Cincinnati's Pioneering Radio Days

August 20, 2018 4 Comments

WLW  tower

Photo: Joanna Poe

When most people think of radio and Cincinnati together, the first thing that comes to mind is a fictitious station made famous by a legendary TV sitcom. However, long before Andy Travis showed up at WKRP and changed the station’s format to rock & roll, Cincinnati was making contributions to the radio industry going back to the early 1920s. It all started with Powel Crosley.

“His son wanted a radio set and they were very expensive,” WVXU Media Correspondent John Kiesewetter told The Cincy Shirts Podcast,  “and he said, ‘no we can make one cheaper than that.’ So he made an inexpensive radio set for under ten dollars and soon he became the Henry Ford of radio sets.” Crosley was already a successful manufacturer of automobile parts and was starting to expand into home appliances. After helping his son build that first radio set, he became enthralled with the medium and began making them in his factories.

“He was making radios and needed content,” Kiesewetter explained, “so he started a station out of his home in College Hill.” This was similar to the approach taken by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh who founded radio station KDKA in 1920. Just 2 years later, in 1922, Crosley’s WLW was on the air. However, it wasn’t the first station in the city. That honor goes to WMH which was operated by the Precision Manufacturing Company of Walnut Hills starting in 1921.

WMH went off the air in 1923, while WLW went on to become “the nation’s station.” In 1928, Crosley acquired WSAI which was started in 1923 by U.S. Playing Card. That same year, WLW was given permission to broadcast at 50,000 watts, allowing it to reach most of the U.S. and Canada, east of the Rockies. Around this time, Coseley bought the Reds and the team's games were broadcast over WLW where they remain to this day.

As his radio empire grew, Crosley sought to expand even further and in 1934 WLW was given a special five-year license that would allow it to transmit at an unheard of 500,000 watts. “They had this big party at the Netherland hotel downtown,” Kiesewetter explained, “and FDR flipped a switch in the White House.” Crosley made an announcement in Italian hoping Guglielmo Marconi, credited as the inventor of radio, would hear it in Europe. There’s no indication he did though.  

The station’s increased power caused several interesting issues. “There was a farm across the street,” said Kiesewetter, “and the woman living there said the oven rack in her oven would vibrate, and people nearby could hear the station through wire farm fences, and downspouts. A motel down the road had a neon sign that never stopped glowing, even when it was switched off.” In 1939, the experiment ended.

A few years later, just prior to the start of World War II, Crosley engineers consulted with the U.S. government on a project that involved expanding the Voice of America (VOA) radio service. Aimed at audiences overseas, particularly Europe, the VOA broadcast primarily over shortwave.

Working with Crosley’s team, the VOA chose a plot of land in Union Township (now West Chester) down the road from WLW’s tower in Mason. Sitting on a high plateau, the soil beneath was determined to be perfect to carry signals called ground waves. Also, the flat, rural landscape contained no significant structures to interfere with the radio signals or skywaves. Named the Bethany station, after the local phone exchange, it began transmitting in 1944 and would do so until 1994.

VOA's Bethany Station. Photo: Nyttend

There were never any studios at the Bethany Station, only a massive antenna farm with 24 towers. Most of the land is now a park with some space devoted to a few shopping centers and a hospital.

WLW continued to grow after World War II of course, but just as television started taking off, Crosley got out of broadcasting to focus on his lifelong passion, building cars. He continued to own the Reds until his death in 1961.

Crosley and WLW weren’t the only radio pioneers in Cincinnati. WKRQ, founded in 1947 as WCTS, one of the first FM stations in the area, is still considered one the nation’s key top-40 stations, and WEBN, which went on the air in 1967, has gone on to become one of the most important rock & roll radio stations in America. In 1985, WOXY in Oxford switched formats, becoming only the fifth commercial alternative rock radio station.

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