Chapter Four

Network Heyday, World War II-1954

Prior to December 7, 1941, WEBC had produced several programs about the role played in national defense by Minnesota's Iron Range (Story Of Ore, 1941) and the Twin Ports' ore docks (Will Describe Loading, 1941). Once the war was underway, WEBC would make a big fuss over ship launches from the local shipyards, even to the point of network hookups, coast to coast. Bond drives brought network radio and movie stars to the Twin Ports and WEBC would often get an interview with the celebrities (Henton, 1997).

Only two months before Pearl Harbor the station had switched frequency and invested in a new tower to increase transmitting power (WEBC Increases, 1941, p. 16). That move proved to be perfectly-timed. During the war all radio stations were asked to cut back their power by ten percent (Persons, 1996, Ch. 5 - p. 3). Thanks to the recent increase, WEBC had power to spare. KDAL, for example, would not get to 5000 watts until 2 years after the war (KDAL Now 5000 Watts, 1947); WDSM, not until 1950 (Elm, 1997). WEBC stayed preeminent.

Replacement parts were hard to get during the war years. Persons recalls having to, as he put it, ". . . virtually swear on oath that a transmitter tube was being ordered as replacement. . ." to keep WEBC on the air and not for standby inventory (Persons, 1996, Ch. 5 - p. 3). With so many men away fighting during the war, personnel was a problem for all businesses but especially so at 40th and Tower. While there were plenty of "Rosie the Riveter" women at the local shipyards, there were no women functioning as licensed transmitter engineers at WEBC. Charlie Persons enlisted as a Signal Corps Major and was stationed at the Pentagon (ibid, pp. 3-4). Those engineers who did stay at home were in demand. Roger Elm was deferred from active duty as a farmer and, since he was both capable and available, was employed as a radio engineer throughout the war (Elm, 1997).

The public, while diverted by network radio's entertainment, was still very interested in the war news. WEBC maintained a news effort throughout the war, delivering live reports from the scene of newsworthy events using local telephone lines, or covering the story with reports that were recorded on 16-inch acetate ET discs. In-studio interviews were frequently recorded in the same fashion, sometimes for delayed broadcast as a whole, but on other occasions the interview would be edited into what are now called "sound bites". In those days, such sound bites were longer, consisting of major segments of interviews. The beginning and end points of the segment would be selected by the reporter and an engineer would transcribe the edited portion to still another ET disc for airplay (Henton, 1997).

Whole programs were recorded in advance, or delayed to suit programming schedules, by means of ET's. Roger Elm recalls recording Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians on acetate every evening, for a delayed broadcast the following morning (1997). The practice was widespread. The question of whether the audience was being misled by ET delays prompted regulatory action. An FCC rule was imposed requiring a Mechanical Reproduction Announcement, or MRA, be broadcast to indicate that a program was not live (R. Johnson, 1997).

After the war, WEBC's newsroom received a machine that used a method of recording sound that used magnetic signals induced onto a thin metal wire. WEBC's reporters would sometimes use a wire recorder but the fidelity was poor and, in storage, the signal migrated within the spool of wire from loop to loop. The next improvement in magnetic recording involved an iron oxide emulsion on a plastic tape backing. It was, of course, magnetic tape and right after World War Two WEBC bought a new Magnecord tape machine (Henton, 1997). Editing the new tape was relatively easy, done by physically cutting and splicing sections of the tape itself, as was done with motion picture film.

In 1943, FM station W9XYH ceased being experimental and was assigned the call letters, WDUL(FM). As part of the new license, the frequency changed slightly, from 43.1 to 44.5 mc, in June of 1944 (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, WDUL Changes Frequency, p. 7). This meant that the few FM fans had to re-tune their receivers slightly to find it but this probably did not pose a problem since WDUL(FM) was alone on the dial. A far larger blow was to hit FM listeners. In just a few months, they would have to throw away their exisitng FM radios.

David Sarnoff of NBC was a bitter opponent of Edwin Armstrong, inventor of FM broadcasting and, as General Sarnoff of the Signal Corps, was able to successfully argue that the region of the broadcast spectrum designated for FM frequencies needed to be changed to avoid sunspot interference (Lewis, 1991, p. 303) and on January 13, 1945 the FM band was moved from the 42 to 50 mc area to the present band which ranges from 88 to 108 mc--- or as we say today mHz (ibid., p. 306). Television would thereafter be placed in the old FM band. All existing stations had to change frequency and all existing FM radios were rendered obsolete (ibid.). Late that same year, on December 18, 1945, WDUL(FM) dutifully moved to 92.3 mc in the newly re-designated FM band and started over in the uphill battle to attract listeners (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, WDUL Changes Frequency, p. 7).

Despite the setbacks FM continued to be a passion for both Walter Bridges and Morgan Murphy, who recognized it as a far superior method of transmission. Both men had summer cabins 30 to 50 miles away and were famous for inviting friends to listen to static-free WDUL(FM), and later WEBC-FM, during thunderstorms (Henton, 1997). The high fidelity transmission could also be utilized as an alternative to expensive telephone lines to link the stations of the Arrowhead Network.

At 250 watts WDUL(FM) was too low-powered to carry all the way to the Iron Range and thus another power boost and facility change were needed. In 1947, WEBC-FM was born from WDUL(FM) (WEBC-FM Special Section, 1947). Operating at 65,000 watts on a 550-foot-tall self-supporting tower, WEBC-FM broadcast classical music in the daytime hours and then duplicated WEBC's network programming in the evening (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, WDUL Changes, p. 15) a practice authorized by the FCC in 1945 (Lewis, 1991, p. 304) and later to become known as simulcasting. The tower and a spacious transmitter building were built on the top of the Duluth granite hills (WEBC-FM Special Section, 1947), the first to rise from that area since the Navy had dismantled the NUX wireless tower after World War I. The tower and building still exist. Though the top hundred feet of the WEBC-FM tower has since been taken down, it is the larger of two-self-supporting towers in the Duluth antenna farm area, above 6th Avenue West. (Elm, 1997).

In an effort to expose more potential listeners to the advantages of FM radio, WEBC-FM and the Duluth-Superior Transit Company made an arrangement in 1948 whereby FM radios would be placed in the city's buses. Tod Jorgenson worked out a scheme to adjust the volume up or down to match the sound of the bus motors (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - p. 5). When a bus pulled away from the curb, the engine raced and the radio volume was adjusted upward automatically. Far from a success, transit broadcasting met with public resistance. Certain bus riders objected to being a "captive audience" (ibid.) and the experiment folded after a year (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, A Pioneer, p. 15). Between July of '49 and May of '50, WEBC-FM limped along simulcasting WEBC from 3 until 10:30 p.m. It was also put on for ten minutes each weekday morning for the Stott Briquettes Weather Roundup, using two Wisconsin FM stations, WEAU-FM in Eau Claire and WJMC-FM in Rice Lake (ibid.). Finally, after 15 years of losing money, Murphy gave the order to turn off WEBC-FM (Persons, 1996, Ch. 4 - p. 5). The FM experiment ended May 13, 1950 (Elving and Ebeling, 1982, A Pioneer, p. 15).

The FM tower stood unused for only three years, until Duluth's first television station, WFTV, on UHF channel 38, went on the air in 1953 using the WEBC-FM Building and tower. There was even shared office space in the WEBC Building downtown for the newcomers (ibid., p. 6). After two VHF stations, channels 3 and 6, burst on the scene in March of 1954, WFTV could not compete and went dark. The Northwestern Bell telephone company bought the tower and the now-truncated tower is still maintained for telecommunications. The unneeded top was taken down and shipped to Thief River Falls, Minnesota where it stands, unsupported, as the tower for KTRF (Kero, 1997).

Under anti-trust rules, NBC was forced to divest itself of the Blue Network and it became ABC, the American Broadcasting Company, in 1945 (Lewis, 1991, p. 302). Thereafter, WEBC was exclusively a Red--- or as it was called more simply from then on, NBC--- network affiliate, staying with the NBC network for over 25 years in all (Silver Plaque to WEBC, 1953). Ironically, the station would hook up with the old Blue network again, as ABC, in 1964 and WEBC remains an ABC station today.

Beginning in the 1930's, Superior civic leaders had been interested in building a mid-city airport, taking advantage of the huge tract of undeveloped land between the main portion of the city and the neighborhood known as South Superior. Understandably, WEBC's towers would pose a hazard to aircraft and the city fathers encouraged the station to relocate Equally understandably, Murphy wanted the government to pay for the move (Persons, Ch. 2 - p. 22). Not until the Eisenhower era, however, did funding become available to both construct the airport and move the radio station. In 1954 the move was made to a swampy area 3 miles east of Superior in the township of Parkland along county highway Z (Pioneer Bows Out, 1954). It was to be the last change of transmitter site in WEBC's history. More than forty years later, it still operates from the site.

In the thirty years that WEBC had been broadcasting, the station had operated in the upper-middle of the AM dial at frequencies between 1240 and 1320 kc. The technology of the early days was unable to properly use lower frequencies (Jorgenson, 1965, p. 22). By 1954, the lower end of the AM dial was desirable, since every watt of power was more efficiently used there. WEBC applied for permission to jump down to the bottom of the dial on 560 kc. Because WIND in Chicago was on that frequency (560 Frequency Map), WEBC would need a more complex directional system involving three towers supported by guy wires, with the customary buried grid of wires and array of radials in the moist ground. When built, the installation was state of the art with a sophisticated Collins switching system and, as usual for Bridges and Murphy, a showplace of a transmitter building (Elm, 1997). It featured a fully-equipped studio for originating broadcasts on site, a workshop, and a kitchenette with range and refrigerator. In the event an engineer would be stranded in a snowstorm, there was a cot stored there. Engineers from other stations and radio buffs who passed the very visible tower array on nearby U.S. Highway 2/53 would occasionally stop by for an impromptu tour (Meys, 1997). Somebody was on hand to greet them too. There was always an engineer on duty, required by FCC rule (Elm, 1997).

In 1954, as the station began its fifth decade of existence, it was about to undergo the most drastic change in programming to date. Like a lot of radio stations of the time, WEBC had to react to a new medium that was stealing audience and programs from the evening network radio lineups: television.

Works Cited

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

Elving, B. and Ebeling, J. (1982, November 15). WDUL Changes Frequency. Radio World. VA: Falls Church. pp. 7, 15. Photocopy in WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Elving, B. and Ebeling, J. (1982, December 1). A Pioneer Leaves The Air. Radio World. VA: Falls Church. Photocopy in WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

560 Frequency Map. (not dated). Found in the WEBC basement engineering shop, 1995. It shows all stations in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico using 560 kilocycles.

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

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

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

KDAL Now 5000 Watts. (1947, August 7). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

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

Meys, W. (1997, February 13). Interview on audio cassette.

Pioneer Bows Out. (1954, October 22). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

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

Story of Ore Will Go On Radio Today. (1941, October 18). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.

WDUL First FM Station To Broadcast Regularly. (1945, September 8). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC-FM Pipes Music Into Buses. (1948, July 14). Evening Telegram, p. 1. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC-FM Special Section. (1947, undated). WEBC Archive Box, Area Research Center, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

WEBC Increases Night Power To 5000 Watts. (1941, October 15). Evening Telegram, p. 16. Microfilm, Superior Public Library, Superior WI.

Will Describe Loading of Ore at Docks. (1941, June 10). Duluth News-Tribune. Duluth Broadcasting clipping file, Duluth Public Library, Duluth MN.