If you were a shortwave listener in the 1960s, you probably had a "WPE" callsign. For many of us, getting that "Certificate of Registration" from Popular Electronics was as an important hobby milestone.
While those calls will always be associated with the magazine and its longtime shortwave editor, Hank Bennett, the origin of the program goes back to the 1950s and a fellow by the name of Joe P. Morris. Not much is known about Morris. He lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and at some point in the second half of the 1950s began offering DXers individual "WR0" callsigns (supposedly with FCC approval). There were no special requirements. According to an item in the June 1958 Popular Electronics shortwave column ("Short-Wave Report"), the applicant only had to be a U.S. resident and "have an active interest in DX'ing." Some listeners remember receiving a strip of paper with the callsign written in by hand while others received a printed certificate from Morris. There is some question, too, as to the cost for a Morris' "WR0" callsign. The PE news item stated the cost of was 20¢ but at least one listener thinks it was only 10¢. Regardless, even though the calls carried no special privileges, many DXers of the day got their start as a "WR0."
Apparently, having their own callsign appealed to radio listeners and by 1959, Morris realized he couldn't keep up with the number of applications he was receiving. Tom Kneitel, a writer for Popular Electronics, approached the magazine about sponsoring a program to replace Morris'. They agreed and in 1959, Popular Electronics began their own "Monitor Registration" program. The "WPE" callsign was born.
There was little in the way of an official announcement when the PE program began. A registration application, with some brief explanatory text, appeared in the April 1959 issue. The table of contents showed "Short-Wave Monitor Registration" under the "Amateur and SWL" category. It was a simple form and required only some basic information (name, address, equipment, etc.) along with a 10¢ processing fee.
The first "Short Wave Monitor" certificates were black and green and featured the signatures of Oliver Read (Editor) and Tom Kneitel (Director of Monitor Station Registration). Each certificate displayed a pre-printed 2-letter call in black ink, in alphabetical order from WPE1AA through WPEØZZ. The listener's name, city and state, and date of issue were typewritten on each certificate as they were issued.
In the months that immediately followed, PE proclaimed the program a huge success. In May 1959, 3,000 "WPE" callsigns had been issued. By the June issue it was 5,000 and in July--just one month later--it was over 10,000. In December, all applicants were required to provide a self-addressed stamped envelope to expedite application processing. The initial printing of certificates had been depleted and new registrants were now receiving 3-letter calls imprinted from a rubber-like hand stamp (although one recipient claims his call was written in by hand).
For the first few years of the program, it was rarely mentioned in the "Short-Wave Report" column edited by Hank Bennett. This suggested that the program was being handled separately by PE and that Bennett and his shortwave column had no involvement. However, that was about to change. The magazine staff was working extraordinary hours to satisfy the demand for "WPE" calls. In a 1991 interview, Hank Bennett recalled that the magazine's management was not happy with the costs associated with the long hours Kneitel and his staff devoted to processing applications. To prevent the magazine from abandoning the program, Bennett offered to take it over with assistance from his wife, Amelia. Applications sent to PE's New York address would be forwarded to Bennett in Cherry Hill, NJ for processing and mailing.
With the administrative change in place, the revamped callsign program was featured in Bennett's August 1961 column along with a photo of the new certificate design. Holders of older-styled certificates were encouraged to exchange them for new ones. Interestingly, the sample certificate displayed in the article shows the signatures of Oliver P. Ferrell (Editor) and Julian M. Sienkiewicz (Director of Monitor Station Registration). It is unclear whether Sienkiewicz, who was the magazine's Managing Editor, handled the program for a time between Kneitel and Bennett, or if the certificate was simply a prototype created during the program's transition. The certificates that have survived from this period show Bennett's signature alongside Ferrell's. (see "Postcript" below)
The magazine also introduced an awards program whereby listeners could submit totals for number of countries/stations/states verified. Recipients were given adhesive seals which they could affix to the bottom of their new WPE certificates.
The practice of listeners exchanging personalized QSL cards ("card swapping") also gained popularity through much of the 1960s. Listeners had their WPE calls printed on QSL cards (similar in appearance to ham cards) and would exchange these with other listeners. The Newark News Radio Club even had a monthly column devoted to this phase of the hobby.
Throughout the years that followed, the monitor application appeared periodically in the back pages of PE. A few of the requirements changed over time, including the price (up to 50¢ by 1965). A SASE was no longer needed but the applicant was now required to have verified at least 5 radio stations including one from outside U.S. borders.
As the end of the decade approached, PE's shortwave column was no longer the primary news source for serious radio listeners. The specialty radio clubs that started in the 1960s were growing and provided hobbyists with a faster exchange of DX news and information. In 1970, Popular Electronics decided it needed to expand its coverage of other areas of electronics. The change lead to the cancellation of several longtime columns, including the venerable shortwave column which Bennett had edited since May 1955 when it was called "Tuning the Short Wave Bands." The WPE Monitor Registration program was also canceled. Despite the loss of his PE column, Bennett continued to edit the monthly shortwave column of the Newark News Radio Club, a position he had held since 1949.
Bennett was convinced that providing callsigns to listeners was an important hobby service, and worked out on agreement with the magazine to continue the program. The "PE" portion of the call was dropped in favor of "DX," which Bennett felt was more appropriate for the listening hobby.
On September 1, 1970, the new "WDX" callsign program went into effect. Bennett offered several options: a listener could receive a brand new "WDX" call (the next one in alphabetical order) for 50¢, exchange their existing "WPE" call for the same "WDX" version for 25¢, or select a specific call (when available) for $2, including the desirable 2-letter calls which were remisncent of the very early days of the "WPE" program. Bennett even offered to replace lost or damaged "WPE" certificates for 50¢.
More than thirty years later, the WDX program is still in business. Inquiries can be sent by mail to: WDX Monitor Services, P.O. Box 9, Collingswood, NJ 08108.
An interesting website for former "WPE" call holders ("Where you a WPE?") can be found at http://www.qsl.net/wb1gfh/swl.html. A guestbook is available for visitors to reminisce about their former calls and the glory days of shortwave listening.
Tom Kneitel - (Hank) Bennett was never involved in the early era of the project, even though he had long been the SWL Editor. I was one of PE's authors and wrote the CB column . . . I brought the idea to PE and that's the main reason they assigned it to me . . . The WPE program was completely handled by me from my home. I worked alone, and did not have a staff. The small fee charged for registration was my entire payment. Because an SASE was required, the WPE Program was self-supporting. The only negligible cost to the magazine was for the printing of blank WPE certificates. PE never felt the WPE program had become too costly. My involvement with the WPE project ended only because I left PE in April of 1961, moving from New York to California to become Editor of Horizons Publications (CB/DX'ing Horizons Magazine). Under those circumstances, Ferrell and I agreed it would have been logistically inconvenient as well as inappropriate for me to continue handling the WPE project. I don't know for certain how WPE was handled in the period between my leaving and when Bennett took it over.
Dale Holloway - I thought you might be interested to know that my certificate was issued on 6-9-62 and has Ferrell's signature on the left and Sienkiewicz's (WPE2FY) on the right. Also, my WPE8ETW call sign was not stamped on the certificate, but was put on by hand. It appears I traced over it to highlight it more. Those were fun days. Thanks for helping me re-live those memories.
Joe (K1IKE WPE1EIT) - I enjoyed looking at your web page regarding the WPE certificates. I lost my certificate, but still have the piece of paper they sent me with instructions to fill out my own certificate. I can't tell when I received this form, as they did not specify a year on the form. I don't see this mentioned on your web page, it might be an interesting bit of information.