Chapter Two


In 1922, Walter C. Bridges of Superior, Wisconsin applied for a permit to begin a radio station, in a partnership with newspaper publisher John T. Murphy of the Superior Evening Telegram and Leslie Ross of the Ross Electric Company of Superior (Jorgenson, 1965, p.15a). The station office was situated on the third floor of the newspaper building, now called the Badger Building, at 1225 Tower Avenue in Superior, which had just been purchased and remodelled to be the newspaper headquarters. The building had previously been held by the May Furniture Company (Telegram Lets Contract, 1922, p. 1).

Legend has it that Bridges asked for the call letters WEBC as a variation of his initials. However, several former employees indicate that Bridges himself always denied it (Henton, Elm, 1997). In 1923-24, the U.S. Commerce Department assigned call letters in an alphabetical sequence, unless otherwise requested (Miller, 1997). By 1924, when the license was granted, the list was up to the WE's and thus was created the name, WEBC, an identification that has remained unchanged for over 70 years. Bridges was then 27 years old.

Walter Bridges became fascinated with radio as a teenager and Jorgenson reports that young Walter heard over longwave radio-telegraphy that Woodrow Wilson had been elected U.S. President in 1916 before the telegraph got the word to his hometown newspaper in Dieterick, Illinois (1965, p. 7). It was while he served in the Navy as a "wireless operator" that Bridges arrived in the Duluth-Superior area in 1917. At that time, Duluth was home to naval wireless station NUX, acquired by the Navy during World War I. The Marconi Wireless Company had erected the tower in 1907 in response to a disastrous storm that sank a number of freighters on the Great Lakes (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 9). Marconi and its chief competitor, De Forest Wireless, were erecting towers on the nation's coastlines in those days and placing their receivers on ships (Lewis, 1991, p. 148). NUX originally operated from a 400-foot tall tower in the area of today's current antenna farm in Duluth, though the Navy moved it to Park Point upon taking over (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 8). Like all shoreline wireless stations NUX was intended for point-to-point wireless communication via Morse code to shipping (Lewis, 1991, p. 81).

At war's end, Bridges stayed in the Twin Ports making radio receivers under the name, Superior Radio Company (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 13). Demand for radio sets was high after the 1920 coverage of Harding's election, heard on KDKA-Pittsburgh, made headlines (Miller, 1997). Under the Superior Radio Company name, Bridges got an amateur license in April, 1922 to establish a wireless station, WFAC, at 1008 East Fourth Street in Superior (WEBC Is Among, 1929). Operating on a wavelength of 60 meters, well outside of today's AM band at a frequency of about 5 megacycles, WFAC was heard as far away as California in those days of empty broadcast spectrum.

Later that same year, Bridges and another radio amateur, Earl Hagen, moved WFAC into the basement of Bridges' home at 2326 John Avenue and operated as the Hagen and Bridges Company (Will Broadcast Radio Concerts, 1922, p. 3). The first broadcast occurred on Sunday night, April 30, 1922 and featured a now-forgotten classical music selection ". . . courtesy of the E. T. Barron Victrola shop." (ibid.). WFAC was a one-man operation, with Bridges playing ". . . Edison phonograph music . . . and a few talks. . ." (WEBC Is Among, 1929). There was no audio connection between the acoustic record player and the transmitter. A microphone was pointed at the player's "horn", the spring motor was wound up, and the needle dropped onto the platter. A very shrill signal resulted and the operator had to be quiet the whole time. Since the microphone was live, it picked up room noise and any conversation. This method of broadcasting audio recordings persisted until electric record players were developed later in the decade (Persons, 1996, Ch. 1 - p. 9).

There were radio stations being started everywhere in the early 1920's, in response to the burgeoning public interest in radio. At the start of 1922, there were 28 licensed stations on the air in the United States. By year's end, there were 570 (Marquis, 1983 p. 17). In Duluth, the Paramount Radio Company, a maker of radio receivers, began WJAP and it survived as a promotional vehicle for four years (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9). In August of 1923, the Duluth Herald newspaper tried to get a radio station started in conjunction with the Lyceum Theater and a store called Kelly-Duluth. The broadcasts from the Lyceum soon ceased. (Radio Thrilled Natives, 1956). Friemuth's Department Store, a seller of receivers, put on a low-power radio station, KFMS, from the store's Radio Room for two weeks in 1922, presumably to provide something for the public to listen to so Friemuth's would sell more receivers (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9). The Duluth Herald tried again in 1926 to found a radio station in cooperation with a local theater, the Orpheum in this case, but the venture lasted only from March 20 to April 9 (Radio Thrilled Natives, 1956).

In 1924, Walter Bridges, the radio set builder, teamed with an electrical supply firm and the local newspaper to convert WFAC into a true AM radio station (WEBC Is Among, 1929). He was given a ten percent interest in the new station (Smith, 1997). Prior to the Radio Act of 1927, getting government permission to put a radio station on the air was a matter of simply applying for it (Zelezny, 1993, p. 419). On June 19th, 1924, WEBC was granted authority to broadcast AM radio signals (Mishkind, 1994), using 50 watts of power on a wavelength of 242 meters (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 2). Identifying the station dial location by wavelength was the standard of the time. The corresponding AM radio frequency for 242 meters is 1240 kilocycles per second or 1240 kHz by today's terminology. As a regular AM station, WEBC was to remain alone on the dial locally for twelve years until KDAL came on in 1936 (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9). The power was increased to 100 watts in 1925 (Mishkind, 1994).

As noted above, WEBC was housed in the Telegram Building at first and its broadcasting antenna was located on the roof. It was an installation unlike that used by today's radio stations. Besides the visible vertical tower--- or towers in directional stations--- standing at a height proportional to the wavelength and isolated on insulators, there is also an extensive underground system consisting of a grid of wires at the tower base and radial wires of a length corresponding to the tower height extending outward like compass headings from the tower base. Together, both the tower and the ground system act as the radiating elements (Elm, 1997). This method of transmission was unknown in 1924. The first WEBC antenna consisted of several horizontal wires strung along spreader devices between a flagpole and another mast on the Telegram Building roof. It resembled the wireless antenna installations found aboard ships (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 2).

On the first WEBC programs, as it was on WFAC, Bridges was both the announcer and operator. Everything was located in one room, studio and transmitting gear. A woman from Ross Electric would come by in the morning to give household hints and at times, local entertainers were broadcast. Bridges also functioned as a disk jockey, operating an acoustic phonograph to help fill the hours of programming (WEBC Is Among, 1929), a precursor of what would be the standard WEBC programming method four decades later. Before police squad cars had two-way radios, they were equipped with AM receivers. "WEBC would announce that a certain unit ought to call headquarters. Stopping at a public phone, the officer called in for the assignment." (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9).

The hours of any given day's broadcasting were variable, dictated by the capacity of the acid storage batteries used to power the radio station. These were less well-sealed, but similar in design, to today's automobile batteries. At sign-off, the batteries would be set to charge up for another broadcast day (Jorgenson, 1995, p. 5). The listeners had the same limitations since their receiving sets were also powered by batteries that needed recharging after just a few hours of operation. Many a living room floor was stained by storage battery leaks in those days before "all-electric" or "plug-in" radios became available after 1927 (Timeline, 1995). When city folks replaced their old battery radios with plug-in models, two things happened with positive effect for WEBC and other radio pioneers. One, without the worry of total battery discharge, the radio set owners could keep them running all day and into the evening, greatly increasing the time spent listening. The second positive occurrence was that rural families, without electricity, bought the older battery-powered radios second-hand, increasing the total audience (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 16).

While Superior had a real radio station operating daily, just across St. Louis Bay the more-populous city of Duluth still had no station to call its own. The morning Duluth newspaper, the News-Tribune, complained that "Duluth is not represented in the broadcast field. . . almost alone among cities in the 100,000 class." (Tribune Deal, 1926). Unfortunately for any hopeful broadcast entrepreneur, there was a backlog of 335 license applicants in Washington (ibid.) and Congress was considering a plea from the broadcast industry for additional regulation, a plea that would result in the Radio Act of 1927 (Pember, 1996, pp. 514-515).

A plan was concocted between WEBC's owners and the Duluth papers to put Duluth programs on WEBC and to use telephone lines to connect with WCCO in the Twin Cities or even stations in New York (Tribune Deal, 1926). There were no commercials on WEBC yet and funding for the move was hard to find. In a eerily prescient paragraph, the News-Tribune called for listeners to support the effort, in a fashion rather like today's public broadcasting membership drives.

Those who will own and operate the station are willing to stand at least half the expense, but they plan to give radio fans an opportunity to share the burden. It will be necessary to get several hundred radio fans in Duluth, Superior, and nearby territory to subscribe, possibly $10 a year apiece, if these "hookups" are secured. . . . Surely any radio owner in this region would pay $10 a year to have the best New York and Minneapolis programs broadcast locally." (Ibid.)

In March of 1926, plans were announced for a move to Duluth without listener support. Bridges and Murphy realized that WEBC needed to increase its power and presence in both Twin Ports cities. The station formally applied for a license from American Telephone and Telegraph to use telephone lines to carry audio signals. This approval allowed broadcasts from various sites, such as area churches or the fairgrounds, and made it possible for WEBC to establish a studio in Duluth, which was planned to be ". . . in a first-class Hotel, possibly the Hotel Duluth." (Plans Afoot To Enlarge, 1926, p. 1).

Later in 1926 WEBC opened makeshift studios in a second-floor hotel room, not in the Hotel Duluth as hoped, but in the Spaulding Hotel instead, which was located in the Duluth's old Bowery district, at what is now the site of the Duluth Public Library. Fresh out of high school, 17-year-old Charles Persons met Leslie Ross of Ross Electric Company that summer in the WEBC Spaulding Hotel studio and was hired, but with no salary at first, requiring him to take another job to survive. It wasn't long before he received a salary and Charlie Persons would stay on for 28 years, most of them as chief engineer (Persons, 1996, Ch. 1 - p. 4). By 1926, the station had abandoned storage batteries and was powered by a huge direct current, or DC, generator as were ". . . all broadcast transmitters in those days. . ." (ibid. p. 12). The transmitter was run by Walter Bridges from the Telegram Building and the audio signal was delivered from the Duluth studios to the transmitter in Superior over an A T & T telephone line (ibid.). A pair of steel towers had been purchased from the Duplex Company of South Superior, a maker of windmill towers for farms (Elm, 1997), and were mounted on the Telegram Building roof with the station call letters showing proudly (Persons 1996, photo, Ch. 1 - p. 5).

On February first, 1927, a new 250-watt transmitter went into operation and reception cards were received from listeners in Chicago, New Bedford and Springfield, Massachusetts, and Clarkstown, West Virginia. WEBC had become a regional broadcast station of note. (Power Increase Puts WEBC On Par With Biggest Stations, 1927, p. 10).

As radio's growth continued, government regulation began catching up with the technological advances, but not quickly enough to suit many in the industry. The Radio Act of 1912 had required that all radio transmitters be federally licensed and all radio operators have a license as well (Pember, 1996 p. 513). Thus, Bridges, a licensed radio amateur (ARRL, 1924), knew that WEBC needed a license to begin operations in 1924. Then came the Radio Act of 1927, which attempted to sort out frequency conflicts and expanded efforts at licensing of stations and their personnel (Pember, 1996 p. 515). Persons writes that, while he held an amateur radio license at the time, he was not allowed to transmit until he acquired an engineer's license from the U.S. Commerce Department. This he did in 1928, by going to Chicago to take a three-hour test, answering a host of questions about wireless ship-to-shore equipment and proving he could send International Morse Code at 20 words per minute. "Nothing about radio broadcasting." (ibid. Ch. 2 - p. 5). Now designated as a Wireless Engineer, Persons could spell Bridges for transmitter duty.

WEBC's economic growth allowed Walter Bridges to push on to each new technological change that came along. The third floor of the Telegram Building was remodelled virtually every year to accommodate Bridges' desire for the most modern gear. Full-time broadcasting was authorized in 1929 (Receive Permission, 1929) and the power was increased again to 500 watts (Persons, 1995, Ch. 1 - p. 12). Not even the advent of the Great Depression could slow down WEBC. In fact, the Depression proved an ally of sorts, keeping others from taking the risk of beginning a competing radio station.

In 1930, a penthouse was built on the Telegram Building roof to house a more powerful 1000-watt transmitter that was built by Charles Persons. Persons points out that there were then no manufacturers of transmitting and studio equipment. It was all built locally from purchased parts until the World War Two era (1995, Ch.2 - p. 23). Described by Jorgenson as "well-designed" (p. 15a), the new transmitter featured such refinements as a water-cooled tube in the final amplifier and crystal-control of the frequency. WEBC's operating frequency had been shifted from 1240 to 1280 with the boost to 1 kilowatt (WEBC's Power Increased, 1930) but there likely was little impact on the listeners. Tuning-in at home was an imprecise thing in those days and tuning often required adjustments as receiver tubes aged. And, of course, WEBC was the lone station operating in the Twin Ports.

RCA had begun the National Broadcasting Company in 1926 (Lewis, 1991 p. 178). By 1928 when WEBC joined up (Silver Plaque, 1953), NBC had been split into the "Red" and "Blue" networks (Lewis, 1991 p. 181). On June 12, 1928, WEBC joined the NBC "Red" network, receiving the signal over telephone lines (Better Broadcasting Service, 1928). For the first time, the Duluth/Superior area was linked to the rest of the nation and even to world capitals (Superiorites To Hear London, 1928). WEBC's network affiliation was spurred by the arrival in the area of President Calvin Coolidge, who spent the summer of 1928 fishing on the Brule River some 30 miles to the east of Superior. He kept an office, today called the "Coolidge Room", in Superior Central High School, now a junior high. Prompted by Coolidge's presence, WEBC acquired the rights to the "Blue" network as well that summer (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9). Still alone on the dial, WEBC had access to both NBC networks and could pick and choose which offerings to air (Henton, 1997).

The Spaulding Hotel studio moved upstairs for more space, to a penthouse, in 1930. After taking the elevator to the 5th floor, staff and visitors walked up a flight of stairs to the roof and WEBC (Persons, 1996, Ch. 2 - p.15). In 1932, just eight years after going on the air, WEBC's transmitter needs had outgrown the Telegram Building. The station made a major facility change (Jorgenson, 1995, p. 17).

Works Cited

ARRL American Radio Relay League Inc. (1924, June 3). Photocopy of document listing Walter C. Bridges as Wisconsin District 5 Superintendent. WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Better Broadcasting Service (1928, June 13). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

Elm, R. (1997, February 5). Telephone interview.

Henton, E. (1997, February 25). Telephone interview on audio cassette.

Johnson, D. (1981, November). Twin Ports Broadcasting, 60 Years of Change in a Dynamic Industry. The Duluthian, Duluth MN, pp. 7-10.

Jorgenson, T. (1965). Mr. Bridges and His Broadcasting Stations. Unpublished memoir. WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Lewis, T. (1991). Empire Of The Air. NY: HarperCollins.

Marquis, A. (1986). Hopes and Ashes: the birth of modern times. NY.

Miller, J. (1997). Radio History Website.

Mishkind, B. (1994, August 27). Ye Olde Radio Station List 1.36. Computer software on disc.

Pember, D. (1996). Mass Media Law. Madison WI: Brown & Benchmark.

Persons, C. (1996). Where Have All The Broadcasters Gone. Brainerd MN: Lakes Printing.

Plans Afoot To Enlarge WEBC Radio Audience. (1926, March 9). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Power Increase Puts WEBC On Par With Biggest Stations. (1927, February 12). Evening Telegram, p. 10. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Radio Thrilled Natives In Early '20s. (1956, July 29). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

Receive Permission from Federal Radio Commission to Operate Full-time. (1929, November 2). Evening Telegram, p. 3. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Smith, M. (1997, April 3). Telephone interview.

Silver Plaque to WEBC Hails Quarter Century As NBC Affiliate. (1953, June 12). Evening Telegram, p. 13. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Superiorites To Hear London Thru WEBC. (1928, July 29). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Telegram Lets Contract For Station at Telegram Building. (1922, April 27). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Timeline. (1995, September 4). Brandweek. p. 8. Retrieved via EBSCOhost, item number 9510030313.

WEBC Is Among Major Broadcasters. (1929, March 30). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC's Power Increased by Federal Rule. (1930, April 30). Evening Telegram, p. 5. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC To Increase Radiation - In Two Big Towers. (1926, March 9). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Will Broadcast Radio Concerts. (1922, April 27). Evening Telegram, p. 3. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Zelezny, J. (1993). Communications Law. Belmont CA: Wadsworth.