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WLW-Cincinnati at Milepost 90.

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  • LouRugani
    Ninety years ago, WLW began a regular broadcast programming schedule of news, lectures, information and music. A large ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer on March
    Message 1 of 1 , May 24, 2012
      Ninety years ago, WLW began a "regular broadcast programming schedule of news, lectures, information and music."

      A large ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer on March 22, 1922, announced the debut of the Crosley station on March 23. The premiere came 15 minutes late, at 7:30 p.m. instead of 7:15 p.m. The first words heard were: "This is WLW, Cincinnati, Ohio."

      The premiere was a "soft launch." The federal government on March 2 had issued commercial broadcast license #312 authorizing the call letters WLW, but the station had been operating for several months as experimental station 8XAA. Radio historian Mike Martini says WLW was the nation's 62nd commercial station, third in the area behind Hamilton's WRK (57th) and Cincinnati's WMH (29th), "but the only one of those three to celebrate a tenth birthday." So WLW wasn't the First One, but in terms of Cincinnati history, it truly was and is The Big One, and it's amazing how resilient WLW has been over 90 years. It's still #1 in Cincinnati ratings.

      Here's why Powel Crosley's flagship has always been The Big One:

      –In the 1930s became the first and only station broadcasting on 500,000 watts (10 times the biggest station today);

      –Helped form the Mutual Radio network with a young sportscaster named Red Barber;

      –Once fed more than two dozen shows to the NBC Radio Network, including the weekly "Crosley Square" variety show with bandleader Burt Farber: "Come spend an evening at Crosley Square! Friendly people will meet you there!"

      –Helped boost the careers of sportscasters Cris Collinsworth and Bob Trumpy; comedians Red Skelton and Grandpa Jones ("Hee Haw"); singers Doris Day, Andy Williams, Rosemary Clooney; actor Eddie Albert; writers Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone") and Earl Hamner Jr. ("The Waltons); musicians Chet Atkins and Fats Waller; and dozens of others.

      –Provided the foundation for WLWT-TV, city's first TV station in 1948 and NBC's first TV network affiliate;

      –Pioneered color TV sports telecasts for NBC and General Electric with Channel 5's Reds games;

      –And as part of Jacor/Clear Channel remained on the forefront of innovation with satellite radio simulcasts, radio group contesting, and national syndication.

      Still, no one has nominated WLW-AM's unique diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox tower on Tylersville Road for the National Registry of Historic Places, which was done last year for the similar diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox tower for Nashville's iconic WSM-AM.

      Some favorite moments in WLW history:

      1921: Play it again! Powel Crosley Jr. repeatedly played a "Song of India'" phonograph record over his experimental 20-watt station at his College Hill home, and asked anyone who heard it to mail him a postcard. He heard from people as far away as Troy, Ohio. (And you thought playing the same song, over and over again, was a 1970s rock and roll radio stunt.)

      1934: When WLW hired Red Barber in 1934, the Florida sportscaster had never seen a Major League Baseball game. So WLW also sent announcer Peter Grant to Crosley Field for the Cincinnati Reds' 1934 Opening Day. "Just before the game started, Peter Grant…. came in and sat in the back of the booth," Red Barber said in 1992. "About the fourth or fifth inning, Grant left. And so that told me I was doing all right."

      1934: Before it was "The Big One,'" WLW was the biggest one. On May 2, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a button in the White House to turn on WLW's 500,000-watt transmitter on Tylersville Road near Mason. For five years, WLW was the world's only half-million-watt broadcaster, earning the nickname ""The Nation's Station." At a Netherland Plaza gala that night, Mr. Crosley received congratulatory telegrams from President Roosevelt; CBS President William S. Paley; Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J.; and Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication. The Enquirer reported: "Mr. Crosley replied to the Marconi message in a special broadcast in Italian, which it was hoped could be heard in Rome, Italy, where the inventor of wireless was listening to the program." There is no evidence Marconi heard it. The FCC terminated the "super power" in 1939.

      1938: Comedian Red Skelton, who would become one of TV's biggest stars in 1960s, raised the ire of President Roosevelt's staff in 1938. When Red broadcast his "Avalon Time" show from WLW-AM, Mr. Grant would mimic FDR's voice reading Avalon Cigarette commercials.
      "The White House called and said, `You've got to stop this announcer!' He sounded just like Roosevelt,"' Mr. Skelton said in 1992.

      Andy Williams and his three brothers came to WLW in 1941, after Chicago's WLS-AM canceled their radio show. They sang on the 15-minute show "Time to Shine," sponsored by Griffin (shoe) Polish at 8 a.m. before going to school. Fifty years later, Andy sang the opening theme song for WVXU-FM's "Cincinnati Radio: The Nation's Station (1921-41)" documentary: "It's time to shine! So shine your shoes, and you'll wear a smile. Shine your shoes, and you'll be in style. The Sun shines East, and the Sun shines West … Griffin Polish shines the best!"

      1957: Baseball fans lost the right to elect All-Star teams after 1957, thanks in part to Ruth Lyons. On her top-rated "50-50 Club," simulcast by WLW and WLWT-TV, Lyons urged Cincinnati fans to stuff the ballot box for Reds that year. The Cincinnati Times-Star, WKRC and Reds announcer Waite Hoyt also hyped the All-Star voting. Area residents cast more than 500,000 votes, electing seven Reds as starters. Commissioner Ford Frick intervened, replacing Gus Bell, Wally Post and George Crowe with Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Fans didn't vote for All-Stars again until 1970.

      1966: A silly jingle to Ruth Lyons' listeners was serious business to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC mandated that a station ID be broadcast at the top of each hour … which posed a problem for the 90-minute noon "50-50 Club" simulcast on WLW and sister TV stations in Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Indianapolis (where little David Letterman watched with his mother). So at 1 p.m., Ms. Lyons' band sang: "This is WLW, the Nation's Station! Channel 2 in Dayton … Channel 4, Columbus … 13 is the station over in Indianapolis, Indiana … And the whole thing originates live… On Channel 5…. In Cincinnati, O-hi-o!"

      1974: The late Reds radio announcer Joe Nuxhall loved to tell about his first spring training with Marty Brennaman, then just 31, hired to replace announcer Al Michaels (1971-73), who would later go on to ABC and NBC Monday Night Football. On Brennaman's first spring training broadcast from the Reds' Al Lang Field complex in Tampa, Brennaman welcomed WLW listeners to "Al Michaels Field." Joe never let Marty forget that.

      1976: Before hosting the CBS "Morning Show," or reporting for NBC, Harry Smith spent the winter of 1975-76 as WLW overnight personality. The former Denver DJ remembers appearing on the noon "Bob Braun Show," and sitting next to Johnny Bench after the Reds' 1975 World Series victory. At 24, he realized he'd never make a great DJ at WLW, so he opened the phone lines and started talking to listeners. After four months, he returned to Denver, where injecting more talk into his radio show led to a public TV talk show, a TV news anchor job, and an offer from CBS News.

      1983: By 1983, the once powerful "Nation's Station" was losing money when Randy Michaels and a group from rival Taft Broadcasting in Cincinnati bought the fourth-place station. Michaels fired long-time DJ Jim LaBarbara, cut back on music and started the "Midday" talk show. Before he handed over the time slot to Mike McConnell, Michaels once devoted a show to this topic: ""Who Would You Like To Kill? How Would You Do It? What Would You Do With The Body?"

      1986: Proof of WLW's powerful signal came again in 1986, when overnight DJ Dale "The Truckin' Bozo" Sommers helped catch a robbery suspect in Georgia. Sommers was chatting off the air with a regular caller, known only as the "Mississippi Lady," from a 24-hour convenience store in Camilla, Ga., when he heard her tell someone, "You can't come back here." The woman quickly hung up the phone. Sommers called Camilla police, who were familiar with his "Bozo Show" and a store clerk known as the "Mississippi Lady." Within minutes, an officer apprehended the robber, who immediately confessed. After Dale Sommers retired, his son Steve took over the show.

      1996: Cincinnati was buzzing about Jim Scott in early 1996, after the 12-year morning man abruptly quit WLW. Soon a rival station launched a ""Where's Jim Scott?" campaign. On Feb. 12, Scott started at WWNK-FM (94.1), then owned by Citicasters, the former Taft Broadcasting. Mayor Roxanne Qualls appeared on his show to declare ""Jim Scott Day." It was quite a memorable day. It ended with WLW's owners, Jacor Communications, buying rival Citicasters for $775 million… and in 18 months, Scott was back hosting mornings on WLW.

      2000: When the country was crazed about possible "Y2K" computer crashes in late 1999, someone at WLW had a great idea: Why not fire up the 1927 Western Electric transmitter in the building under the Tylersville Road tower on New Year's Eve? Explained chief engineer Paul Jellison: "If anything wouldn't be effected by Y2K, it would be the Western Electric." So WLW entered the 21st Century on old reliable Western Electric transmitter #105, which means it was the fifth transmitter of its type built by Western Electric.
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