Tuesday, August 31, 2021

News Over the Air—A Detroit Station Did it First

An August 1920 publicity photograph. Left to right: Howard J. Trumbo, manager of the local Thomas A. Edison Record Shop, operating a phonograph player; Elton M. Plant, Detroit News employee and announcer, behind 8MK's De Forest OT-10 radio transmitter; and engineer Frank Edwards.  Note the use of a horn to pick up music from a phonograph--the microphone as we know it had yet to be invented when station 8MK went on the air in 1920.

On August 31, 1920 Station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan broadcast the first news report Americans ever heard on that newfangled doohickey, radio.  The station had just gone on the air for the first time less than two weeks earlier, on August 20.  The Detroit News owned the infant operation but seemed either a little ashamed of it or unsure if they had just thrown good money into a mere fad.

In fact, the station was issued an amateur license by the United States Department of Commerce Bureau of Navigation, the agency then responsible for radio regulation, instead of the experimental license issued to other early commercial broadcasters.

The Scripps family owned newspaper hired Michael DeLisle Lyons, a teenage whiz kid and tinkerer to build a transmitter in the Detroit News building and had him apply for the amateur license in his own name. He built a transmitter licensed from a design by radio pioneer Lee de Forest.   Lyons was an employee Clarence “C. S”. Thompson, a New York City associate of de Forest and the owner of Radio News & Music, Inc.  which was attempting to market broadcast services to newspapers.  The Detroit station turned out to be their first and only customer.  As an amateur station it broadcast on the fringe of the available spectrum designated then as 200 meters, the equivalent of 1500 AM.  

Later that year young Lyons and his brother Frank built that nation’s first radios for police prowl cars for the city of Toledo, Ohio.  When in their first use of operation radio communications led to the quick arrest of a prowler and the story went national it, spurred other departments to adopt the bulky, balky new technology.

An early Detroit News announcement aimed a radio hobbyists with instructions on how and when to tune in.  Note the promise to broadcast elections results--another radio first.

The infant station’s news broadcasts were read by newspaper staffers and adapted from the content of the paper.  At first the company would not allow broadcast of any news that had not already hit the streets in print for fear of “giving away the product.”

Few homes could hear them anyway.  The audience consisted mostly of radio hobbyists including other amateur broadcasts who were becoming known as HAMs and those who built their own crystal sets.  Home receivers with amplification and which did not require headphones were about five years in the future with the introduction of the vacuum tube.

W. E. Scripps, an early aviator, heir to the publishing empire, and publisher of the Detroit News with his family in 1927.

Despite its limitations, the Scripps family was encouraged by a small but enthusiastic response.  They applied for a commercial license and on October 13, 1921, the station was assigned the call letters WBL broadcasting at 833 AM, with weather reports and other government reports broadcast at 619 AM.

On March 3, 1922 the stations call letters were changed to WWJ.  In the following year the Department of Commerce re-organized its assignments of frequencies and dropped the requirement for a separate frequency for weather and government reports.  WWJ’s was changed three times during the late 20’s before settling at 920 AM in 1929.  A war time shuffling of frequencies in 1941 moved the station to 950 AM at which it continues to broadcast to this day.

The station has maintained a regular schedule of news broadcast through all its incarnations of call letters, frequency or ownership to this day.  Since the mid-70’s the station, now a CBS Radio network affiliate, has broadcast as a 24 hour a day news and talk station.  It remains a Detroit institution and is frequently the highest rated radio station in its market.

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