John Shepard's FM Stations—America's first FM network

by Donna Halper

Some aspects of radio history are open to debate, and may always be—was KDKA really the first station, or was it WWJ, or perhaps even my favourite, 1XE/WGI? But in the matter of early FM, this much is generally agreed upon: we owe its development in New England to two men—the inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong, and the business executive who believed in and supported his work—John Shepard 3rd. When Armstrong's former friend and colleague David Sarnoff turned away from a commitment to FM, it was Shepard who offered encouragement. Always quick to spot a trend, Shepard believed that FM could be beneficial and profitable; many station owners were threatened by FM, fearing it would hurt their AM operations, but Shepard had no hesitation in befriending Armstrong and investing in FM. Shepard put the power and prestige of the Yankee Network at Armstrong's disposal and planned to bring FM broadcasting to greater Boston.

In the spring of 1937, Shepard applied for a permit for a 50-kW FM station in Paxton. In an article he wrote for FM Magazine in March of 1941, Yankee Engineering Vice President Paul DeMars recalled that the plan was initially beset with problems: “Delays in obtaining a suitable site... held up construction for over a year, but in October of 1938, work was begun... When this project was planned, no 50-kW equipment had been built for the frequencies assigned to FM experimentation. Furthermore, no antenna system had been designed or constructed with radiating efficiency high enough to insure the desired performance.” Undaunted, the construction team built a road through what had been woods and pastures, to the top of Asnebumskit Hill, and embarked on erecting what would become W1XOJ, the first FM station in Massachusetts. As DeMars mentioned in his article, since 50-kW transmitters for FM were still being perfected, the new station did not go on with full power—its first broadcasts were at about 2 kW. (The Paxton site is still used for FM broadcasts, by an indirect descendant of that station, now WAAF. When the Worcester Telegram & Gazette decided to build their own FM station, W1XTG, they chose adjacent Little Asnebumskit Hill; that station is now WSRS and is still in the original location.)

The Boston media tried to explain what was going on, since the average person might be confused by so many new developments. The Boston Post noted in a May, 1939 article that within weeks, New England would hear “a radically new and different broadcasting service that may prove to be revolutionary... the new system not only requires a new type of transmitter but it also requires a new type of radio receiver. Transmission will not be in the regular broadcast band but on ultra high-frequency, 43 megacycles or seven metres approximately.” The Post informed its readers that W1XOJ would have its transmitter “on top of a hill whose summit is 1375 feet above sea level. The antenna mast is 400 feet high and supports a special array called a ‘turnstile”. The purpose of this array is to direct the radiation toward the horizon and to suppress skyward radiation”. Unfortunately, buried in the glowing reports of the near completion of the Paxton site was the news that the Yankee Network programming Shepard wanted to broadcast from Boston was not able to reach Paxton; thus, a relay station (called at first W1XOK, then WEOD) was built; it had 250 Watts, and was located at the Yankee Network studios on Brookline Avenue.

What the Boston media did not mention was that WBZ was not amused. Westinghouse and Shepard had long been in competition for advertising dollars. Now, the Westinghouse engineers felt they were being upstaged by Shepard's ability to get his name (and the names of all his engineers) in print as innovators in FM. I have copies of several letters sent back and forth between WBZ's chief engineer and Shepard's, with claims and counter-claims. WBZ wanted to enter into the FM area too, but clearly, Shepard was scoring a major publicity coup, and the Boston newspapers were giving him lots of ink. (In fairness, it should be pointed out that for a time during the early 1930's, during the ‘Press-Radio War’, the print media had been Shepard's bitter enemies; but the sudden arrival of a new and exciting technology plus the fact that Shepard was instant copy, always ready with an event or a quote, made even former rivals follow him around to see what FM could really do.)

Prior to W1XOJ's first broadcast, Shepard—in conjunction with the Institute of Radio Engineers—scheduled a demonstration of FM, to which he invited his competitors from other stations. The demonstration, which took place on May 26, 1939 at Northeastern University, was also attended by several hundred college professors, engineers, scientists, and technicians, as well as one very annoyed chief engineer from WBZ. In a letter to the home office several days after, WBZ Plant Manager Dwight Myer called the event basically a waste of time and claimed to be totally unimpressed. He closed his letter with these comments: “It is not frequency modulation itself that I am belittling but the meeting. The talks were non-technical, and in my opinion, it was engineered as a mutual publicity stunt for John Shepard and Major Armstrong.”

Publicity stunt or not, the Boston media expressed great enthusiasm. The Post that Sunday headlined “Engineers Hail Noiseless Radio” and went on to describe how the audience listened with amazement to a variety of source material, all of which came through with incredible clarity. In the talk which Armstrong gave before the demonstration, he did in fact thank Shepard for his support, but he also explained that it had been Paul DeMars who had first come to believe in FM and who then persuaded Shepard to become involved.

On July 24, 1939, W1XOJ began a schedule of 16 hours a day on the air (8 AM to midnight). The power was soon boosted to 30 kW, but then in mid-January of 1940, a violent ice storm did serious damage to the transmitting antenna, and a temporary antenna was called into service. It would take another year before Shepard's dream of a 50-kW FM became a reality, on January 15, 1941. But Shepard had another dream too—an FM network for New England. There was a 500-watt Weather Service station (W1XOY) atop Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, and he hoped to convert it into his second FM. Broadcasting the Yankee Network programs just as W1XOJ did, this new station would be capable of reaching a very underserved area of Northern New England, an audience he estimated at nearly a million people.

W1XER
W1XER

And so it was, on December 18, 1940, that the next link in Shepard's plan went on the air—it was now known as W1XER (shown), and while it was supposed to eventually be 5 kW, it went on the air with 1 kW. The engineering staff had been challenged by the severity of Mt. Washington weather, and Paul DeMars stated in another article for FM Magazine that at times he wondered if the team would be able to overcome the inhospitable atmosphere on the mountain: gale-force winds and monumental snow drifts made working especially difficult. He worried most about the new antenna—if one more antenna were to blow down, it would be a financial disaster for the Yankee Network. The new equipment for Paxton had cost $35,000, and converting the Mt. Washington station to FM cost more than $50,000; in 1939-40, these were not small sums.

The brutally cold temperatures and frequent high winds the engineers encountered while building W1XER delayed the project, such that it took three years to complete. At times, the engineers were stranded at the site, with only the provisions they had brought with them, until the bad weather diminished. One wonders if Shepard had realised that the new station would be so difficult for his engineers to build. They persevered, and their efforts finally paid off—but it was not exactly a camping trip. DeMars recalled, “During the last two months of the construction and testing period at W1XER, it was necessary for the Yankee engineers... to either ski or walk the eight miles of mountain road to the Summit, because snow made the road impassible even to a tractor. Some of the equipment was taken half way up the mountain by ski-mobile... It was back-packed by men the remainder of the way...”

As for John Shepard, he was busy selling—selling potential advertisers on the possibilities of FM. (On May 26, 1941, the first commercials exclusively for FM were broadcast over both stations—by now, these stations were known as W43B and W39B. The commercials that ran were bought by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, today's Mobil.) He was also selling the FCC on permitting commercial FM broadcasts, and doing what he could to persuade them to allocate more and better FM frequencies. He was a tireless advocate for the new technology, and was quoted often in publications such as the New York Times, Broadcasting, and Variety, as well as the Boston newspapers. He mobilised other station owners to see FM's potential, and without neglecting his AM operation—he simply expanded it, using FM to get the Yankee Network out to an even larger audience. When in March of 1942 he opened a new studio complex in Boston, he proudly showed the media an impressive display of state of the art equipment in the six new studios, several of which were exclusively for FM broadcasts.

It is difficult to say whether FM would have blossomed had not World War II intervened. Armstrong was preoccupied with the war effort, and many of the people involved in research were drafted. But Shepard continued to broadcast FM and continued to persuade other owners to give it a try. While today we take FM for granted, it is interesting to recall that not so long ago, the jury was still out: people agreed that the sound quality was wonderful, but few realised that one day FM would become dominant and AM would recede in importance. We who live in New England are fortunate that we were on the cutting edge as FM grew; and no discussion of those formative years is complete without giving credit to John Shepard 3rd for his vision (and to his dedicated staff of engineers for their persistence in the face of overwhelming odds). While his detractors called him a publicity hound and criticised how aggressively he pursued what he wanted, it cannot be denied that in FM as in many other aspects of broadcasting, John Shepard was truly a man ahead of his time.


Donna L. Halper is a media historian, author of five books and many articles. She is an assistant professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass., and received her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.


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