21 November 2008

K, W and N: Four-letter stories

Here's one of those pieces which I'm sure even the most detached from broadcast geekery can appreciate. They revolve around call letters, and how many of them can say so much -- be it about a current or former owner, the area it serves, city slogans, you name it.

Where did this fascination with call letters come from? It came about late in life, given my near lifelong obsession with radio. I was 14, and riding through Cairo, Illinois - a city at the very bottom tip of the state, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. South of the city at the extreme tip are two bridges, one leading into Kentucky and other crossing over to Missouri. A giant overhead green sign approaching the "Y" had giant initials for both states. KY | MO. Right before me answered the question of what one of my favorite radio stations stood for! KYMO in East Prairie, Mo (not far from Cairo) served that area, and referred to the states on each side of the Mississippi What a fantastic little rock blowtorch KYMO was back in the day. But I digress. (Years later, I was told that sign was removed under very heavy lobbying by the local Cairo radio station, WKRO).

First, some background: every broadcast entity is given a callsign. Originally, it was three letters, but soon it became four. Those today you see with three-letter calls -- e.g., WGN, WLS, KHJ -- are 'grandfathered' into the system.

By international treaty, the United States was given three beginning letters: K, W and N. N is used for non-broadcast purposes. Canada has C and Mexico stations begin with X.

It was decided early on to separate K and W, and the Mississippi River seemed as good a place as any to split the mix -- W calls went east of Old Man River, and the Ks went west. Again, plenty of stations predated this decision, causing anomalies like KDKA/Pittsburgh, KYW/Philadelphia, WBAP/Dallas, or WDAF/Kansas City.

While early on, the FCC assigned call letters randomly, it soon became the norm for a station to request a set of letters, and - provided they weren't taken or spelled anything naughty - were generally rubberstamped. Much like the procedure for someone getting a vanity car tag.

This post comes from just figuring out the meaning of the local TV station in Asheville, N.C., WLOS-TV. I didn't know until the other day that the area is informally known as "the Land of Sky" (which explains the name of the bowling alley down the road from our motel: Sky Bowl). WLOS = (W)onderful (L)and (O)f (S)ky. Cool, yes?

Also in that market is the NBC affiliate, WYFF Channel 4 in Greenville, S.C. It's rooted in a longtime slogan for the station: (W)e're (Y)our (F)riend (F)our. I noticed they still use that positioning line in their promo spots. Next door in Spartanburg is the CBS affil, WSPA-TV. That one shouldn't be too difficult to figure out.

New York City is home to the flagship stations for all the major broadcast networks. WABC, WCBS and WNBC. The flagship Fox station is WNYW-TV, not WFOX. Go figure. Out west, Los Angeles has the K counterparts of the network callsigns.

Here in Savannah, we have WSAV-TV and WSVH-FM, whose meanings are fairly obvious. From there, we have:
WTOC-TV ... (W)elcome (T)o (O)ur (C)ity.
WJCL-TV ... Refers to the station's founder and longtime owner, former Savannah mayor (J.) (C)urtis (L)ewis. Not coincidentally, the station was built right next door to his other business, the local Ford dealership.

Down the Georgia coast, Brunswick has a longtime radio station with one of my favorite call meanings: WMOG, paying homage to Sidney Lanier's famous poem "Marshes of Glynn", his paean to the salt marshes in Brunswick and Glynn County. (W)onderful (M)arshes (O)f (G)lynn.

In Bainbridge, the 'heritage' AM station in town is WMGR, named after a former Georgia governor who owned it years ago. (M)arvin (G)riffin (R)adio. Later, a man named James A. Dowdy bought the station, and put an FM sister on the air, naming it after himself: WJAD. That station, by the way, was for eons THE top-40 blowtorch for southwest Georgia, and my wife's childhood favorite. Sera told me Mr. Dowdy named his son "Jad", after the station.

Atlanta has WSB, the South's oldest stations - both radio and TV (and where the NBC chimes were born!). Although WSB was assigned before the FCC allowed chosen calls, a meaning was later coined: (W)elcome (S)outh, (B)rother.

WLS in Chicago refers to original owner Sears, Roebuck & Company, reflecting its then slogan (W)orld's (L)argest (S)tore. Across the street, WGN - founded by The Chicago Tribune - stands for (W)orld's (G)reatest (N)ewspaper. In Birmingham, this provided inspiration for The Birmingham News, when they bought WKBC from a local furniture store. In 1934, they rechristened their new property WSGN, for (S)outh's (G)reatest (N)ewspaper.

Country music giant WSM/Nashville got its call letters from founding owner National Life and Accident Insurance Company. Its logo was a blue shield. Hence, (W)e (S)hield (M)illions.

WMBB-TV in Panama City, Fla. utilizes its area's longtime tourism slogan, (W)orld's (M)ost (B)eautiful (B)eaches.

Many call letters cash in on their state: WALA/Mobile, WFLA/Tampa, KARK/Little Rock, to name a few.

WKNO-TV in Memphis is a very old public TV station: (W)indow of (KNO)wledge.

Atlanta's Public Radio station is WABE, owned by the (A)tlanta (B)oard of (E)ducation.

A few stations requested combinations that would be a slam-dunk for branding. Dothan, Alabama has long been home to WOOF radio. And, yes, they have a "dog" mascot, the WOOF Wolf. Plus, the station - still locally-owned today - is highly renowned for lost pet announcements, a rarity in today's broadcast environment.

In Troy, Alabama, the Troy Broadcasting Corporation, founded in the mid '40s to build a new station for the city, requested the callsign WTBC. Unfortunately, an application from elsewhere in the state, Tuscaloosa (Tuscaloosa Broadcasting Corporation), beat 'em to the punch. The FCC, by default, bumped Troy's assignment to the next available letter combination, offering them WTBF. Years later, the program director (and parttime minister, who performed our wedding ceremony) coined a meaning: (W)e're (T)roy's (B)est (F)riend. Some over the years have given the station other "creative" slogans: (W)e (T)ried (B)ut (F)ailed, or (W)e (T)oast (B)igger (F)rankfurters. But anyway.......

In my 'college home' of Jonesboro, Ark., Arkansas State College put a radio station on the air in 1957 (one of the first 'non-commercial'/public radio stations in the country). The callsign they requested? KASC. *BZZZT!!* "That has already been taken!" Yup, Arizona State College had dibs on KASC. What to do? Easy: the letters KASU were available. And, it was reasoned, the school was on the grow and someday they'd become a University! ("I'm just a college, yes I'm only a college....") And in 1967, ASC became ASU ... meaning, the radio station "became a university" before the school did!

Some other favorite call letter "stories":

Tupelo, Mississippi has two different and competing radio stations, with calls that together spell out the complete name: WTUP and WELO. And would you believe that WELO came first??

In 1989, the ne'er-do-well ABC affiliate in Montgomery, Ala. tried reinventing itself with a new set of calls: WHOA. (H)eart (O)f (A)labama. Are you laughing yet? WHOA. And, tired of all the ridicule, they gave in and started poking fun of themselves. Somewhere I have on tape a station ID they began running along about 1995, a clip of Yosemite Sam riding that camel - "Whoa, Camel, Whoooooooa!!!!" In 1998, they changed - yet again - to WNCF. (W)here (N)ews (C)omes (F)irst. Which is funny, because today the station does not have a news department to its name!!

Stuttgart, Arkansas is known far and wide as "duck hunting capital of the world." So it would only make sense that its local radio station proudly calls itself KWAK.

In nearby Pine Bluff, which used to be known as "Cotton Trading Capital of Arkansas", the story goes that while pondering a set of calls for a new station, its founder happened upon a sign in a hotel referring to this slogan. Quoting him, "The word 'cotton' jumped out at me in the form of call letters." And that's how KOTN got its name.

Domino's Pizza is headquartered in Detroit. And they once had a radio station on the side, hold the anchovies. Yup, you guessed it: WPZA.

Miami/Fort Lauderdale album rock station WSHE had an unforgettable slogan: "SHE's only rock and roll."

Louisiana, one of two states bisected by the Mississippi, has both K and W calls aplenty. Two stations, both founded by a former governor (James A. Noe), have the same callsign - so to speak. In New Orleans, there's WNOE. And its sister, upstate in Monroe, is KNOE.

What about call letters which reflect something no longer part of a station's image? Today, WKOR in Starkville, Miss. is a country station. Has been for a number of years now. But it started out in 1968 as a smokin', larger-than-life AM top-40. The calls referred to its slogan: (K)ing (O)f (R)ock. Heritage album rock station WBCN in Boston? It started life as a classical music station. (B)oston (C)lassical (N)etwork. KFIN/Jonesboro, Ark. has been a country station since 1980. Its previous format? Easy listening. Its 'nickname' has been K-FIN (pronounced "fine") from day one, and it meant Your (FIN)e Music Station.

Any current-day radio station with the letters "EZ" in the calls, in all likelihood had a 'beautiful music' format once upon a time.

And what about call letters of, ummmm, dubious decency? A few do exist. Of course, there's no way the FCC would allow (W/K)FUK. But what about a station licensed to Hobbs, New Mexico? They call themselves 92.9 Jill FM. Their legal call letters? KLIT. And I'm amazed the Feds actually greenlighted the calls for a small FM'er in El Jebel, Colorado: KCUF. Read it backwards.

In the '80s, an AM station in Dermott, Arkansas had the calls KAKA. And no, they did NOT position themselves as "The #2 Radio Station In Town."

Finally, I cannot end this without making note of Alabama Public Television. Its nine-station network was the nation's first interconnected educational TV system - to this day, most statewide PBS/ETV systems use the Alabama model. And all nine stations have sequential callsigns, all ending in "IQ", as in "Intelligence Quotient." WAIQ, WBIQ, WCIQ, etc.

I'm sure I can think of some more, but this getting long enough.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "WTAL? That used to be a station in Tallahassee, Florida" Gleck


New Orleans Ladder said...

Hey Talmadge!
I did a blues show on community radio for just over 10 years in Memphis (up until around '94) at WEVL. HA! Of course in the land of "King Cotton" the association was obvious, but actually when they started they wanted very much to think of themselves as a "boll weevil in the side of the powers that be" etc...along with a venue for the homegrown music brought by the people what doing da'growing... but later got pretty white bread.

Then I moved to New Orleans and discovered community radio WWOZ: heaven. While such stations have their quirks, "OZ" has far transcended anything I've seen or heard for preserving and making more cultural congroovience.

Enjoyed your post and will have you hung thusly on da'Ladder today.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

Talmadge Gleck said...

Hi, Edtilla--

A good friend of mine is the PD of WEVL. As I understand it, the calls refer to (WE) (V)o(L)unteer ... the very nature of most 'community radio' stations. WEVL is a good station, even today when you compare them against the commercial stations. Folks who have such a radio voice within reach have no idea how lottery-fortunate they are. That was driven home last weekend in Asheville when I got to listen to some of WNCW, the fantastic Public Radio station out of Spindale, N.C. More structured than a regular "community" station, but a breath of fresh air nonetheless.

Thanks for your comment and for my "hanging" (more than a few will be most happy to read of this ;-))