By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
History has set the start date of “The Radio Era” at November 2, 1920— when Pittsburgh’s KDKA Radio went on the air with the world’s first commercial broadcast, announcing the returns in the Presidential election that pit Ohio Senator Warren Harding against Ohio Governor James Cox.
History books don’t usually mention that Buffalo was on the air that night, too.
The Buffalo Evening News had set up a special direct telephone line to the home of amateur radio operator Charles Klinck, who was teacher of electrical science at Technical High School and was able to fund his expensive radio hobby a member of one of Buffalo’s top meat packing families.
After months of experimentation, he invented and pioneered the use of equipment that would allow for the clear transmission of phonograph records over his wireless transmitter.
“Well boys, how did you like that?” said Klinck, quoted in the Buffalo Courier after playing Strauss’ The Blue Danube. “Now listen, and I’ll give you a little jazz.”
That was the sound, on a March night in 1920, in the attic at 38 West Parade Avenue, as America’s first disc jockey took to the airwaves. You pass over the historic spot where it happened when you drive the outbound Kensington as you pass the Science Museum.
Klinck received word from as far away as Long Island that people were listening to his broadcasts. By mid-September, he reported that he was getting music requests from folks all over the northeast.
He also reported that from the beginning, the folks at the big wireless station in Pittsburgh were among his “most interested listeners.” Months before that “first broadcast,” the Westinghouse engineers at KDKA were tuned into Buffalo. On that Election Night 1920, Klinck was on the air from 6pm-midnight, offering election results interspersed with recorded music. Not only was he Buffalo’s deejay, but also Buffalo’s first radio newsman.
That first commercially sponsored broadcast in Buffalo was described the next day in The News.
As soon as the returns came into the Evening News office, they were telephoned over a special wire to Mr. Klinck’s residence, where they were received by a member of the Evening News staff. From 6 o’clock until midnight, Mr. Klinck sat at his wireless telephone apparatus and sent out the encouraging Republican news. Not only were city and county returns flashed out over the wireless outfit, but also state and national figures.
During the evening, Mr. Klinck… received word from several wireless operators in the city, in Lancaster and surrounding towns that they were getting the returns by wireless with perfect satisfaction… During lulls between dispatches, the operators who were listening for the returns were entertained by musical selections from a Victrola in the Klinck home.
Listeners in Lancaster were amazed as the radio returns beat out the Western Union telegraph service by minutes. Pine Street druggist Harry Frost told The News that he enjoyed the “returns by wireless telephone” immensely. “We sat around very comfortably smoking cigars and commenting on the election, while every few minutes, Mr. Klinck’s voice would roar out the results as he received them.”
Both the technical aspects and the reaction to Buffalo’s Election Night 1920 broadcast have been better chronicled than the “more historic” program the same night from Pittsburgh. The main difference remains that the KDKA broadcast was made by the Westinghouse Corporation in an effort to promote and sell the radio tubes they were manufacturing, while Charles Klinck was an amateur operator without much interest in self-promotion.
When he died in 1978, his pioneering radio exploits went generally unremembered. The Courier-Express, for example, made no mention.
In the decades leading up to the radio era, many advances and discoveries that laid the ground work for radio happened in Buffalo.
In 1909, The Buffalo Evening News was a pioneer in wireless telegraphy, building one of the world’s first wireless telegraph transmitting operations, Station WBL, on the fifth floor of The News headquarters building at Main and Seneca Sts.
As early as 1924, a group of electrical engineers in Buffalo laid claim to having been the first to transmit and receive the human voice over radio waves in a series of experiments which took place at a Canisius High School laboratory in 1910.
John A. Curtin, later a professor at D’Youville College, reconfigured a primitive microphone to allow the voice to be transmitted and received over a wireless telegraph set.
When Curtin said “A E I O U” into the microphone and across the airwaves, he might have become the first person to have their voice broadcast over radio. His voice was certainly the first broadcast in Buffalo.
About 18 months after the area got its first taste of commercial broadcasting with those election results, hundreds of people around Buffalo and Western New York tuned in their wireless radio receivers to hear the first broadcast of Buffalo’s first commercial radio station, WWT, on Easter Sunday, 1922.
The station was the first in Buffalo to be licensed by the federal government, and broadcast regularly three times a week. “Every Wednesday and Friday night and on Sunday afternoons the apparatus will be used to send out programs of an entertaining or educational nature,” reported the Buffalo Express.
McCarthy Bros. & Ford company owned and operated the station from the third floor of its headquarters building across Mohawk Street from where the Hotel Statler was being built. From electric washers and sewing machines to wireless radio receivers, McCarthy Bros. & Ford was in the business of selling electrical appliances and luxury items.
In order to sell radios, they needed to provide something for Buffalonians to receive on those radio sets.
That first transmission came at 3 p.m. on April 15, 1922. Buffalo’s airwaves were christened with the sounds of “throwing a kiss across the ether,” which was picked up in a radius of about 50 miles around Buffalo.
The lip smack of Genevieve Abraham kicked things off, followed by Buffalo soprano Edna Zahn and the piano accompaniment of Ethyol McMullen. These were the first sounds on Buffalo radio in the commercial era.
Edward O. O’Dea, who was later known as “Radiodea” on several Buffalo stations, was a sales manager for McCarthy Bros. as well as WWT’s station manager and announcer for that first broadcast. Edward H. Striegel was the first engineer.
Easter prayers and songs were offered by Episcopal and Catholic clergy and choirs during that first Easter Sunday.
Buffalo Chamber of Commerce President Albert Kinsley spoke on that first broadcast about the wonder of it all.
“Had I ventured, only 200 years ago, to say anything of the kind might be done, especially in Salem colony, I probably would have been burned at the stake for witchcraft.
“We have become accustomed to modern miracles that they are accepted now as a matter of course.
“When ancients credited Jove with hurling thunderbolts, they may have had the nucleus of an idea, but certainly no conception that I the 20th century electric waves would be hurled ‘round the world to carry the voices of mankind to serve our purpose.
“No man today can venture to limit the possible uses of this energy and probably none has the imagination to forecast its future.
“No one can say with certainty that we shall not yet step on a magic carpet of our own and be whisked where we wish to be with incredible speed.”
Buffalo’s first radio broadcast wrapped up with “Webb’s novelty entertainers” sending the sounds of jazz through the city.
WWT was first, but wasn’t alone very long.
On May 21, 1922, WGR broadcast its first programs from studios on the third floor of the Federal Telegraph Company on Elmwood Avenue, from a building that was the long-time home of FWS, and more recently has been renovated as the Foundry Suites and banquet facility.
Buffalo’s first two radio stations, WWT and WGR, both signed on the air in an effort to sell more radios.
Having only been broadcasting for five weeks, WWT Station Manager O’Dea suspended broadcasting for the first week WGR was on the air, to help avoid interference in WGR’s signal, as had happened several times when WGR was running tests using the experimental call sign 8XAD.
Shortly after WGR signed on, WWT took a break from its schedule for the summer of 1922. The signal and the memory of Buffalo’s first station faded away, mostly forgotten, into history.
As early as 1925, the Buffalo Courier ran a story asking readers if they remembered “old WWT,” “from a time when broadcasting was young.”
The earliest histories of broadcasting say that WGR was “Buffalo’s first commercially viable radio station.” When GR-55 celebrated 50 years on the air in 1972, the “commercially viable” part was dropped and they called themselves “Buffalo’s First Radio Station.”
If WWT’s sign-on was met with a wholesome, “mom-and-pop” style fanfare, WGR’s sign-on came with a corporate marketing blitz.
“Next Sunday Buffalo will enter into the field of national radio broadcasting with the formal opening of one of the largest and most powerful broadcasting stations in the east, which may make Buffalo the ethereal center of this part of the country,” said the Courier.
WGR’s first week was billed as “Radio Week,” and each of Buffalo’s six daily newspapers were given their own evening to fill with programming. Monday was the Buffalo Courier; Tuesday, The Buffalo Evening News; Wednesday, the Buffalo Times; Thursday, the Buffalo Express; Friday, the Buffalo Commercial; and on Saturday, the Buffalo Enquirer.
The scheme assured a week’s worth of heavy promotion from the newspapers.
“(T)he Federal Telegraph & Telephone Company… has spent thousands of dollars to furnish Buffalo with a class of radio service which will be equal to that of stations which have been broadcasting since interest in radio began to assume such proportions,” reported the Courier.
L. R. Weller was the operator and announcer for WGR’s first broadcast. After prayers in Latin and then English from Rev. Michael J. Ahern, President of Canisius College, the first broadcast on WGR continued with addresses from Dr. Julian Park of UB and Rev. F. Hyatt Smith.
Buffalo Chamber of Commerce President Albert Kinsey was also among the first to step to the WGR microphone, and tell of Buffalo’s praises to radio listeners picking up the station in a 700-mile radius around Buffalo.
“He spoke of the great epoch of progress through which Buffalo is now passing and cited many instances of Buffalo’s material growth,” according to the Enquirer wrap-up of that first broadcast.
The station’s powerful signal was not only good for promoting Buffalo, but for promoting radio in Buffalo. Signals from amateurs and WWT were often weak and spotty and required expensive receivers to listen comfortably.
The $25 set available from the owners of WGR radio could easily pick up the station within a 30-mile radius of the city.
“This renders radio reception in homes of Buffalo and vicinity no longer and instrument of the well-to-do, but for almost anybody who cares to use it.”
Radio had become a much more affordable hobby, but it was by no means cheap. Charles Klinck’s set-up was valued at about $5000 in 1920, which is more than $60,000 in 2020 dollars. That makes the $25 receiver much more affordable by comparison, but that price tag approaches $400 in 2020 dollars.
One trendy way the wealthy took to listening to the radio was as a railroad passenger. The Lackawanna Railroad heavily advertised that passengers could listen to WGR on the Buffalo Limited and the New York Limited.
“These train concerts are probably the most difficult type of radio work yet attempted,” bragged a Lackawanna ad. Below, the train’s radio receiver.
WGR was a licensed as a Class B station, which authorized it to broadcast on reserved frequencies, without interference from other stations, at high power. That meant the station could be heard regularly within several hundred miles, but could also be heard on occasion as far away as Hawaii and England. The special license also barred WGR from playing “canned music,” meaning only live performances were heard on Buffalo radio during the earliest years of regular broadcasting in Buffalo.
Another seller of radio equipment, Howell Electric, started WEBR Radio in 1924. Herbert H. Howell’s shop and station were located at 54 Niagara Street.
“With two stations in Buffalo operating alternately,” reported The Enquirer, “it will be possible for the radio fans to hear programs anytime during the day.”
Engineer John F. Morrison built and operated the station, the range of which was much more limited than WGR. Even through there were surprise reports of the station being picked up in Syracuse during tests, the intention was to “more fully serve local interests” with its programs.
WEBR’s sign-on stunt involved station owner Howell broadcasting over the station with instructions meant for Leslie Irvin—the parachute pioneer, who was flying in a plane above downtown Buffalo with pilot E.M. Ronne.
When Howell “directed the airmen where to send their machine,” the Courier reported, “almost simultaneously with the word of instruction the plane flew right and left, up and down.”
The station also initiated “the Sunshine Radio Club,” which was meant for radio fans to make a donation to help buy radios “for hospitals, orphan asylums, invalids, cripples, or, perhaps, a man who made a great sacrifice for you and me on the fields of France.”
After six months on the air, the station doubled its power as it moved from Niagara and Franklin to the top floor of the Bramson Building, the home of Marine Trust Bank on Main Street.
The new 11th floor studios and more powerful signal meant another Buffalo station was among the small, but growing handful of large stations operating across the country.
After several test broadcasts, the station received a letter from a new “regular listener” 1,200 miles away in Norman, Oklahoma.
In Lockport, Norton Laboratories began operating WMAK Radio in 1922, with I.R. Lounsberry as the chief engineer and manager. Lounsberry’s name would be associated with Buffalo radio right through the rock ‘n’ roll era as President of WGR.
WMAK became associated with The Buffalo Evening News, after The News broadcast election results on the station shortly after it signed on.
The station became more and more Buffalo-centric in its broadcasting, and in 1925, studios were opened in Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel in association with the Buffalo Times newspaper.
Shortly after the studios opened, in October 1925, Associated Press telegraph operator Charles Wiest announced play-by-play action of the World Series in Pittsburgh under the direction of the Buffalo Times.
Wiest read the telegraph cables over the air moments after they happened on the diamond.
In 1926, WMAK’s place in history was secured when the station joined a “remote control broadcast chain” of stations across the northeast and Midwest in “an precedented demonstration” of “radiating a program” in nine cities simultaneously.
It was the world’s first network program, and the network that would grow from that first network broadcast was the Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS.
WSVS was another early Buffalo station, signing on in 1926. The studios were operated by the students of Seneca Vocational High School, and while many private high schools and colleges around the country received special licenses to broadcast, Buffalo’s Seneca High was the only public high school in the nation with a fully-licensed radio station.
When WSVS first signed on, many of its programs were on par with the commercial broadcasters of the day, with a heavy schedule of bands, orchestras, signing groups and soloists.
Through the years, WSVS’ broadcasts became more intermittent and more school-centered, as the station eventually shared the frequency of commercial broadcaster WBNY.
By the time WSVS surrendered its license in 1942, it had already been allotting near all of its broadcasting time to WBNY for years. Still, it was the last of the early educational stations to leave the airwaves, and the milestone was celebrated as the silencing of a pioneer in a national trade magazine.
Another selection in the long-forgotten alphabet soup of early Buffalo radio call letters is WPDQ. The station went on the air from the garage at 121 Norwood Avenue, owned by Nelson P. Baker (no relation to the Lackawanna priest.)
The station was on the air for one day—December 30, 1925—before the federal government suspended its license. The station eventually made it back on the air, broadcasting from the Varsity Theater on Bailey Avenue, until the station was sold and the call letters changed to WKEN and the studios moved to the corner of Delaware Avenue and Sheridan Drive.
WKEN also had regular broadcasting capabilities from Kenmore Presbyterian Church at Delaware and Hazeltine Avenues in Kenmore, and from the Great Lakes Theatre on Chippewa Street in Buffalo.
A federal rule change called barred some stations from being in residential areas, so the studio moved once again. This time literally.
The small building was wheeled up Sheridan Drive to the Niagara River, and then floated on a barge to Bush Road on Grand Island.
The callsign for WKEN was lost to history when The Buffalo Evening News bought the rights to its radio frequency and allowed the station to go dark, before signing back on as WBEN in September 1930.
From the moment WKBW first signed on, November 7, 1926, the evangelist owner Dr. Clinton Churchill said the randomly assigned call letters stood for “Well Known Bible Witness.”
Churchill came to understand the power of radio when his earlier broadcasts on WMAK and WEBR brought in bushel baskets filled with requests for more preaching, more music, and assumedly, a couple of dollars mixed in as well.
The preacher turned his Main Street Tabernacle building into a radio studio—it would later be the home of Channel 7.
“CT” inscribed on the studio seating for shows like Dialing for Dollars didn’t stand for “Commander Tom,” but for “Churchill Tabernacle.”
As radio became more popular and businessmen around the country began to realize ways of making broadcasting lucrative and profitable, to that end a handful of wealthy Buffalonians moved to bring together Buffalo’s radio stations under a single umbrella.
In 1929, a million-dollar corporation was formed by a group of Buffalo bankers and businessmen to create the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation— known informally as the BBC.
Linking WKBW, WGR, WMAK and WKEN promised “a vision of Buffalo as one of the country’s largest radio broadcasting centers.”
The directors of the new company included Marine Trust President George Rand, Western Savings President Charles Diebold, Jacob Schoellkopf, Irvine Kittinger, and Clinton Churchill.
“Nothing musical in Buffalo will be beyond the reach of the corporation,” said Churchill. “We will produce the very best in radio broadcasting, technically and artistically.
“We will maintain staff orchestras, bands, musicians and soloists, and we win immediately set about to eliminate the cheaper and undesirable types of programs.”
When the BBC was incorporated, it left WEBR as the lone independent station on Buffalo’s radio dial.
But not for long.
In 1927, WGR made world history by hosting the first international remote broadcast of its kind when the Peace Bridge was dedicated.
A “great network” of stations in the US and in Canada agreed to transmit the address simultaneously for the first worldwide broadcast ever attempted. It was heard from Britain to Australia.
The Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VIII, was the featured speaker in the program for the nearly 100,000 spectators who lined both sides of the Niagara River, which also featured Vice President Charles Dawes, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and New York Governor Al Smith.
Graham McNamee and Milton J. Cross, the top announcers for the National Broadcasting Company, were in Buffalo for the historic broadcast.
As a pioneering and early developing radio market, many of the talented people who helped shape the medium here in Buffalo through the 1920s moved on to fame and success outside of Western New York and became pioneers not just in Buffalo radio, but pioneers influencing the entire future of the medium.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
The full text of the book is now online.
The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York.
©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon