During several previous conversations we have talked about the early days of early A.M. radio, specifically the small town radio station where I worked starting back in the mid-1960s.
I got to thinking about those glorious days at WGEA while watching Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary "Country Music." He spent quite a bit of time establishing the relationship between the early days of radio and how a few pioneer radio stations were responsible for the early success of what eventually became today's country music.
Two of those stations were WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville. I listened to both of those 50-thousand-watt "flamethrowers," as they were called, because they both operated with the strongest signals allowed by the FCC.
By the time I listened to those stations and had discovered rock music, one of them had parted ways with the country format that was so mutually beneficial to its success. That was WLS, which had changed over to a rock station that was easily picked up at 890 at night way down in southeast Alabama.
WLS had quite a line up of great disc jockeys going back to the day it switched to all rock music in 1960, leaving behind its legacy of being a station that served America's farmers. The '60s brought DJs like Art Roberts, Clark Weber and the unforgettable Dick Biondi who was with WLS until 1963. If you listened to WLS, you may remember Larry Lujack and John Records Landecker, too.
It's been traditional for broadcasters to have a slogan that tied in with their call letters. When WLS was owned by Sears (headquartered in Chicago) the station's slogan was "World's Largest Store."
So what do all those call letters stand for any way?
Ken Burns' documentary spent a lot of time talking about the giant of country music radio stations, WSM in Nashville, which is owned by National Life and Accident Insurance Company. In 1925, WSM started what has become the longest running radio program in the world — the Grand Ole Opry. The station's call letters stand for "We Shield Millions," the insurance company's slogan. WSM's 50,000 watt signal took the Opry into most homes in the U.S. as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. The owners of the insurance company sold lots of policies as a result of the three-hour show each Saturday night.
Another Southern radio station that made quite a name for itself actually went on the air three years before WSM. Sporting the slogan, "Welcome South Brother," WSB was owned by the Atlanta Journal newspaper. The original station broadcast with a tiny 100-watt transmitter from the fifth floor of the newspaper building. The station's power was eventually increased to 50,000 watts and it became one of the powerhouse stations covering all of the South and reaching deep into the Midwestern states, too.
Meanwhile in Alabama, Birmingham's WAPI operated in Auburn for a short time during the 1920s. Its call letters stood for "Alabama Polytechnic Institute" — one of several names given to the school before it officially became Auburn University in 1960.
In Opelika, WJHO radio call letters stood for "John Herbert Orr" one of the pioneers in producing magnetic tape. He founded Orradio in 1949 which was eventually bought by Ampex Corporation, one of Orr's biggest competitors.
And finally, TV stations' call letters often stand for something. Take for instance the station where I worked for so long — WSFA in Montgomery. When the station signed on back in 1954, the city fathers were apparently big fans of the local airport. The owners of the TV station announced that WSFA stood for "With the South's Finest Airport." In 1976, the country's bicentennial year, we used the slogan "We Stand For America." We even had bumper stickers made with that theme.
And on a lighter note, the employees at WSFA, especially in the news department, loved to eat. So we said, not publicly, the call letters stood for "We Serve Food Always," and that was the truth! No cake, pie, or other type of food was safe when left in or near the newsroom!