Kentucky was one of the last states to get a broadcasting station--its first was WHAS in Louisville, licenced in July, 1922. WHAS was from the start a well run operation, with a top-of-the-line 500-watt Western Electric transmitter. When the station signed on for its debut public broadcast, it operated on the standard entertainment wavelength of 360 meters, or 833 kilohertz. If a receiver tuned to WHAS had been sealed that inaugural day and reactivated today, with some minor adjustments it would still be tuned to the station, as WHAS is now assigned to 840 kilohertz, and still located in Louisville.
The reference to the "Detroit" radio station was that of the Detroit News, which had been involved with radio broadcasting since August, 1920.
Microphone Memoirs, Credo Fitch Harris, 1937, pages 11-24:
WHEN my friend, Judge Robert W. Bingham, publisher of two large and influential newspapers--later to become the American Ambassador to England--telephoned me one peaceful April morning in 1922, there was evident, if restrained, excitement in his voice.
"What are you doing today?" he asked.
"Finishing the ninth chapter of my next book."
"Have you seen the Courier-Journal?"
"You may be aware of the fact that there is such a newspaper?" he pleasantly inquired.
"Vaguely." We both laughed.
"Then finish your ninth chapter--it's doubtless terrible--and drop in today, if you can."
Meanwhile I sent for the morning C-J and saw, streamer-fashion across its front page, that he intended building a "radio telephone broadcasting station." In those years it rated that staggering title. But I might as well have picked at random any four Sanskrit words in a Hindu temple, for all the enlightenment they brought me.
Fate had mischief in her eyes that day. I was writing my sixth book and the contract called for its delivery the following November. It was to be quite a book, too, if you want to know! Indeed, I completed the chapter that forenoon with a sigh of satisfaction, for my young and fiery heroine--then but thirteen--was stretched lengthwise on the lowest limb of a giant oak tree beneath which, she had overheard the night before, two men were to fight a duel at dawn. But Fate was spinning a different weave, and I have left her in that tree now these sixteen long years.
As I entered my friend's office, he began at once:
"I am intending to build a radio telephone broadcasting station, and hope you can organize it for me--get it going!"
"I never heard of it till this morning--don't know what it is!"
"No one else does, much," he answered. "It's new, and amazingly incredible. There's one in Detroit, I understand--or maybe it's Pittsburgh. If you have no engagements, you might run up to those places and see!"
"What does it do?" I asked, thinking of my next chapter.
"I am told," he began--and then launched into a tale more weirdly impossible than anything to be found in the Arabian Nights. Fascinating, yes, but utterly, absurdly visionary. Yet he continued, pointing out blessings which the ridiculously mysterious jigger would bring to humanity, to the isolated, sick and blind. He said that my voice would carry without assistance for more than a thousand miles----
I interrupted nervously: "You mean my voice?" A vague uneasiness for this beloved friend had started a rippling in the skin of my back.
"Certainly! It will span bridgeless chasms, fly over tree tops! By stretching a piece of wire along the roof of a mountain cabin, the family living there can manipulate a little box and find themselves in a pew of a city church, in a seat at a concert or desk in a University."
I was now alarmed. He had been working intensively on a number of interests, and I conceived the idea that his nerves were beginning to pay the piper. While I wondered how I might diplomatically suggest a cruise or other complete rest, he read these thoughts in my lugubrious face and burst into one of the most wholesome and contagious laughs I have ever heard in my life.
"That's what I thought about the manufacturer's representative who told me," he kept on laughing. "But, seriously, it is said to perform all those things. It surpasses legerdemain, and even approaches divine miracles. It may be a divine miracle, if handled properly. I intend getting one for the citizens of Kentucky and Indiana, to give them pleasures, diversions, religious consolation, simple rules of hygiene--in fact all manner of enlightenment, especially to some parts of our mountains where a fine and forthright people are completely shut in."
He talked for another half hour, then paused:
"If you could see your way to get it organized for me--perhaps ask your publisher for an extension----
Long before that my fears had flown, and in their place came a kind of hypnotic sublimation which held me agape before this man-made thaumaturgical invention. I had been led into the garden of Parizade and placed beneath her Singing Tree whose leaves dripped harmonies. So--I sent the telegram. Thus was it that I stepped into the most exacting, maddening yet satisfying profession of the twentieth century.
Please understand, the credit is not mine. It belongs to that friend who was courageous enough, public spirited enough, to lay his money on a dream.
Full fifteen years have passed since then. The present age of broadcasting and its commercial aspects is a far cry to that early little band of adventurers, asleep to the possibilities of making money, who were reconciled and indeed quite happy to give with a prodigal hand in lieu of a daily bushel of "thank you" letters. So much white water has roared down the rapids that some may find it difficult to understand the publisher's willingness to build an expensive apparatus solely to benefit mankind. One might pardonably infer that, even though no financial return were possible from the station itself, he hoped it would be a means of increasing the circulation of his newspapers. Such a result did become patent within a year or two, but when we first discussed it upon that memorable day, which changed the current of my activities, he was drawn by its fascinating mystery as an agent of public service. It was too strange and new for wider comprehension. This I know, as I have known him, his mind, his great heart for half a lifetime. We were but gazing uncertainly into a feeble dawn, but his penetration reached much farther than my own.
Such an utterly diversified change in the conduct of its affairs from then to now, and the terrific speed with which broadcasting has advanced, seem to have thrust its beginnings deeper into the past than they actually were.
The drama of their early days is practically lost. Especially our first two toddling years might be entitled to a small niche in this twentieth century of swift progressiveness before entirely retreating beyond the reach of memory.
Their secrets lie before me in a huge mass of yellowing papers, already covered with dust, which are the only source now extant to reveal the intimacies of the birth and rearing of the first licenced radiocasting station in Kentucky, one of an early handful in the United States, which operated on the highest known power for broadcasters then devised by engineers--500 watts.
Contemplating those two tempestuous years one is subconsciously touched by the ancient saw that "the first two years of marriage are the hardest," but no discord in wedlock, no union of Incompatibles, has yet produced for man or woman such derangements as the borning and weaning of that cantankerous little devil, named WHAS, which thrilled the country in those early days of what Congress now calls "The Art."
Today broadcasting is matter of fact. The romance of listening to voices coming through the air without visible assistance, penetrating walls, water and earth with equal facility, has to a great extent disappeared. The receiving set is no longer an object of amazement. Its place in the American home is permanent and, perhaps because it is more used than any other fixtures except beds and chairs, the mysteries back of it have become commonplace.
Not so with the debut of that old broadcaster. The whirl of its adventures were so interwoven with smiles, laughter and tears--even quasi tragedies--that it would be impossible to do them full justice without embracing too great an exactness of detail for a one-volume book. Much, therefore, shall be omitted which might otherwise reflect the station's early influence upon educational, civic and religious life within the hearing of its voice. As each day brought at least one event worthy of being recorded, those first two years alone--a period now viewed through dim glasses--would mean the inditing of upwards of a thousand such incidents. It is no use trying. Only a few peaks may be recounted here from the jumble of old records, but if they re-create certain erstwhile memories now lost in the acceleration of development, these pages may be said to have served their purpose.
HAVING gleaned all that was gleanable from the studio director in Detroit, while our one and only operator drew dark secrets from a chap who toyed with a slide-rule and posed as "technician," we dashed back to Louisville agog with knowledge. What a pitiful amount was required in those days!
The Department of Commerce controlled whatever radio affairs were astir at the time, for the Federal Radio Commission and the subsequent Federal Communications Commission were pleasures yet to be experienced. Under the Department of Commerce reposed the Bureau of Navigation whose chief, Hon. David Carson, had, by genial permission or otherwise, practically as much say-so about this infant industry as Mr. Secretary Herbert Hoover, himself. I rather thought at the time that neither of them took their child very seriously. Subsequently they did, as they also became my friends and advisers on many occasions.
Thus to that Department we wrote that I was coming for a license to operate. The law requiring such procedure seemed scarcely to have been printed long enough for the ink to dry. There was no question of denial, for what difference could a radio station make in the serenity of our national life? Who wanted to spend money for one of them, anyhow, when few people would go to the costly trouble of buying some mysterious kind of a contraption which might, or might not, enable them to listen? And listen to what? More particularly, for how long? The great American public knew little or nothing about it, and even those who did, conceived it to be a sort of glorified toy that would soon drop into disuse, like Christmas dolls and wind-up trains.
Such expressions were not infrequent after the newspaper story apprised our town of what was coming. The average Mr. Citizen merely followed the skepticism which beset many great inventions during their days of infancy.
In the Department of Commerce a young man stated that our call letters were WHAS, our wave length 360 meters, except when broadcasting weather reports when we would use 485 meters.
"What does WHAS stand for?" I asked.
"Search me," he answered agreeably.
"But what does that mean about 360 meters for programs and 485 for weather?"
"I suppose you'll have to work it out for yourself. I'm just reading it off your license."
"Your gratuitous information is dazzling," I murmured. "It's like the man who gave a beggar a penny and asked him how he became so destitute. 'Same as you, sir,' wheezed the beggar. 'I was always giving away vast sums to the poor and needy.'"
His smile told me that he had heard it before. "Please realize," I continued seriously, "that you're looking upon the neediest needy who ever came in here. Isn't there anyone who can shine a little more light on the situation?"
"Secretary Hoover is in a meeting and Mr. Carson's away on a government boat. I doubt if the President would know. You might ask Congress. Anyway," he added genially, "I was told to keep this for you. You'd better take it."
And thus our first license was literally thrust at me. Looking back, it seems unbelievable that there should have been no "hearings," no entanglements, nor even a pleasant little legal battle which today, in similar circumstances, would be fought out before a body of honorable gentlemen,--the Radio Division of the FCC--sitting in bane with the wisdom of Solomon stamped upon their patient faces, as they listen to a flow of technical nomenclature that fifteen years ago had not got into dictionaries.
Since those early days The Art has added a thousand words to our vocabulary--many of them unprintable.
That license, dated July 13, 1922, specified "360 meters for broadcasting music and like matter; 485 meters far broadcasting weather reports," and further granted us "unlimited time" of operation. But the dictates of caution, which actuate ventures of border scouts and pioneers, caused us to proceed merely with programs from four to five o'clock each afternoon and from seven-thirty to nine on weekday evenings. As the entire twenty-four hours had been given over to us, those periods could be changed without further official parleys, and they were, indeed, frequently extended for special occasions. On the other hand, I recall moments of aural agony when I wished they might have been condensed to extinction.
In the beginning when 360 meters had been assigned to all stations, happily there were only a few and those widely scattered. For, although we did not become aware of it until later, it was impossible to tune those clumsy little transmitters with any reasonable degree of accuracy and, because of that, their mutual interference was negligible to the listener. Crystal sets, which remained constant and only caught the nearest signal were almost entirely used at first. But shortly more efficient types began to be manufactured which could "pull in" distant stations, and therefore if all transmitters were operating on a precisely fixed frequency, with no variations whatsoever, listening to any particular one would have been unpleasant because of heterodyning from the others. That gradual improvement in receivers, as well as correspondingly more efficient transmitters, resulted in the necessity of giving stations different wave lengths as at present. But that came later.
Our license was good for ninety days. Before the end of those three short months we were told to file another application for a further ninety-day permission. That procedure continued until a few years ago, when licenses--or franchises--were extended to the noble length of six months.
Some future historian will write the surprising anomaly of these present day big businesses, which high powered stations have come to be, possessing faith enough to risk a fortune in an undertaking that holds no guarantee of continuance beyond half a year. For a station cannot own its wave length, as Congress had decreed that all radio channels belong to the public domain. I pray you, do not entertain the idea that our path is strewn with roses.
In recent hearings before the Federal Communications Commission, broadcasting during those first two years that we operated was twice referred to as "the prehistoric era." And, indeed, that expression fit it like a girdle. The dawning industry, compared to its present development, was tolerably suggestive of that first imaginary animalcule which emerged from ooze to become, in time, a mastodon--or man, if my fundamentalist friends will permit the simile.
Not until 1922 did the Secretary of Commerce consider broadcasting important enough to call a meeting of its widely scattered station managers and engineers, whereat both he and they floundered in possibilities, nodded sagely over probabilities, and spent hours discussing supposedly known principles which a year later were discarded in as many minutes. That nullifying process took place at the Second Radio Conference in 1923, which brought even fresher possibilities and probabilities--though we were still in the "prehistoric era."
Yet most of us by then were of a notion that we knew enough to formulate certain rules by which the budding Art might be guided to a fruitful destiny.
And so we proceeded to do, with no slight feelings of importance. Gathered about the council table, someone said in a voice that shook with emotion:
"Gentlemen, this meeting is epochal! It will go down in history!"
He may have been thinking of Independence Hall, or Runnyrnede.
After the three days of profound concentration that it took us to hitch our wagon to a fine big star we adjourned, shook hands gravely--I blush to say pompously--with the Mr. Secretary who thanked us for our fine work. Then we bade adieu to the city of Washington, but had scarcely got settled down again back home when the star ran off and our wagon was a sight! The Horse and Buggy Days witnessed nothing so complete in the realm of demolition.
This required a Third Radio Conference, in 1924. It began to look as if each succeeding conference was called to patch up the wreckage of its predecessor.
But it is none the less true that broadcasting managers--an accepted misnomer--had yoked themselves with a youngster of such terrific speed, so agile in its changes from one aspect to another, that none of them was quite able to cope with it. It required special training of temperament which our former sane lives had failed to take into account. Without being able to do anything about it, we found ourselves dashing around in a wilderness of split-seconds. Moreover, while we slept, unexpected theorems sprouted, grew, bloomed and had dropped their seeds by the time we came down to breakfast. Such devastating surprises even subdue the emotional squirt of a grape-fruit. Before luncheon new and untried mechanical appliances had, from all sides, sprung upon The Art with a confusion of madness, and by evening a visitor could instantly recognize the station manager by the wild, roving look in his eye.
On such a track began the race of radio with modern progress, and it has been tearing along--hell-bent, devil take the hindmost--ever since.
Since the station was formally established as a department of two daily papers, and their articles of incorporation were changed to embrace it, we became by law and mutual interests one of that large family--the baby, true enough, yet definitely creating a third factor in the organization which was now composed of: a morning newspaper, an afternoon newspaper, and WHAS.
This I particularly wish to stress, because many of the old records on which my yarn is built happen to be closely interwoven with news rooms, and I would not have you feel that I am going far afield to make copy when the station's affairs and those of the Fourth Estate become properly identical. Such instances cannot entirely be ignored, although they shall be touched upon as infrequently as possible.
Our first idea of locating the studios in the parent building was discarded when it became known that vibrations of the presses would work havoc with microphones and other delicate radio adjustments. So we were given space high up in an adjacent storage building, where silence was the only virtue, and the construction of quarters went forward.
I shall never forget that studio. To reach it you had to take the Courier-Journal elevator to its topmost limit. There, amid the unceasing noise of busy linotypes, you might gaze around more or less helplessly until directed to a solid iron door. Two feet beyond this you came upon an iron and asbestos fire door. We must have been expected to burst into flames at almost any moment, because the underwriters specified fire doors aplenty. Stepping then upon an iron platform which spanned a dizzy height between the two buildings, you would climb a narrow iron stairway. It was not uncommon to see visitors carefully avoid touching that iron hand-rail, lest they receive some kind of an electrical shock--for the average mind was obsessed by curiously superstitious fears concerning us.
At the top of these stairs stood a large porcelain drinking water affair which a janitor filled each morning with ice. A few paces farther, still overhanging the chasm was the little motor generator. Then, turning left, you would pass another fire door and enter oar reception room. To one side of this stood the transmitter behind a glass partition, with a large and threatening red sign: "DANGER." Straight through the reception room was my office.
I may have mentioned that our first summer was excessively warm, the heat in our studio terrific and the air unspeakable. If so, it is because the padded, tightly shut room has left an everlasting impression upon me. After a night program, when a dozen horn blowers had done their half hour, to be followed by a vocal chorus of thirty minutes, and this succeeded by still another thirty minutes of arias, ballads and recitations, there was nothing so sweet as a breath of outside air, even in the alley. Of course, all has changed now. Our present large and beautiful studios are air conditioned and we work in the lap of luxury. Money was at hand to be lavishly spent for our comfort in those days, too! But acousticians were as far behind in the science of treating such rooms as we were in the art of radio, itself. No one was to blame.
OUR STATION had not been operating a week before the wildest rumors and imaginative tales began to reach us. Many of these apparently had some foundation of fact, many came from sources which might have been considered unimpeachable. Several groups were formed for research into psychical phenomena, the belief being that, here at last, radio was the key to unlock their mysteries.
One morning a gentleman appeared in my office. He seemed to possess the gift of deep, dark silences, and his face was gravely authoritative. He advanced with the slow, solemn stride which Edwin Booth might have used in an entrance for Hamlet, and his voice was a musical diapason, exceedingly attractive. The cut of his coat suggested a rural minister--although he might not have been, for he offered no card or introduction, and I have never seen him since.
"This will have to be curbed," he said, with undenying finality. "Yesterday afternoon I took a walk across my farm. A flock of blackbirds passed over. Suddenly one of them fell to the ground dead. Your radio wave must have struck it." He paused. His timing was perfect. "Suppose that wave had struck me?"
Now that was rather stumping. I had not been up against anything like it before. The straight-forward path of inexorable logic pointed otherwise, yet how could one apply logic to radio? Anxiously I ventured:
"Suppose the blackbird had reached his three score years and ten, and just naturally passed out?"
He pondered this. There was something about the "three score years and ten" which touched him, for no doubt he was more familiar with theology than ornithology.
"Perhaps," he murmured. "Perhaps. But I have warned you!" And, turning, he left.
Do you know, I actually began to entertain the ridiculous idea that our radio wave might have killed that blackbird? And, if it had, how many more fatalities should later be laid at our door? Please understand that we were all very young in The Art! Furthermore, my seat of thought is wide enough to accommodate a superstition or two. I consulted our technician.
"Maybe," he sagely nodded.
"But why didn't it kill all the blackbirds?" I insisted. For, the fact of the matter was, I greatly desired his complete negation to the whole absurdity.
With puckered brow he merely shook his head, but the next day handed me a sheet of formulas intended to show how one blackbird might be killed and the others escape--formulas embracing cube root, cosines, coefficients and submultiples until I was dizzy.
I gave up. Yet it was not altogether a giving-up matter. This broadcasting business, obviously, threatened to lead into places too inexplicable for the human mind to follow.
That same day he demonstrated one mysterious peculiarity of these "electro-magnetic" waves, as they were called. He took an ordinary electric light socket, screwed in a sixty watt bulb, then attached in the usual manner two long wires. One of these he fastened to the iron hand rail of our stairs, the other he carried into the next building and touched it to a metal radiator. Result: the light burned brightly! Yet we could feel no current. It was magic raised to the nth degree. Small wonder if we were half expecting any dire thing to happen!
Wild and woolly fancies continued to spread throughout the public mind. If it rained too hard, letters came accusing us; if it did not rain enough, we were again to blame. About that time a sharp thunder storm broke over the city and, of course, our station attracted it.
"I never had lightning knock bricks off my chimney before," wrote an indignant homesteader. "What do you think I am, anyway?"
Not knowing, how could I reply?
One man heard queer noises in the fireplace, and his wife had had "historics."
A woman could not sleep o' nights, and someone told her that our waves played over the metal springs in her mattress. She was afraid to get into bed; she had sat up the last forty hours. Would we stop it, or would she have to sue us?
A nicely phrased letter on engraved paper apprised us of the lamentable fact that the floor boards in the writer's new home had begun to creak. The builder said that radio was drying them out. Would we have them fixed, or should she attend to it and send us the bill?
Another: "They say radio brings in sperets and hants. I doan want no truck with ghostes so plese turn them waves some other way."
And this note came:
"My little girl thowed up in school today. She ain't given to thowin up and they say its radio and you got to give her sumthing."
All such accusations were answered tactfully, and sometimes a considerable correspondence resulted because of these apparently strange phenomena.
A woman, more neurotic, writing in a fine old-fashioned hand, said that while she was listening to WHAS her husband, who had died thirty-eight years ago, appeared in the room with her. She knew that radio was the agency which brought him, but she had waited for nearly a week and he had not returned. Could she come and sit in the station, and watch for him there? "You see," she added a pathetic touch, "when he was on earth we had no such thing as radio, and he is probably confused about it, especially as he possessed no aptitude in mechanical matters. I think it likely that he is getting on the wrong wave and being carried somewhere else."
I could have sworn from the bottom of my heart that the gentleman lurked not upon our premises, and assured her with equal truth that if he happened to come wandering in some day he would certainly have to lurk alone. That chap who wanted "no truck with ghostes" spoke my language.
But something entirely different had to be concocted for this delicate one who must have spent years in vague and fantastic melancholy.
It required gentle stepping, and I thought hard over an answer, almost wishing that a few of our departed "analysts" might return. (Sorry! I thought I had told you about the analysts! But they will appear in a later chapter, if I ever get to it.)
Anyhow, I did wish for one! Each day her letter stared up from my desk, until it began to take on accusing eyes. I covered it with papers, but it seemed to have the faculty of looking through them. I tried replying to it, but never got very far. Then, one morning----
She entered, bringing that long ago froufrou of taffeta on taffeta. I had not heard it since childhood, but it used to charm me in a delightfully tantalizing way, and I shall welcome the return of that old fashion in women's dress.
Our interview was lengthy, for she presented a problem at once formidable and fragile. At first agitated, somewhat frightened by her strange surroundings, it was not long before a few tears came to soften the deep lines in her face, and the deeper pain in her heart. With a touch of exquisite pathos, she murmured:
"Our love is like the throb of violins. I cannot bear to think of him being lost."
God grant that she took away some small measure of comfort.
As time passed, superstitions concerning us grew less, and the day finally arrived when we could almost look our fellow creatures in the eye without flinching. Those noises in the fireplace proved to be gusts of wind; the woman was sleeping well upon her mattress with its radio affinity; the little girl stopped "thowin up," and forecasts of "Fair with occasional showers" seemed satisfactory.
I could not feel really critical of their enkindled phantasmagorias. Radio was so utterly new, so completely mystifying! They looked up on it very much as an awe-struck Indian might have watched the first steamboat churning its way into the silent waters of his tribe. Nor could I forget that with but a little encouragement I had been ready to swallow that blackbird yarn in toto!
Yet these "weird" people could not keep still for long. As one group made its exit another came on our stage. They appeared and disappeared with uncanny regularity.