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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, September 2, 2012

The Shuffle of American Shortwave Callsigns in 1939

The first weekend in the month of September 1939 was a tragically pivotal date for the entire human race upon planet Earth. During the 1920s and 1930s, Germany had staged a remarkable recovery from its disastrous defeat at the end of World War 1, and during the era of those double decades, several more of the scattered German speaking territories in Central Europe had been absorbed into the one Germanic nation, the Deutsches Reich, if you please.

German army personnel near the border area with Poland staged a radio ruse on Thursday, August 31, 1939 as a pretext for the invasion of Poland. The German radio broadcasting station located at Gleiwitz in Silesia was attacked and taken over, and this was followed by a brief broadcast in the Polish language. The transmission tower at this location was listed as the tallest wooden tower in Europe.

As a result of this incident, the entire German might poured into Polish territory. England and France declared war against Germany a few days later, and thus began the massive burst into open warfare now designated as World War 2.

During the years 1938 and 1939, it became increasingly obvious to political watchers everywhere that a coming conflict was unavoidable and several nations made some form of preparation for this ultimate eventuality. As in World War 1, the United States was drawn into the dreadful conflict of World War 2.

Beginning in the mid 1920s and through the 1930s, international radio broadcasting was developed in the United States, as well as in many other countries around the world. Many of these shortwave stations began their career on an experimental basis, and they then developed into regular radio broadcasting organizations.

Back on May 23, 1939, the FCC required that all experimental shortwave stations in the United States should adopt regularized callsigns, effective a little more than three months later, on September 1, 1939. Strangely, this date happened to coincide with that same crisis weekend that saw the rise of militaristic events in continental Europe.

Now at that time, there were 15 shortwave transmitters in the United States on the air with radio programming and these were operated by 8 different radio broadcasting organizations. Twelve of these shortwave transmitters were located close to the Atlantic coast, two were located in the Midwest, and just one on the West coast. Twelve of these transmitters were rated at moderate power, two with low power, and only one at the higher power of 100 kW.

All 15 of these shortwave transmitters were licensed under experimental callsigns, beginning with a W, followed by a number and then the letter X. According to the FCC mandate, each of these transmitters needed a new callsign, a regular four letter callsign, beginning with either W or K, depending on its location.

Even though the required date for the change was set at September 1, 1939, some stations made the change early, and some made the change late, though apparently some made the change on the right date according to the mandate. Interestingly, six of these transmitters were each given a new callsign at that time, and then a few days later another change took place and new callsigns were allotted.

The new callsign for the new 100 kW transmitter operated by General Electric at South Schenectady in New York state was initially WGEU, though a week later that was changed to WGEO. However, the two other shortwave transmitters at the same location, the 25 kW W2XAD and the 40 kW W2XAF, retained their initially allocated callsigns WGEA and WGEO.

The CBS station located at Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, W3XAU, was initially allocated the callsign WCAI, though this was changed to WCAB a few days later. However, their sister station, W2XE at Wayne, New Jersey retained its 1st new call, WCBX.

Then too, the Crosley station near Cincinnati, W8XAL, became WLWU, and a few days later this call was changed to WLWO, standing for WLW Overseas. The Florida station in Miami, W4XB, became WBKM at first, and this was soon changed to WDJM.

The twin shortwave transmitters operated by the Worldwide Broadcasting Foundation in Massachusetts, W1XAL in Boston and W1XAR in Scituate, initially became WSLA and WSLR, though two weeks later their next and permanent set of call letters became the more familiar WRUL and WRUW.

The twin RCA-NBC shortwave transmitters at Bound Brook, New Jersey with similar calls, W3XAL and W3XL became WRCA and WNBI.

The two Westinghouse stations with similar calls, the 40 kW W8XK in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the 10 kW W1XK near Boston, Massachusetts became WPIT and WBOS.

The only West Coast shortwave station, W6XBE, which was inaugurated on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay during the Golden Gate International Exposition early the same year 1939, adopted the callsign KGEI, whichidentified General Electric International.

The final call change referred to in our program today was for the quite low powered 1/2 kW W9XAA in Chicago, Illinois. This station was owned and operated by the Federation of Labor, though by the time of the callsign changes that the FCC required on September 1, 1939, the station was thought to be off the air. A new call was allocated to W9XAA, WCBI, but perhaps that call was never implemented on air, due to the fact that the transmitter was never again energized.

All of these things happened way back just 73 years ago.