The Rise and Fall of WGI, the First Station in Massachusetts

by Donna Halper

When most people think of ‘firsts’ in Boston radio, the call letters of WBZ come to mind. Westinghouse, which owned both WBZ and KDKA, had a very effective publicity machine. This probably helped when KDKA did its first broadcast on 2 November 1920: even though broadcast historians are aware of several other stations (such as WWJ, Detroit and XWA, Montreal) which were on the air prior to KDKA's achievement, the majority of today's history books still say that KDKA did it first. The same perception of being first applies to WBZ, which began its operation in Springfield in September of 1921 and didn't officially do any broadcasting from Boston till late February of 1924. Since WBZ has such a long history—and still uses its original call letters—many people I've asked believe it must have been at least the first station in Massachusetts. But the truth is it was neither first in Boston nor first in Massachusetts. Both of those ‘firsts’ belong to 1XE, later known as WGI, the AMRAD station that operated from the Tufts campus at Medford Hillside.

Harold J. Power

Harold J. Power

The idea for what became WGI came from a young man named Harold J. Power, who became fascinated with Marconi's experiments with the wireless and (like many boys at that time) was determined to duplicate them. Born in 1893, he had already built his first receiving set when he was only 10. By the age of 12, he was running an amateur station in his Everett, Mass. home.

When it was time for college, he had built and transmitted with several types of sets. His knowledge of wireless helped to pay his tuition at Tufts College, enabling him to work at a nearby high school where he taught young men the technology of radio.

He graduated from Tufts with a degree in Engineering in 1914. Still fascinated by radio's technology, Power and several fellow Tufts graduates decided to improve upon existing receivers. They formed a company dedicated to advancing wireless even more. Two of his professors, who had always been impressed with Power, helped him obtain some land and a small building on the campus of Tufts.

In 1915, what would become AMRAD (The American Radio and Research Corporation) opened for business from Medford Hillside, about four miles from Boston. (Interestingly, the word ‘research’ was a late addition to the company name—its original name was supposed to be “American Radio Associates”.) Legend has it that the millionaire banker J. P. Morgan was in Boston on business, and while out sailing on his yacht, he happened to hear some of Power's transmissions—Power had already begun demonstrating some of his new equipment by sending out voice and music on it. Morgan was impressed, and wanted to meet with Power. (On the other hand, it may really have been Power who found out Morgan was in town and arranged the meeting; we will never know, and the “financier discovers young inventor” version was told and re-told in Boston newspapers for years...)

Power persuaded Morgan to become a backer of the new venture, and suddenly, Harold Power was the General Manager and Treasurer of an active company; as opposed to only directing his three fellow graduates, thanks to Morgan there could now be a few other employees. Power also added a number of Tufts student volunteers, who sensed they were on the cutting edge of radio and wanted to be part of it, with or without a salary.

Next, Power hired contractors, and quickly a 306 foot tower went up. Unfortunately, not long afterward, during a storm, the tower came right back down. It fell on the local train tracks, and the accident got AMRAD some rather embarrassing publicity. Despite the protests of his neighbours (who had never been happy about having a radio tower and were not surprised when it fell), Power was undaunted, and he had the tower rebuilt. This time, it stayed up.

In 1917, AMRAD received a license for station 1XE, and experimental broadcasts began on a fairly regular basis that same year. These were not always radio programmes—some were just code practise, or a few minutes of chat—but 1XE was on the air with some transmissions almost every day. Meanwhile, World War 1 was going on, and while the U.S. wasn't yet involved, Power's new company kept busy making receivers for the military. When the U.S. did enter the war in 1918, all amateur stations were shut down by the government, and 1XE was no exception. But Power had a good relationship with the Navy, so the parent company continued to sell receivers.

Eunice
	  Randall

Eunice Randall

It was in 1918 that Eunice Randall was hired by AMRAD, as their first woman draftsman; later, she would serve as an engineer and announcer for 1XE. Eunice Randall was very unusual for her day—she had a great interest in amateur radio (her amateur calls were 1CDP), and from her Cape Cod home, she built a small station (call letters “ER”) from which she transmitted. This caught the attention of a highly respected amateur who lived not far from her in the town of Mattapoisett—Irv Vermilya, who would become the founder of WNBH in New Bedford (its first call letters were WDAU) around the same time that IXE was turning into a full-time radio job for Ms. Randall. Vermilya sensed from the first time he met her that she would do amazing things, and wrote a glowing tribute to Ms. Randall's radio skills in the July 1921 issue of QST.

In 1919, after the war ended, Harold Power and friends hurried to get 1XE back up and running again. But having fun with radio had to take a back seat to dealing with a large number of unsold receivers left over from the war; AMRAD had to concentrate first on selling them to the public, which meant developing some type of meaningful sales strategy. The AMRAD name soon began to appear in magazine advertisements—Power used QST to announce his equipment to amateur radio fans; in 1918, AMRAD had also opened a small sales office in New York.

The AMRAD vision, according to broadcast historian Alan Douglas, was to do serious research and improve radio's effectiveness. This was both a blessing (AMRAD came up with some highly creative designs) and a curse (they could design them, but implementing and producing the product on time would be a constant problem). As we will see, this conflict would plague the company throughout its history, and come to affect its radio station.

In 1919, 1XE was keeping a fairly consistent schedule of broadcasts several evenings a week, the majority of which were voice and music. Eunice Randall was among the AMRAD staff who not only worked for the company but also helped to keep the radio station on the air. Like other AMRAD employees, she did whatever it took to provide progamming-- she read bed-time stories to children, or sometimes she and a colleague sang (and not very well, according to her letters to Alan Douglas, but when guests didn't arrive, the station still had to fill the time...). Fortunately, there were also some Tufts students who volunteered their musical skills. The operant word at 1XE was ‘volunteer’—even the AMRAD employees who kept 1XE up and running at night received no extra pay for it.

1XE may have begun using the slogan “AMRAD—the Voice of the Air” as early as 1920; there is little evidence that the station was known in any other way than “The AMRAD station” or, occasionally it was referred to as “The Medford Hillside station” by local newspapers. (While the aforementioned slogan may seem meaningless to us, back in those early days ‘the air’ was another way to refer to ‘radio’, with the message being that if you heard a voice on your radio set, that voice was coming from the AMRAD station...)

According to several sources, by May of 1921, 1XE had begun to do daily broadcasts. The programming was gradually getting more professional—live concerts, and several famous guest speakers. The speakers were often a result of the Tufts College connection—1XE quickly made use of some of Tufts' better-known professors. At a time when few people could afford college, the opportunity to hear highly respected professors giving a lecture was very well received. Since most of the Boston-area newspapers were still basically ignoring radio in 1921, there is not a lot of print about 1XE, and its achievements were virtually unknown to the mass audience. The station evidently had a loyal core of fans, but they were mostly “radio bugs”, engineers or amateurs who were obsessed with the new medium. When print journalists of the early 1920s began writing about radio's history, they tended to accept KDKA as the first U.S. station to broadcast. AMRAD executives did their best to set the record straight, but it wasn't easy. Repeatedly, they wrote irate letters to editors of all the radio magazines, challenging KDKA's claims. In several cases, the magazines did write a short article about 1XE; in other cases, they published letters from AMRAD spokesmen, such as in issue #5 of Radio World (29 April 1922). The advertising manager of AMRAD, after reading another glowing tribute about KDKA, responded to Radio World's editor:

With reference to the second issue of your magazine... [w]e note that the item ‘The First To Broadcast’ apparently emanat[ed] from the Publicity Department of Westinghouse... From reading this item, one is apt to gain a false impression.

It is true that KDKA was the first to broadcast Sunday church services regularly, but this corporation, operating a station in Medford Hillside, 1XE, was the first to broadcast a regular daily schedule, when police reports for the City of Boston were sent out every night together with musical programs.

This ‘first’ business is a mighty hard thing to prove. DeForest was broadcasting intermittently in 1915, and so were we. KDKA was the first to broadcast weekly, but we were the first to broadcast daily, which is quite a difference.

...We realize that [KDKA and Westinghouse] are the preeminent leaders in broadcasting work...[but] this corporation {AMRAD} was the first to broadcast on a regular daily schedule and is entitled to the proper credit as such.

H.M. Taylor, Advertising Manager, AMERICAN RADIO & RESEARCH CORPORATION

Although it may indeed be true that 1XE maintained a regular schedule long before anyone else, the sad fact is that we can't verify it. Most of the stations's records and logs were lost in a fire in 1925.

While Hal Power was respected for his ideas, the company itself seemed to have no clue how to publicise its radio achievements, plus a haphazard way of marketing its receivers. Orders were not filled in a timely fashion; ads were placed for products that had not yet been made. And despite the talents of individuals, the equipment that 1XE used (and the comparatively low power it put out) was no match for what Westinghouse and WBZ were able to provide.

When we try to paint a picture of AMRAD and 1XE, we have to rely on oral histories and letters of former staff, since the Boston newspapers wrote little about radio till early 1922. But the information we do have portrays a truly dedicated volunteer staff—some professional (AMRAD engineers) and some amateur (Tufts students, plus a few local radio fans who wanted to help out). As 1XE continued to broadcast, a gradual influx of well-known professional musicians and theatre people began. Even some major political figures saw the benefit of being on the new station. By November of 1921, 1XE's nightly schedule was reading like a who's who—opera singers, professors, famous authors, even the noted economist Roger Babson (founder of Babson College), all took their turn at the microphone. Some nights, reception was horrible; other nights, the signal carried fairly well. But radio was an adventure and since 1XE was the only station on the air in greater Boston, all the ‘big names’ who wanted to be on the air stopped by.

Unfortunately, what also emerges in our picture of 1XE in 1921 is a station that generated no revenue, and by now, a parent company that was repeatedly in and out of financial troubles. This would become more of a factor later on, as equipment would break and nobody had the money to adequately repair it. At this point (late 1921), there is evidence that J.P. Morgan was still providing AMRAD with financial backing, but he was gradually losing interest, as he was receiving no return on his investment. A series of bad management decisions (plus AMRAD's tendency to hire lots of managers, whether they had something to manage or not) was putting AMRAD in debt, even though some of their receivers had gotten favourable reviews. (One estimate from Ken Thompson, a former AMRAD sales executive, was that Morgan sank as much as $800,000 into the company before he finally gave up on it.)

One of the few programmes that did bring in some money was done by Eunice Randall. Perhaps because of stereotypes about women, or perhaps because they had heard her read stories on the air in 1XE's earliest days, a children's magazine wanted her to be their ‘story lady'. Eunice Randall had perhaps the first sponsored show on the station; twice a week, she read bed-time stories to the kids in the audience, which she continued to do throughout much of 1922. Her role was later taken on by another announcer, E. Lewis Dunham, better known on air as “Uncle Eddie;;, who could not only tell the stories but was also an accomplished pianist, organ player, and impressionist. Eunice Randall continued to work at the station and also helped to design equipment for AMRAD. It is interesting to note that children's programming was an area where the station made a mark in Boston—after ‘Eunice the story lady’, after “Uncle Eddie”, the station's chief announcer and programme manager, Bob Emery (better known by his initials, C.R.E.—announcers in the early days were seldom allowed to use their names on the air) began a very successful children's show called the “Big Brother Club”. This show lasted for decades on Boston radio and then later on television.

In early February of 1922, 1XE officially became WGI. Although at times it was confused with the bigger and more powerful station WGY in Schenectady, the station kept the WGI call letters but emphasised their AMRAD connection wherever possible. WGI was one of the first stations to have a radio truck (the forerunner of the remote studio), and when AMRAD staff went out to deliver equipment or make sales calls, they would broadcast the station in towns all over eastern Massachusetts. WGI had a number of firsts in greater Boston, including being the first station to offer college courses by radio—throughout 1922, a series of lectures by Tufts faculty was given twice a week. The station linked up with the Boston Evening American newspaper in late March of 1922, which provided the station with daily newscasts and lots of free publicity on the American's radio page. And by September of that same year, WGI was doing a morning show—which was rare in the early 20s, when radio tended to be on at night and only during limited hours. Every Sunday, WGI offered a church service. But since the station was affiliated with a university, it was also among the first to offer talks by a Hindu teacher and a Buddhist monk. (In 1923, it even offered a synagogue service in honour of the Jewish New Year.)

As AMRAD's financial problems mounted in late 1923, the station was off the air due to equipment problems several times. A few of the original staff left to go to other stations. Others were re-assigned from WGI jobs back to working exclusively in the AMRAD plant. The station was now surrounded by bigger and more powerful signals—WNAC, for example, owned by the Shepard Department Stores, which also owned WEAN in Providence. WBZ kept increasing its presence in Boston, even though it was still 100 miles away in Springfield. By February of 1924, WBZ had an affiliation with the Boston Herald-Traveler and a new Boston studio in the Hotel Brunswick. Where WGI had once been able to pick and choose, the competition for guests became more intense—and now, some guests wanted to be paid. Then in September of 1924, Edison Electric Illuminating put its new station on the air—WEEI. WGI's best-known and most popular announcer, “Big Brother” Bob Emery, left to go to work at the new station, most likely for far more money than he was earning at WGI. The “Big Brother Club” was WGI's biggest success, and Bob Emery's many remotes and appearances all over greater Boston had given the station much-needed good publicity (to counteract the on-going signal problems); it must have been quite a blow for WGI to lose “Big Brother” to a competitor.

Harold J. Power was still trying to keep AMRAD afloat, seeking new backers, doing what he could to get AMRAD's name out there. Unfortunately, AMRAD's name had become synonymous with delays in shipping orders and with missing opportunities. Few radio fans knew how serious the problems at the parent company were—in those days, the newspapers were reticent to dig up dirt on people they had dealt with for a long time, so there were no mentions of Mr. Power's business troubles. AMRAD had advertised in most of the Boston papers; it was hoped they would do so again once they got straightened out. Engineers, however, were not so shy about discussing technical problems in print. At various points in 1924 and early 1925, mention was made of WGI's poor technical quality and on-going signal problems, most notably by Sam Curtis in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger. But these articles didn't seem malicious: I got the impression that the columnists wished WGI would hurry up and regain its ability to compete. With so many good engineers working there, Curtis and his colleagues were mystified that the station was never able to sound good for very long.

In February of 1925, for reasons that are still not clear, WGI changed its call letters to WARC. This change evidently got little publicity, and only a couple of the Boston newspapers modified their listings; none of the radio columns offered any explanation for the change. By now, WARC was no longer on the air every day. It was sharing a frequency with a religious station, and at times, gave over its own programming to religious broadcasts. Eunice Randall was not announcing any more, nor were the majority of those who had first put 1XE on the air. Rumour had it that John Shepard III (who owned WNAC) wanted to buy WARC, but he didn't want to inherit AMRAD's bad business deals, nor did he want Hal Power to be involved; the deal fell through. And then, one day in late April of 1925, with no announcement, WARC simply vanished. Perhaps hoping that a buyer could be found, AMRAD officials did not even notify the Department of Commerce that the station was off the air. For months afterward, they hung on to the call letters. But the end had indeed come. Tufts wanted its building back. Creditors wanted money. Backers were not to be found. It wasn't until late in 1925 that Powel Crosley (of WLW fame) purchased AMRAD, but it was too late for WARC. It never returned to the air. Today, except for a few broadcast history fans, it is virtually forgotten.

The impact of 1XE/WGI/WARC would continue to be felt even though the station itself was now dark. One of the former announcers, J. Smith Dodge, ended up in management at WNAC, but by 1927, he and a partner were able to buy a station of their own—WLEX in Lexington. He hired another former WGI announcer, Herbert D. Miller (who had been 1XE's first programme director) to do the morning show. Mr. Dodge was one of the early backers of television in Massachusetts, getting an experimental license for W1XAY in 1928. As for the old equipment, it came in handy for a new station—WBET, the Boston Evening Transcript station, which temporarily broadcast from Medford Hillside for a while, and found (to its embarrassment) that the WGI transmitter worked no better in 1927 than it had when it was owned by AMRAD. In fact, the problems were so severe that WBET had to issue an apology on the front page of its newspaper. (WBET ultimately went bankrupt too. In fact, every station which used parts of the WGI transmitter ended up off the air.) On a more positive note, a number of the performers who had gotten their start on Medford Hillside went on to extremely successful radio careers at other stations. As for Harold J. Power, he left AMRAD and formed several other companies. He died in 1969.

When I think of what the AMRAD station achieved in its few years on the air, I continue to be impressed. How many stations in those days can boast a woman engineer/announcer, a morning show, a remote truck, college courses on-air, and the best-known children's show in town? Add to that the fact that the station may indeed have been the first to keep a regular schedule and the first to be on the air with programming seven nights a week. It may not have had the fanciest equipment, it may not have had the best sound, and its signal was often difficult to hear even ten miles away. Yet in spite of all that, WGI was a pioneer radio station, an innovator that deserves to be remembered.


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.


Best viewed with Any Browser

[ Home | Contact | Legal | Updated: 2001-01-02 | Validate this page ]

Network connectivity courtesy of MIT CSAIL.