How I spent my National Radio Day

August 20 was National Radio Day, a day to celebrate the medium of radio. Stations, especially non-commercial full-power and low-power community radio stations were encouraged to raise the awareness of the day in their air and I definitely agree, radio needs a day. Others were posting their call sign resumes to Facebook to demonstrate their contributions to the media over the years. Myself, I don't have a huge call sign resume like many others as I had focused mainly on the regulatory policy and allocations side of the house. With my love for radio ID jingles, old time radio and old technology, the history of broadcast stations from a regulatory perspective has always interested me.

In addition to doing some work on a 1980s vintage broadcast console that I recently rescued from the scrap pile, I did a few queries from data that I had been entering from the past three weeks. This data was a part of the REC Radio History Project that digitized all of the broadcast related information from the Radio Service Bulletins that were published first by the Bureau of Navigation and then eventually by the Federal Radio Commission from 1920 to 1932. A part of that project also involved "linking" up these heritage facilities with their modern day records. There were nearly 1800 broadcast stations that were established during that era and of those, about 600 would "graduate" from the June 30, 1932 Radio Service Bulletin listings. Further research would show that nearly 400 would make it to the late 1990s where they would be assigned a facility identifier that would be used for the new (at the time) CDBS broadcast database system at the FCC. Of those nearly 400 stations, 200 of them are still using a call sign that was originally issued to them prior to June, 1932.

Call signs are the primary identity of a radio station, even if that radio station uses a "slogan" or "moniker" on the air. It's those 3 or 4 letters that are spoken (sometimes very very fast) at or near the top of the hour. In previous generations, those call letters may have been more prominent than they are today but no matter who you look at it, those call letters are a bond to the city. It's no different than a bank constructing a building on Main Street back in the 1920s and even though over the years, the owner of that building has changed hands and perhaps it has been redesigned and updated on the inside, it still looks the same as it did in its glory days of the 1920s and 1930s. It has a bond with the community and that's how it is recognized and remembered. I see something similar in radio. Sure, while broadcast station's tower(s) are visible and could be considered historic, the most visible aspect of a station's existence and history of service to the public is their call letters. Those call letters have survived your generation, your parent's, grandparent's and for some of you, your great-grandparent's generation. To me, those call letters have the same historical significance as that old hypothetical First National Bank building on Main Street erected in 1926. There is a time when we as the general public, those who the FCC has been charged by Congress to serve, must assure that certain aspects of our nation's history are maintained and not destroyed by an owner who puts their own greed over tradition.

Look at how Infinity destroyed WMAQ by changing the call letters to WSCR for an all-sports format. They could have called the station "The Score" but kept the calls WMAQ. Same thing with WHN in New York that was destroyed by Emmis to start the whole "sports-radio" concept by changing the station to WHN. In all fairness in the latter case, Marcus Loew changed the call letters of WHN to WMGM in 1948 to promote his theatres but with the sale of the station to Storer, the calls reverted back to WHN in 1962. This also brings up the process of how a radio station that once had a three-letter call can get it back. The wording of the rules do not allow for a 3-letter call to be reassigned.

Many years ago, the owners of AM 930 in Los Angeles, once the legendary KHJ who were using the call letters KKHJ at the time had petitioned the FCC to obtain the call letters KHJ for the station citing the fact that the station was Spanish and the Spanish pronunciation of the letters "K-K" was an obscenity. KHJ was successful in that case. I have identified about 80 broadcast stations that either former 3-letter call signs or had 4-letter call signs that would not be allowed today (mainly "W" call signs west of the Mississippi).

As an individual (not under the banner of REC Networks), I filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC that would do two things:

  • First, it would add a historical preservation status to the 200 AM stations that are still using a call sign that was held by that facility prior to June 1, 1932. The station would not be permitted to change their call sign. The call sign is preserved for the facility for generations to come.
  • Second, it would give a codified process for AM stations that lost their three-letter call sign to a previous owner to obtain their old call sign if it is still available. The proposed rule would specifically allow a station to take back their former 3-letter call or a 4-letter "W" call sign west of the Mississippi that was used by that station prior to June 1, 1932. Of course, the call sign would have to be available and if it is in use, they can not take it away from the station that is currently using it.

I am not sure if the FCC will act on it but I wanted to get it on the record that there is a desire to freeze the remaining 200 AM call signs as virtual historical monuments and that preserving history should be a function of the FCC. Even if there is never a rule, I will continue to ask owners to respect their station's history and honor the pioneers that put those stations on the map. Shortly after their acquisition of KHJ, I had indirectly advised IHR Educational Broadcasting about the history of KHJ and that early publications used the slogan "Kindness, Happiness and Joy" to describe the station. I am delighted that this Catholic radio network would keep the legacy of KHJ alive. We will never be able to bring back Boss Radio, but we can assure that the legacy of KHJ lives on, even if it is just on paper, in a database and quietly spoken at the top of the hour on 930 kHz.

You can read my Petition for Rulemaking at this link. Once there is an RM number, you can comment. I do feel this is a very reasonable request.

I hope everyone had a great National Radio Day. Now, let's get prepared for 2017!