Chapter Three

1932-41 40th and Tower

In order to increase power beyond that offered by the one-kilowatt transmitter in the Telegram Building's penthouse, and as radiated by the pair of towers on the rooftop, WEBC needed a separate structure and room for a new tower. In 1932, a site was selected about two miles south of the Telegram Building on the west side of Tower Avenue at 40th Street, just to the north of the county fairgrounds. The new transmitter building was designed to resemble a residence with white clapboard siding. It still exists, though the tower was taken down in the '50s to facilitate expansion of Superior's airport (see chapter 5). "40th and Tower", as it came to be known (Elm, 1997), contained a 25-foot wide open transmitter room (ibid.), a complete studio for originating broadcasts (Jorgenson, 1939, p. 10), and an electronic shop where chief engineer Charles Persons once kept three men working full-time repairing existing gear and making new equipment from purchased parts (Persons interview 1997). Everything was on a grand scale. To be sure the meters on the transmitter could be read from across the expanse, Persons and Bridges installed units that were 9 inches in diameter (Elm, 1997).

Beginning in 1932 when the new equipment was in place, WEBC broadcast at 5000 watts during the day. The old one-kilowatt transmitter in the Telegram Building penthouse was retained for emergency use and would be tested occasionally. It was kept operational as long as the 40th and Tower plant remained, until the mid-'50s (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 15b).

Behind, or west of, the transmitter building stood WEBC's new free-standing tower (New WEBC Tower At 40th Street, 1932). Unlike most of today's broadcast towers, none of WEBC's towers used guy wires until the mid-1950's. The initial "40th and Tower" broadcast antenna started with a wooden trestle-style base 140 feet tall, topped by a 234-foot steel tower/antenna constructed by the American Bridge Company (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 19). The resulting 374-foot structure was visible from all over the Twin Ports, especially since warning lights were required as a protection for passing aviators (ibid. p. 18). Getting electrical power to the lights posed a problem because the radiating antenna was of a high impedance type and regular electrical wires would result in interference. For the first five years of operation, an AC motor running at "ground potential" was connected by an insulated coupling to an AC generator operating at the high potential of the antenna in order get electricity to the lights (ibid.). This innovative solution was, according to Jorgenson, written up as an outstanding example in a 1935 radio engineering handbook. In 1937, an improved system of lighting the tower was installed ibid.).

Equipment was being built at 40th and Tower for new stations that the company was beginning on Minnesota's Iron Range. WMFG was begun in 1935 in Hibbing and WHLB started in Virginia in 1936. All three radio stations were linked for some programming as The Arrowhead Network (Persons, 1996, Ch. 2 - pp. 19-22). Until the post-World War Two era, only microphones and parts were purchased. The engineers did their own wiring and frame-welding, and even drilled and tapped screw holes in consoles and equipment racks in the workshop (ibid.). Transmitters were being built by some electronic equipment makers such as Western Electric and General Electric, but they were too expensive for a smaller-market station, according to Jorgenson (1965, p. 21). Persons and Bridges travelled to other stations to get ideas (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - pp. 1-3) and also gave tours for engineers visiting from other operations, as WEBC's reputation for engineering innovation grew (Elm, 1997).

WEBC finally faced a local competitor in 1936 when Dalton A. LeMasurier began KDAL in Duluth at 610 kc. (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9). William S. Paley had begun the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928, then thought of as a low-brow or Everyman alternative to David Sarnoff's NBC (Lewis, 1991, pp. 183-184), but the programs CBS offered had been only available in the Twin Ports from distant stations. Beginning in 1937 with Major Bowes' Family, Duluth/Superior had CBS available on KDAL (KDAL Marks 35 Years, 1972). In an era when a person might walk several miles to save streetcar fare and then spend the savings watching a movie, radio was free once the set had been purchased. Escape, entertainment, and the occasional Fireside Chat by FDR made radio an indispensable part of life for many Americans (Lewis, 1991, p. 231).

WEBC, while running NBC shows such as Amos 'N Andy in the evenings, still originated a great deal of programming. Persons writes that ". . . along about then WEBC broadcast the Duluth Symphony Orchestra over the NBC network for an hour Saturday evenings." (Ch. 2 - p. 15). Local newscasts were 15-minute affairs, aired several times a day and featuring a standing announcer reading United Press copy (Henton, 1997) into a microphone on a floor stand (Persons, 1996, Ch. 2 - p. 11). While much programming originated from the Duluth studios, certain shows, such as recorded music or transcriptions, would be presented from 40th and Tower. Electrical Transcriptions, or ET's as they were called, were acetate disks 16-inches in diameter that were really phonograph records (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 5). ET's were often produced by outside companies in the 1930's but a decade later WEBC news and commercial producers would cut their own disks in the control room. Sponsor-produced ET's continued in use well into the magnetic tape era, chiefly for distribution of commercials for movies, soft drinks, and water softeners (R. Johnson, 1997). Even today the legacy of ET's continues in broadcast terminology when announcers speak of "cutting a spot."

In 1936 two technological developments caught Walter Bridges' eye: short wave and Frequency Modulation, FM (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - p. 8). In 1935, the year-old federal agency in charge of radio regulation, the Federal Communications Commission, allowed broadcast stations to re-broadcast their signal on the 10-meter short wave band. Bridges convinced his majority partner, Morgan Murphy, son of John T. Murphy, that WEBC needed to go short wave. Murphy told Charlie Persons to build a short wave transmitter in his shop (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - p. 8). The station applied for a construction permit which was granted January 14, 1936 for a short wave, or "Apex" (ibid.), station to be added to the WEBC building. Not long afterward, using a homemade 80-watt transmitter on a frequency of 26.1 megacycles, near today's citizens band, the short wave station began broadcasting (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, p. 6). Persons indicates that the transmitter was easy to design, given his amateur radio background (Ch. 4 - p. 8). The new station used an antenna hung atop an 80-foot telephone pole west of the building (Elm, 1997). W9XJL were the call letters, the X indicating experimental. The engineer at 40th and Tower would make a separate station break and identification every half hour that included an invitation for cards and letters (ibid.). They poured in, from former residents living in distant states and radio fans seeking to add another confirmed distant reception, or "DX", card to their walls. One letter was sent by engineers at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - p. 8). There was no commercial market for short wave, however, and after the novelty wore off W9XJL ceased operations in 1940. An authorization had been granted to hike the power to 250 watts but was never used (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, p. 6).

One of the innovators whom Bridges had visited was Edwin Howard Armstrong, the man who in the years after World War I had invented the regeneration or "super-heterodyne circuit" that is still in use, even in solid-state radio and TV receivers (Lewis, 1993, p. 71.) In the '30s, Armstrong was working on a whole new kind of radio transmission: FM. Bridges became a lifelong FM proponent (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 81) and convinced Morgan Murphy to join the FM bandwagon (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - pp. 1-2). In 1936, Charles Persons' 40th and Tower crew "breadboarded" a 100-watt FM transmitter and bought a receiver from Radio Engineering Labs in New York. The same year that WEBC entered the short wave band, 1936, W9XYH began experimental broadcasts on FM at 43.1 megacycles, in a region of the broadcast spectrum that had just been set aside for FM by the F.C.C. (ibid).

WEBC was still king of AM broadcasting in Duluth/Superior but KDAL's presence in Duluth after 1936 meant that WEBC had to look more like the top broadcaster. In late 1937, the Palladio Building at the northwest corner of 4th Avenue West and Superior Street, a block away from the Spaulding Hotel, was selected to be the new headquarters, what would be known for 30 years as The WEBC Building (WEBC's New Duluth Studio, 1938, p. 5). It was lavishly remodelled with the call letters above the door in sleek, stainless steel art deco style. The Duluth News Tribune reported that the 15-foot-tall ". . . lobby and vestibule have all the walls lined with polished Montana travertine. . ." (Grand Opening WEBC Building, 1938). At street level was a bistro called the Radio Grille (WEBC Formal Opening Of New Studios, 1938, p. 7). Upstairs on the second floor were a large Studio A, 26 by 40 feet and 14 feet high, a slightly smaller Studio B which was 26 by 15 with a 12-foot ceiling, an announcer's booth, a transcription room, and an ample Control Room centrally located to visually communicate with each studio.

Studio A was made big enough to hold a substantial studio orchestra and a grand piano (Elm, 1997). From the late '20s onward WEBC had broadcast live in-studio music from ensembles of as many as ten (WEBC Is Among, 1929). Now, with the new space, and just as was being done by radio stations across the nation, WEBC formed a true orchestra of 15--- up to 20 pieces--- and broadcast live music several times per week (Elm, 1997). A 1939 News-Tribune layout that featured the faces of the area's most popular personalities reveals the nature of some of the programming. Don McCall is described as WEBC's Man On The Street, the fellow who would take a microphone on a long cord out onto Superior Street to interview passers-by, accidental and intentional. Also pictured is "Man of many voices, Martin Olson, who dramatizes the Duluth News Tribune comics over WEBC every Sunday." (They Stand Behind Microphones, 1939).

The WEBC Building was also headquarters for the Arrowhead Network, that included the company's Iron Range stations, WMFG in Hibbing and WHLB in Virginia. They were CBS affiliates beginning in 1937, and the CBS network feed passed through the big WEBC control room for disbursement to the Iron Range. Jorgenson quotes from the Arrowhead Network Engineering Bulletin of November 15, 1937:

The CBS programs are fed to the Range through the WEBC control room . . . busy these days with NBC, CBS, WEBC programs, and an occasional special program for W9XJL.

Sometimes the Arrowhead Network had to be innovative in its methods. Charlie Persons recalls using what he called "cheaper postal telegraph lines" to get play-by-play football games to WEBC. Northwestern Bell refused to allow the game feed to be sent on to the Iron Range over Bell phone lines, so announcer Morrie Canlin would listen to the WEBC broadcast and repeat the action into a microphone that delivered the Arrowhead Network programming to WHLB and WMFG. The Range got a second-hand football game (Persons, 1997, p. 27). The cost of Class A telephone lines led the Arrowhead Network to use voice-only-quality Class C lines to the Range stations, even for music. To compensate for the poor fidelity, Persons built an amplifier that would over-emphasize the high and low frequencies. When it was activated the music leaked from the Arrowhead Network lines into many phone conversations, prompting a flurry of complaints to Northwestern Bell. After some negotiations with the Bell people, a deal was struck. If Persons would quit using the amplifier, Bell would provide a Class A line at Class C prices (Persons, 1997, pp. 27-28.)

Competition intensified with the emergence of a third Twin Ports radio station, WDSM, in 1939 (D. Johnson, 1981, p. 9). World War II put a halt to any other expansion of broadcasting at the Head of the Lakes. The three AM stations on the air in 1939--- KDAL, WDSM, and WEBC--- would stand unchallenged for a decade. While two other radio stations, WSBR and WREX, were launched in the immediate post-war era, they both failed (ibid.). There would not be a successful addition to the Duluth/Superior commercial radio scene for 20 years, when WQMN came on in 1959 (R. Johnson, 1997).

Technically, things kept moving at 40th and Tower. In 1940, an equipment purchase was made by WEBC that was unusual for Bridges and Persons at the time. It was a commercially-made radio transmitter, a General Electric 250-watt FM transmitter, serial number 1 (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 61). The antenna was placed 350 feet up on the WEBC tower and allowed a good coverage of both Duluth and Superior (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - p. 3). The Upper Midwest's first FM station began regular service, by rebroadcasting WEBC's programs in a demonstration of FM's greater fidelity and protection from lightning static and other interference. A few FM sets were sold by stores in the area (ibid.).

Another power increase for WEBC was sought, to 5000 watts around the clock, but because of conflicts with other stations at 1290 kc, a frequency shift to 1320 and a directional broadcasting pattern were necessary for full-time operation. The initial 5000-watt evening authorization occurred in January, 1941 (WEBC Given Power Boost, 1941, p. 1). To gain an increase to 5 kilowatts full-time and directional, a second tower, 340-feet tall, needed to be erected. A site was chosen to the south of the original tower, and a new tower was constructed, this time entirely of steel without a wooden base (Elm, 1997). The pattern went northward, which was desirable because of the potential listening population on Minnesota's Iron Range (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 19). The night-time power increase went into effect in October of 1941 and proved to have been perfectly timed (WEBC Increases Night Power, 1941, p. 16). In less than two months, the nation would be at war.

Works Cited

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

Elving, B. and Ebeling, J. (1982, November 1). WEBC Story: Pioneering FM. Radio World. VA: Falls Church. p. 6. Photocopy in WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Grand Opening WEBC Building. (1938, January 6). 2 Pages, with photos. Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

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.

Johnson, R. (1997). Personal recollection. Audio cassette.

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

KDAL Marks 35 Years With CBS. (1972, November 7). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

New WEBC Tower At 40th Street. (1932, August 18). Evening Telegram, p. 5. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Persons, C. (1997, February 5). Telephone interview.

Persons, C. (1997). A Broadcaster Remembers. Brainerd MN: Lakes Printing.

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

They Stand Behind Microphones. (1939, August 10). Full Page, with photos. Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

WEBC Formal Opening Of New Studios. (1938, June 21). Evening Telegram, p. 7. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC Given Power Boost. (1941, January 22). Evening Telegram, p. 16. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC Increases Night Power To 5000 Watts. (1941, October 14). Evening Telegram, p. 16. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

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

WEBC's New Duluth Studio. (1938, January 6). Full Page, with photos. Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.