playing a key role in keeping communities connected during emergencies.
The history of WWJ begins with William E. Scripps. He was the son of James Scripps, who founded Detroit’s Evening News and became The Detroit News after merging with several competing newspapers. William succeeded his father as editor of the Detroit News after his father’s death.
In the early 20th century, radio was a wide open frontier. There were no commercial radio stations, and the spectrum was used only by hobbyists who connected with other like-minded people over the broadcast spectrum.
When the US entered World War I, radio receivers were banned for private use. When the ban was lifted in April 1919, it piqued the curiosity of William J. Scripps, William’s son. Scripps Sr. noted how infatuated his son was with technology and sending and receiving Morse code messages, but he knew the technology was far from over.
“THE DETROIT RADIO”
It took Scripps almost a year to haggle with his board of directors to get them to sign off on founding a radio station. Several members feared that the radio broadcasts would lead to a decline in newspaper sales, while the broadcasts had no clear way of generating revenue.
By May 1920, the board was on board and Scripps had signed a $750 contract for a bundle of radios. Corresponding Radio historian John F. Schneidera 19-year-old radio enthusiast, was hired to help install equipment on the second floor of The Detroit News’ headquarters along with a rooftop antenna.
The News applied for and received an amateur radio license and was given the callsign 8MK. “The Detroit News Radiophone” was officially born.
The station began test transmissions at the low end of the amateur spectrum on August 20, 1920. According to Schneider, a 16-year-old office assistant named Elton Plank was chosen to do the broadcasts because he had a “pleasant voice.” Plank launched the very first broadcast of WWJ and said, “This is 8MK calling, the Detroit News cellular phone.” A second person then played two records on a phonograph and asked listeners to call and report what they heard.
After the tests were successful, The Detroit News decided to start running nightly front-page programs beginning August 31 to cover the election results of the state’s major races. News and music were broadcast from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Election bulletins were reported every half hour until the midnight logoff. Historians estimate between 300 and 500 people set for this first broadcast.
Scripps considered the early broadcasts a great success and continued 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.
After the first broadcasts by 8MK and the KDKA broadcast of the results of the presidential elections on November 2, commercial radio took off. According to WGBHthere were 600 commercial radio stations within four years of those first broadcasts.
By the fall of 1921, new government regulations were enacted to organize spectrum and reserve space for news and entertainment companies. With this transition, 8MK received a new frequency and new call letters WBL. According to Schneider, many listeners wrote to The News to complain about the new callsigns, saying they could not hear or understand it clearly. News employees took their concerns to federal authorities and officially became WWJ on March 3, 1922.
A SERIES OF FIRST
Despite growing competition, WWJ has played a paramount role in moving the industry forward, experimenting with new ideas and new programs such as editorials and even children’s bedtime stories.
according to a WWJ promotional brochure from 1936the station was the first to air regularly scheduled news reports, the first to air football and baseball games nationally, the first to air entire seasons of local baseball and football teams, and the first to air regular Sunday religious programming.
One of WWJ’s most popular programs has been its live concerts. Radio staff had put together an abridged version of the so-called Detroit Symphony The Detroit News Orchestra. The 16-piece ensemble played live at the radio studio and broadcast nationwide.
A 1923 news report noted that an orchestral performance could be heard to Waikiki, Hawaiimore than 4,000 miles away. According to a mapby The Detroit News, the radio signal could also be picked up as far east as Nova Scotia and as far east as Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Panama.
Edwin “Ty” Tyson led the way in 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 tickets were selling out and they feared the radio show would hurt ticket sales. The show proved them wrong after being inundated with ticket requests the following week.
Tyson covered all of the Detroit Tigers’ home games during the 1927 season and eventually became one of the country’s most popular sports commentators, calling the 1935 and 1936 World Series for NBC.
Years after 8MK’s first broadcasts, WWJ was a staple in Michigan and the Midwest, but broadcasts were still essentially offered as a public service by The Detroit News. Noting the 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 began airing commercials 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 expand, state regulators reshaped the spectrum to avoid interference and overlap between stations on each other’s frequencies. Because AM radio signals could travel so far, especially on clear nights, Mexican and Canadian authorities were brought in to discuss how to properly split the broadcast spectrum.
Talks culminated in the North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement in 1941. WWJ was moved to a new frequency – 950 kilohertz – where it remains to this day.
With the advent of FM radio, WWJ ceased its music programming in 1973 and switched to a news-only programming. The station was bought by CBS Radio in 1989. CBS merged with Entercom, now known as , in 2017 audacity.