Early Commerce Department and FRC/FCC Records: Examples

Thomas H. White -- January 2, 2016

Following is a review of the Department of Commerce records, plus ones used by the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which provided much of the information contained in my research of early radio stations.


Under the provisions of an act passed in 1912, United States radio was initially regulated by the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Navigation. Through the mid-twenties, most radio stations got their start via the submission of a two-page "Applicant's Description of Apparatus" (Form 761) to the designated Radio Inspector responsible for their region. The inspectors then filled in the last section of these forms with their "Report and Recommendation", and forwarded them to Commerce Department's headquarters in Washington, DC for further action.


Above is the initial section of the Form 761 submitted by Westinghouse for a new radio station in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which would become KDKA. Following standard procedures, Westinghouse sent the filled out form to the eighth district's Radio Inspector, S. W. Edwards, in Detroit, Michigan. Edwards' "Report and Recommendation", added October 16, 1920, read: "Application examined and respectfully recommended for provisional license for operation on wavelengths indicated pending regular inspection". This was a routine recommendation--a provisional licence just meant the station hadn't been personally inspected yet. (Click here for a complete copy of KDKA's initial Form 761 application and subsequent October 27, 1920 licence, and here for a copy of its second (November 7, 1921) licence).

The files containing the Form 761s and licences issued to early radio stations have been archived by the government at College Park, Maryland--for more information, see the "FCC Broadcast History Resources" section of James Snyder's Broadcast History Pages.

In addition to the licence files, the Department of Commerce maintained three sets of card files, sorted by callsign, by location, and by station owner, which were used to record basic station information and changes. (The Call and Location cards were on 5x8 inch stock, while the Owner cards were 3x5). These card files were further divided between active and deleted stations. When I was doing research in the 1980s, these original card files were available at FCC headquarters at 1919 M Street, NW, in Washington, DC. As far as I know, they no longer exist, however, I was able to photocopy enough examples to put together this overview. (In the case of colored cards, I've done my best to re-create, from memory and notes, their original colors).

It appears that, at least through mid-1922, when a new station's initial application was received in Washington, call letters were immediately assigned and a Call card, used for recording technical and ownership information, was created for the station. Above is the Call card for KDKA--because of the poor quality of parts of the photocopy, I had to re-enter some of the typed information.

KDKA was originally licenced to provide point-to-point communication between a group of Westinghouse-owned stations, but in early November it also began operating as the company's first broadcasting station. There wasn't a separate broadcasting service at this time, so, as would be true for broadcasting stations for close to two years, KDKA's station information was typed on a blue Coast Radio Station card. These cards were used to record subsequent changes in basic operating information through about 1928. One problem with the practice of updating by crossing out old information and replacing it with the new is that it makes it hard to tell exactly when the changes took place.


Information on the source and type of the new station application, plus the date of its arrival at Commerce, was normally typed on the back of a station's Call card. Above is the note typed on the back of KDKA's, recording that the initial station application was received in Washington on October 22, 1920 as a Form 761 plus a letter, which had been processed and forwarded by the Radio Inspector in Detroit.


Toward the end of 1922 it had become clear that broadcasting was more than a passing fad, so the Bureau created Broadcasting Station cards, which were pink--above is an example. WIBW has had an unusually interesting history. It began life as a portable station, originally in Indiana. In 1928 it settled down in a permanent location, Topeka, Kansas where it remains to this day.

There was a second set of cards, by Location, which was sorted by city and state and was kept for cross-referencing purposes. I didn't make a photocopy any of these, but, if I remember correctly, these were identical to the Call calls, except they normally only contained enough basic details to find the corresponding Call or Owner card with more complete information.

The assignment of call letters basically just created an identifier for a station. In order to transmit on a regular basis, a station also had to have a licence or other formal operating authorization. Station licence information was kept in a third set of cards--the Owner cards.

Effective December 1, 1921, the Department of Commerce created the first formal regulations for broadcasting stations. During the period of the original broadcast service grants--consisting of Entertainment transmissions on 360 meters, and Market and Weather reports on 485 meters--white index cards were used for the owner files. (For some reason the information on most of these cards was hand written through 1922.) In late September, 1922, a second entertainment wavelength, 400 meters, was added, as the "Class B" wavelength. Stations on 360 meters, now known as Class A stations, kept using white cards. But for the new Class B authorizations the Bureau of Navigation recorded the licence information on distinctive orange cards.


Above is first Owner card for WSB in Atlanta, Georgia. WSB's first license was issued on April 11, 1922. However, like a few other stations, it had already received an initial authorization, by telegram, to begin broadcasting, in this case on March 15th (see below). These pre-licence authorizations weren't always recorded in the station files, which is one of the things to watch out for in determining initial station authorization dates. (In this case the telegraphed authorization was noted on the back of WSB's call-letter card).


Above is the initial authorization for WSB, by telegram. (This is from the station's history, "Welcome South, Brother", printed in 1974.) WSB's owner, the Atlanta Journal, was engaged in a frantic, and ultimately successful, effort to get its broadcast station on the air before the rival Atlanta Constitution could get its WGM on the air.

Above is the opening portion of WSB's first licence, issued on April 11, 1922. Because the station had already been on the air for a few weeks under the earlier telegraphed authorization, there was time to inspect the station's equipment. If an inspection hadn't taken place yet--which was true for most new stations of this period--the licence was issued with the notation "PROVISIONAL" typed across the top of the first page. The standard licence during this era was four pages long. It was printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper, which was folded over length-wise, with the Form 761 inserted within.


As noted on WSB's first Owner card, on October 9, 1922 it "Entered Class B". As a Class B station, its licence information was continued on one of the orange cards used for this class of station.

The broadcast band was greatly expanded on May 15, 1923. Instead of just two individual entertainment wavelengths, bands of frequencies were created for assignments for the Class A and Class B stations. The Owner cards for the Class B stations continued to be orange, but Class A station Owner cards switched from white to blue. A dwindling number of stations, now referred to as Class C, remained on 360 meters, and their Owner cards continued to be white. So it was easy to identify a station's category at a glance: blue for Class A, orange for Class B, and white for Class C.

Until--in July 1926 adverse legal rulings caused federal regulation of broadcasting stations to break down. This was in one sense the beginning of a colorful era--for eight months broadcasting stations could use any power or frequency they wanted. But in another sense it was the end of a colorful era. The suspension of government regulation meant that there were no longer any class distinctions among stations. So the Bureau of Navigation went back to just using white cards for all the Owner cards.


Doc. Brinkley, A.K.A. The Infamous Goat Gland Doctor, had two incarnations for his station, KFKB. The first time, from 1923 to 1925, KFKB was a Class A station, so it merited a blue Owner card.


Brinkley reactivated the station during the chaos of 1926, reclaimed the KFKB calls, and began operating on a non-standard frequency of 695 kilohertz. As noted above, with the suspension of government controls the Commerce Department went back to using white cards exclusively for the broadcasting service Owner cards.


In 1927 the Federal Radio Commission was formed to take over radio station regulation. The Commerce Department's cards files were transferred to the new agency, which continued to update them for a short time. However, as part of the reorganization the FRC replaced the three separate files with a single set, known as "History Cards", which would in turn be inherited in 1934 by the Federal Communications Commission, and continued to be used until the early eighties, when the FCC switched over to a computerized system. Eventually the FCC discarded the History Card files, but first made microfiche copies of the active stations. (I believe that the cards for deleted stations were not microfiched). The microfiche copies were monchrome, using inverted display (i.e. black appears as white and vice-versa). The FCC has subsequently converted some of these microfiche images to PDF files, which I have used to create the examples below, again adding back the (to the best of my knowledge) original colors. (To check if a PDF of an individual station's History Cards has been made, do an AM Query Broadcast Station Search, click on the displayed facility number link, then check if there is a "History Cards: PDF" link near the bottom of the listing. For this webpage, I made use of the scans for KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (PDF) and KYW, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (PDF).)

Under the new setup there was now only a single card file, with information entered on 5x8 inch cards (the FCC site incorrectly says 3x5). The History Cards were sorted by call letters, and each station had its own series of cards, divided into two or three groupings--all stations had "Broadcasting Station License Record" cards, arranged chronologically with the oldest in the front, followed by a series of "Application Record" cards that were also arranged oldest-to-newest. The Licence Record cards were buff-colored ("dull brownish-yellow"), while the Application Record cards were white. In addition, a small number of stations had, at the back, one or two reddish "Record of Applications Requesting Facilities of Broadcasting Stations" cards. Each of these three types are reviewed below.

KDKA initial history card (front)

The topmost card in a given station's History Card stack was its first, and oldest, License Record card. Information recorded here was similar to the Commerce Department's Call cards, consisting of basic information, updated as needed, about the station. Above is KDKA's first License Record card, although in this case it eventually filled up with so much data that overflow information had to be recorded a second card. Subsequent Licence Record cards stated the station's current call letters and owner name for the time period covered by the construction permit and licence entry information recorded the card's back.

One of changes made by the Federal Radio Commission when it took over radio regulation was the implementation of a formal process for making significant station modifications, by now requiring stations to get approval first. Once approved, an authorization was made in the form of a construction permit, and, once construction was successfully completed, an updated station licence was issued. The backs of the "Broadcasting Station License Record" cards were labeled "Construction Permit and Licence Record", and used to chronologically record summary information about the station's construction permit authorizations and covering licences.
KDKA first history card (back)

Above is KDKA's initial "Construction Permit and License Record" information, typed on the back of its first "Broadcasting Station License Record" card.

KDKA initial application card

The second series of cards in a station's History Card stack were the "Application Record - Broadcasting" cards. The construction permits reviewed above originated as applications on behalf of the station, and basic information about individual applications was recorded here. Normally only the front of these cards were used, with notes added on the back if needed. Above is KDKA's first Application Record card -- in this case, the entries are actually information transferred from the earlier Department of Commerce records.

KYW Facilities request

A third set of cards in the History Card stack, "Record of Applications Requesting Facilities of Broadcasting Stations", is included in a small number of stations that faced an existential crisis. Competing stations could file applications that proposed eliminating other stations if they could prove it would promote the public "convenience, interest or necessity". The example above primarily documents a crisis faced by KYW (then combined with KFKX). KYW had been located in Chicago since 1921, but the provisions of the Davis Amendment, designed to equalize the allocation of radio stations nationwide, meant that Chicago had too many high-powered outlets, so the FRC had reallocated KYW's frequency assignment, 1020 kilohertz, from Chicago to Philadelphia. This resulted in a number of competing stations filing applications to profit from KYW's potential disappearance, applying for permission to build their own high-powered stations operating on 1020 in Philadelphia. But these rivals ended up disappointed, when Westinghouse, KYW's owner, was instead given permission to move KYW from Chicago to Philadelphia, while keeping its old frequency.