GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Just about every Michigan newsie is familiar with the call letters WWJ. The Detroit radio station turned 102 on Saturday, but its history extends beyond state lines, even national boundaries — and not just Canada.
While Pittsburgh’s KDKA is widely considered to be America’s first commercial radio station, WWJ took to the air waves first as an extension of The Detroit News. The Michigan station experimented in several different ways, bringing live music and sport events across the country while also delivering the news and playing a key role in keeping communities connected during emergencies.
WWJ’s story starts 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 hobbyists, connecting with other like-minded people across the broadcast spectrum.
When the U.S. entered World War I, radio receivers were banned for private citizens. When the ban lifted in April 1919, it piqued the curiosity of William J. Scripps, William’s son. Scripps Sr. noticed how infatuated his son was with the technology, sending and receiving morse code messages, but he knew the technology was nowhere near its ceiling.
‘THE DETROIT NEWS RADIOPHONE’
It took Scripps nearly a year of haggling with his board of directors to get them to sign off on launching a radio station. Several members feared that the radio broadcasts would lead to a drop in newspaper sales while the broadcasts had no clear way to generate revenue.
By May 1920, the board was on board and Scripps had signed a $750 contract for a bundle of radio equipment. According to radio historian John F. Schneider, a 19-year-old radio enthusiast was hired to help install the equipment in the second story of The Detroit News’ headquarters along with a rooftop antenna.
The News applied for and received an amateur broadcasting license and was given the call letters “8MK.” “The Detroit News Radiophone” was officially born.
The station started running test transmissions on Aug. 20, 1920, at the bottom of the amateur spectrum. According to Schneider, a 16-year-old office assistant named Elton Plank was selected to voice the broadcasts because he had a “pleasing voice.” Plank started WWJ’s first-ever broadcast, saying “This is 8MK calling, the radiophone of The Detroit News.” A second person then played two records on a phonograph and asked listeners to call in and report what they heard.
After the tests were successful, The Detroit News decided to start publicizing nightly broadcasts on the front page of the paper, starting August 31 to cover the election results of the state’s primary races. News reports and music were transmitted from 8 to 9 p.m. Election bulletins were reported every half hour until signing off at midnight. Historians estimate between 300 and 500 people tuned into that first broadcast.
Scripps considered the early broadcasts a major success and moved forward with a regular schedule: two broadcasts per 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 returns, commercial radio took off. According to WGBH, there were 600 commercial radio stations within four years of those first broadcasts.
By the fall of 1921, new government regulations were issued to help organize the spectrum and reserve space for news and entertainment companies. In this transition, 8MK was given a new frequency and new call letters WBL. According to Schneider, many listeners wrote into The News to complain about the new call letters, saying they couldn’t hear it clearly or understand it. The News staff brought their concerns to federal regulators and on March 3, 1922, officially became WWJ.
A SERIES OF FIRSTS
Despite the growing competition, WWJ played an outsized role in moving the industry forward, experimenting with new ideas and new programming, like editorials and even children’s bedtime stories.
According to a WWJ promotional pamphlet from 1936, the station was the first to broadcast regularly scheduled news reports, 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 carry regular Sunday religious programming.
One of WWJ’s most popular programs were its live concerts. Radio staff had put together an abbreviated version of the Detroit Symphony called The Detroit News Orchestra. The 16-piece ensemble would play live at the radio studio broadcasting all across the country.
A news report from 1923 noted that one orchestra performance was heard as far as Waikiki, Hawaii, more than 4,000 miles away. According to a map, from 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.
Edwin “Ty” Tyson led the way in announcing live sports events. Tyson first broadcast a football game for the University of Michigan in 1924. The university only agreed to allow it because they had sold out of tickets and worried that the radio broadcast would cut into ticket sales. The broadcast proved just the opposite after they were flooded with ticket requests the following week.
Tyson broadcast all Detroit Tigers home games in the 1927 season and eventually became one of the country’s most popular sportscasters, calling the 1935 and 1936 World Series for NBC.
Years after 8MK’s first broadcasts, WWJ was a staple across Michigan and the Midwest, but the transmissions 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 started airing commercials and became profitable. In 1936, WWJ moved out of The Detroit News building and into its own offices, complete with a brand-new transmitter and antenna.
As radio — and eventually broadcast television — continued to expand, government regulators reshaped the spectrum to avoid interference and stations bleeding into 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 divvy up the broadcast spectrum.
The talks culminated in the 1941 North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement. WWJ was moved to a new frequency — 950 kilohertz — where it remains to this day.
With the advent of FM radio, WWJ ditched its music programming in 1973, moving to all-news programming. The station was purchased by CBS radio in 1989. CBS merged with Entercom in 2017 which is now known as Audacy.