The Story Behind Broadcasting’s WOW Factor
Call letters offer a fun, fascinating view of stations’ history
By Robert Edelstein -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/21/2011 12:01:00 AMClick here for more on B&C's 80th Anniversary
For many local TV viewers and radio listeners throughout the U.S., call letters have been an important signpost for anyone tuning in, and a great marketing tool for stations. But have call letters also enjoyed a strange, varied and rich history in broadcasting? OMG, yes. (And by that we mean WOMG, a South Carolina FM station boasting of, appropriately enough, its âOldies MaGic.â)
Call letter choices for radio and TV stations have been like vanity license plates, picked at times to denote station owners (WMAQ-TV Chicago got its name from one-time owner William A. Quinn, publisher of âThe Chicago Daily Newsâ) or the people they love (In 1988, Oxnard, Calif.âs KBEH was renamed KADY by then-owner Meshulam Riklis to honor the role his wife, Pia Zadora, played in the notorious Hollywood bomb âButterflyâ). Some have been used to promote religious programming (WGCB in Red Lion, Pa., uses the letters to represent âGod, Christ and the Bibleâ). Thereâs even been a WHIM and a WHER, the latter being a one-time AM âall-girlâ radio station created in Memphis by Sun Studios founder Sam Philips. It later reportedly became a sports-focused, mixed-gender station called WWEE, and is now Radio Disney affiliate WWOW.
Back in the 1920s, through the earliest days of radio, there was no freedom of call letter choice, as handles were handed out by the Federal Radio Commission, according to Bob Nelson, the master collator of an outrageously complete Website of historical and current call letters that will make you exclaim âWHOA.â (Nelsonâs list can be found at nelson.oldradio.com/origins.call-list.html.) âAnd they went in order: WAAA, WAAB,â Nelson says.
Years later, the commission loosened regulations, allowing, among many other stations, WIS radio and later TV in Columbia, S.C. to give honor to the âWonderful Iodine State.â
The advantage of being able to choose your call letters meant you could alsoâ with Federal Communications Commission approvalâtrade them. âI once managed a station, WLUP in Chicago, in the late â80s, and it was changed to WMVP AM 1000,â recalls Larry Wert, now president and GM of NBC 5/WMAQ-TV. âWe wanted to make WLUP all-sports, and we looked at a list of call letters and found in Milwaukee a WMVP owned by former all-pro Green Bay Packers player Willie Davis. His station was Christian, and the call letters were only a sign of his personal achievement and memories. We met with him and he was a great guy and we made a deal. We gave him promotional commitments, and he gave us the call letters.â
History is filled with some true, and some perhaps tall-tale, call letter origins and slogans. Yes, Stephen and Tabitha King co-own Bangorâs WZON, so-named in tribute to the authorâs âThe Dead Zoneâ. Yes, WATD founder Edward Perry admits on his stationâs Website that, after a few libationsâand in celebration of overcoming many obstaclesâhe chose those call letters for the station, built near a landfill in Marshfield, Mass., because they meant âWeâre at the Dump.â But, did the original owner of Carrollton, Ga.,âs WLBB really âLove Butter Beans?â Did Coloradoâs KFEL really stand for âKanât Find Enough Liquor?â And did Peabody, Mass.â WUPY owners name their station to mean, simply, âWhoopie?â
Nothing would be surprising, since the great thing about call letters has been their sometimes wondrously arbitrary nature, and every one seems to have its story. In 1984, KSD-TV in St. Louis was being traded to Multimedia. Then-GM Ray Karpowicz, father of âB&Câ Hall of Famer Paul Karpowicz, had to switch the call letters, which were to be retained by radio station KSD. âSo we went from that to KSDK,â Karpowicz recalls. âThe reason for the K was, as I said at the time, âKâ is just as good as any initial; plus it stands for âKarpowicz.â So it became KSDK. I donât think anyone worried or cared about itâ and I was happy. And it worked out fine.â And then, as if to imply that there was a more sophisticated reason all along, he adds, âPlus, it rhymes.â
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