WBZ's Early History

by Donna L. Halper

The Twenties

Most of us were not around for WBZ's first broadcast, from the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, on September 19, 1921. There were only a handful of stations on the air at that time, most notably another Westinghouse station, KDKA in Pittsburgh (whose famous first broadcast occurred on November 2, 1920), and the first station in greater Boston, 1XE (later known as WGI) at the Amrad plant, Medford Hillside. WBZ had a strong signal, which on some nights could be heard as far away as Europe. Back then, WBZ was not found at 1030 AM; its first dial position was 833 kHz, or as it was more commonly called, 360 meters. WBZ's earliest broadcasts originated at the Westinghouse plant in East Springfield, on Page Boulevard. By early 1922, the station had studios at the Hotel Kimball (many early stations broadcast from hotels).

If you had listened in the early 20s, you would have heard a variety of live musical programming—mostly classical and opera. WBZ also broadcast late baseball scores, farm and agriculture reports, college lectures, and talks by local politicians. No radio station was on the air full-time: WBZ only broadcast from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm during the week, and on Sundays, it only broadcast church services. But gradually, WBZ's schedule expanded, as did the events it offered. It was WBZ that broadcast the opening game of the 1923 World Series at Yankee Stadium (October 10). Also that month, WBZ began a series of radio extension courses, with lectures by some of the region's best professors; listeners could receive credit from the Mass. State Department of Education. On February 24, 1924, WBZ had opened a Boston studio, at the Hotel Brunswick, bringing to the combined Boston and Springfield audience a wider range of talent. Because of its wide coverage area, the station used the on-air slogan “WBZ, New England”. And, thanks to a 1924 affiliation with the Boston Herald-Traveler newspapers, WBZ was able to greatly expand its news presence. (Many listeners were so impressed with the station that they called it “W-bees knees”—the expression “it's the bee's knees” was 1920s slang for “it's the best!”) And while it is difficult to know exactly who did what in those early days, George H. Jaspert seems to have been WBZ's first manager (what we would call the GM today), a position he held for over six years, till October of 1928. Also, one of the station's first Programme Directors (that's how they spelled it in those days) was a woman—Emilie Sturtevant. Back then, the PD actually was like a Music Director—he or she scheduled the guests and often had to fill in if the talent didn't show up. Like many PDs in those days, Miss Sturtevant was also a musician (as were several of WBZ's announcers.) And like many women in early radio, she also did double-duty, as the General Manager's administrative assistant.

1924 was a year of many achievements for WBZ—the Boston studio became known as WBZA in late November, and it did a live broadcast from the 4th annual Boston Radio Exposition in early December. Continuing to increase its broadcast schedule, WBZ began to offer late night programming (11 p.m. to 12 midnight) twice a week, starting on October 31. The renowned author of children's books, Thornton W. Burgess, began a weekly series of shows and started the “Radio Nature League”. WBZ also broadcast the first Boston Bruins hockey game on December 1st. (In 1924, announcers were still not allowed to use their own names—you knew your favorite announcer by initials only, so chief announcer Arthur F. Edes was identifield as "EFA". W. Gordon Swan, who several years later became WBZ's P.D., was known as AGS.)

In January of 1925, WBZ offered a unique sports event, linking up with CKAC in Montreal to do a bi-lingual hockey broadcast. Continuing its sports commitment, in April WBZ broadcast a Boston Braves baseball game, and in October, you could hear Harvard football. By now, WBZ was known as “The Voice of New England”. Its First Anniversary Celebration was emceed by Fred Allen, and featured such stars as Eddie Cantor and Basil Rathbone. In 1925, the beginnings of a network could be heard—WBZ sometimes broadcast programs along with WJZ in New York; and when WBZ aired a program commemorating the 150th anniversary of Paul Revere's ride, WRC in Washington DC and WGY in Schenectady carried it too. You could find WBZ at 333 meters, or 900 kHz; WBZA was officially licensed to operate with a power of 250 watts at 242 meters (1240 kHz) in late August.

1926 was the year of the first network, NBC, and WBZ would become one of its first affiliates. Leo Reisman and the Hotel Brunswick orchestra played the popular songs of the day. And it was in 1926 that WBZ first broadcast the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (However, it was also in 1926 that several Boston newspapers had a running joke: guess whether or not WBZA will come in clearly tonight.)

In June of 1927, partly as a result of the station's growth but also as a result of the on-going signal problems, WBZ moved its Boston studio to the Statler Hotel; the station went on the air with a new transmitter on June 9th. Continuing to build a reputation for exclusive coverage of major events, WBZ was there when Charles Lindbergh was honored in Boston after his solo flight across the Atlantic. The Boston Pops were also first broadcast, in May. And 1927 was the year when WBZ began a regular schedule of daytime broadcasts (Emilie Sturtevant was named Director of Daytime Programming). It was also the year when Westinghouse officially began selling commercial time on the air and hired a sales staff.

In 1928, listeners heard an exclusive broadcast of a reception for the legendary woman aviator Amelia Earhart. In 1929, WBZ listeners heard a broadcast that was received in Antarctica by Commander Byrd; messages and tributes were read to him and several distinguished speakers discussed the importance of Byrd's expedition. WBZ could be found at 990 kHz (303 m).

The Thirties

Continuing our look at the history of WBZ, we move next to the 1930s, a decade known as “The Golden Age of Radio”. With over four million Americans out of work, radio became a lifeline; and WBZ, which was an NBC affiliate, was a primary source of entertainment and information. Thanks to the network, WBZ brought you such popular programs as “Amos 'n' Andy” and “Roxy and His Gang”; listening to the radio helped to take your mind off the problems caused by the worsening economy.

If you lived in Boston during the 1930s, you probably recall that WNAC was now the flagship of something new called the Yankee Network. There was a local radio publication called Radiolog; while it only lasted for three years, it gave you some insight into the personalities and programs on the air. For information about the network performers, you probably read Radio Digest when the library got its copy; as radio's popularity grew, there were more magazines, such as Radio Stars and Song Hits. As for Boston newspapers, of course you read the Boston Post, which still had a great radio page—columnist Howard Fitzpatrick seemed to know everyone... but the Boston Evening Transcript had a good column too (with a woman columnist), and even the Christian Science Monitor wrote about radio.

Boston had a number of radio stations, but there were three major players—WNAC, WEEI, and WBZ. At the start of the decade, WBZ's Boston studio was still called WBZA. However, in early March of 1931, that changed. WBZ exchanged call letters with WBZA—the Boston station became WBZ, while the Springfield station became WBZA. WBZ/WBZA still could be found at 990 kc on your dial, but by the late summer of 1931, the Boston studios were moved to the Hotel Bradford; the transmitter was now in Millis. (It first operated at 15,000 Watts, then later in 1931 this was raised to 25,000; in 1933, it was increased to 50 kW.)

On September 18, 1931, WBZ celebrated its tenth anniversary with an impressive thirty-hour show of music, famous guests, and even a tribute to New England's business community. Part of the show was broadcast over the NBC radio network. Among the 800 guests who attended this giant radio party were Mayor Curley of Boston, Mayor Winter of Springfield, Governor Cox, and a number of past and present WBZ announcers and performers. WBZ had its own drama group—“The WBZ Players”, who wrote and performed a number of plays; Gordon Swan was known for his skill at sound effects, and he was frequently called upon to provide them. But the station was also earning a reputation for being very conservative because Program Director John L. Clark had created a policy wherein any song with questionable lyrics (double-entendres, or words he felt were offensive) would be yanked from the air, no matter how important the person performing. Clark pulled the plug one day on famous bandleader Joe Rines, who was not amused and said so. The debate about lyrics went on for days in all the Boston newspapers.

One particular event that WBZ became known for (although they would rather not have) occurred in late April of 1932: the legendary `lion incident'. The headline in the Post said it all—“Lion Wrecks Radio Studio—Seven Hurt”, as a supposedly tame lion brought into the Hotel Bradford studio to roar on cue suddenly became agitated and ran through the studios and offices, destroying windows, knocking over equipment, terrifying spectators, and injuring several WBZ employees before being subdued by the police.

On a kinder, gentler note, in 1933, WBZ began airing regular weather reports from the National Weather Bureau. The station's first staff meteorologist was G.H. Noyes. (Don Kent, who would become the WBZ weatherman in the 1950s, recalled for me in a conversation recently how he grew up listening to the meteorologists at the National Weather Bureau and predicting the weather became a fascination of his; he began hanging around the Boston office of the bureau, trying to learn all he could, and ended up with his first job—doing weather for free on WMEX in the late 30s...)

Many radio stations had begun developping morning shows during the 1930s, and WBZ was no exception—one of the first moring show hosts on the station was Bradley Kincaid. Known on-air as the “Kentucky Mountain Boy”, he started his career as a country and western performer in the midwest (you might have heard him first on WLS in Chicago); in addition to singing, he also did radio comedy. He was hired by WBZ in the late 1930s; his wife Irma arranged his music and sometimes was his accompanist when he performed. (Back then, morning shows started at 7 AM; many of these shows had the name “The Musical Clock”.)

It was in the late 1930s that WBZ began to expand its local news coverage. The station had always been present for big events (in April of 1931, for example, it was the first to carry the Boston Marathon; and any time a major political figure came to town, WBZ always covered it), but now stations were beginning to do more to give their information a local focus. Radio and the newspapers had finally declared a sort of truce, and gradually, Boston stations began to develop news departments. (The “Press-Radio War”, earlier in the 30s, is discussed in other essays; John Shepard 3rd and his Yankee Network fought for the right to do their own local news coverage, rather than having a newspaper do it for them.) WBZ would soon have some highly respected newsmen, talented reporters such as Arch MacDonald. He joined WBZ Radio in 1938; when TV came along, Arch became WBZ-TV's first news anchor, appearing on the first telecast in June of 1948. WBZ also had network commentators such as Lowell Thomas, thanks to their continued affiliation with NBC.

In addition to broadcasting the popular NBC network shows, WBZ continued to offer its share of local programming—Mildred Carlson did a daily show called “The Women's Forum” throughout the thirties. A popular young announcer named Fred B. Cole joined the staff in 1938; like many of his colleagues (including Chief Announcer Bob White), he participated in a number of promotions, as WBZ tried to increase its visibility in a highly competitive marketplace. And while WBZ operated a short-wave station (and Shepard had put FM on the air), AM was still king, and radio was still everyone's favourite mass medium. As the 1930s ended, WBZ was getting ready to make a very important move—to a new transmitter site in Hull, where reception would improve dramatically. But that story is part of the next segment of this retrospective, because the 1940s were a decade when some major changes occurred for radio and for WBZ...

My thanks to an amazing gentleman, Gordon Swan, who passed away in early 1998 at the age of 93. He was a valuable resource about the early history of the station; he was also the last living member of Boston's first radio station, WGI. I'm glad I had the opportunity to know him. Back in the 1920s, his specialty was sound effects, which, like everything else in early radio, had to be done live...) Without his comments and recollections, this article would have been much more difficult to write. My thanks also to Scott Fybush and Carl DeSuze who shared some useful information with me. A slightly condensed version of this article was first written for WBZ's 75th anniversary.

Donna L. Halper is a radio consultant and a broadcast historian. She is on the faculty at Emerson College, where she teaches the History of Broadcasting.

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