The earliest days of Buffalo broadcasting

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


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.

Charles Klinck, 1950

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. 

United Wireless Telegraph ran WBL from The Buffalo Evening News, 1909.

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.

The Canisius High School wireless set up, 1910

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.

Edna Zahn approaches the microphone at Buffalo’s WWT studios on West Mohawk Street on the station’s first day of broadcasting in 1922.

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.

McCarthy Bros. & Ford, the home of Buffalo’s first radio station, WWT.

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.

A look inside the WWT studios on the first day of broadcasting shows Ethyol McMullen, Edna Zahn and Edward O’Dea.

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.”

WGR’s first home was on the third floor of the still-standing home of The Federal Telephone & Telegraph Co. at 1738 Elmwood Avenue. The building to the left is now the home of The Buffalo Spree. A viaduct was created to remove the grade-level crossing of the New York Central Beltline railroad, which now stands at the left side of this photo.

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.

An ad for a program from WGR’s first week on the air in 1922. The station isn’t mentioned, but there was only one on the air in Buffalo at the time.

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.

WGR’s first studio, 1922.

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.

WGR’s first transmitting set, 1922.

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.

In May, 1923, WGR moved its broadcasting facilities from Elmwood Avenue near Hertel to become among the earliest tenants of Buffalo’s brand new Statler Hotel. These studios were on the hotel’s 18th floor. That space would later become the home of WBEN from 1930-1960.
Larco Radio set from The Larkin Store
The WGR staff getting ready to broadcast the 1924 Republican Convention: R.D.H. Nichols, operator; Milo Gurney, ad manager; Edward Stanko, operator; W.A. Rigg, studio manager; and T.A. Doddridge, operator.
Nichols, Doddridge, and Stanko in the WGR Statler Hotel control room, along with F.S. Martin, district manager for Federal Radio.

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 owner Herbert H. Howell at the station microphone, 1925

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.

Children visit WEBR’s Uncle Ben program, 1935. The boy furthest to the left is Gerhard Lang, nephew of the Lang Brewery owner, who was a regular junior announcer on the show after having told a bedtime story on the station’s first day of broadcasting. The large round object, draped in black bunting is the microphone, hidden to help relieve the anxiety of performers, unaccustomed to such devices.
The World Series was heard in Buffalo in 1925 over Station WMAK (as seen on the microphone), with Associated Press telegraph operator Charles Wiest reading each play as it came over the cable from Pittsburgh. This night, the Pirates beat the Senators in Game 2 by a 3-2 final.

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.

A pair of 60-foot radio towers stood atop Seneca Vocational High School until 1953.
Seneca Vocational students put on a radio drama over the WSVS airwaves, 1930s.

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.

Students at Seneca Vocational School learned the engineering and maintenance side of radio in classrooms as a part of the educational operation of WSVS.

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.)

Garage owner Nelson Baker, upper left, WPDQ co-owner Hiram Turner at the controls, Frank Miller in the WPDQ studio at the microphone, 1925.

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 which was the home of station WKEN was taken by barge from Tonawanda to Grand Island in 1928.

The small building was wheeled up Sheridan Drive to the Niagara River, and then floated on a barge to Bush Road on Grand Island.

WKEN broadcast nightly stock report information, sponsored by an investment house in the Ellicott Square Building, 1930.

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.”

Dr. Clinton Churchill, WKBW

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.”

The Churchill Tabernacle’s Great White Robed Chorus ready to perform from what would become, 30 years later, audience seating for WKBW-TV shows like Dialing for Dollars.
WKBW Radio’s first studio, 1926.

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.

S.S. Wallace, Master of Ceremonies and announcer for the BBC, early 1930s
Oklahoma Hank and his Western Entertainers, on broadcasting on WGR with a BBC microphone.
Station personnel from WGR and WMAK as published in a national radio almanac, 1927.
Prince Edward, Later King Edward VIII, dedicating the Peace Bridge in 1927.

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 New York Governor and then later as President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was no stranger to Buffalo and its microphones. Here, a speech by Gov. Roosevelt is being picked up by Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation microphones.

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

Setting the record straight- Radio’s birth in Buffalo

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


In history, definitives can be hard. Publicists are often most loose with noting something as “first” or “tallest” or “oldest,” because it sounds better than “one of the first,” one of the tallest,” or “one of the oldest.” A good publicist knows that even if you can’t be 100% sure of your claim– so long as no one is quick to challenge it, and so long as it gets repeated often enough, it becomes “fact.”

There were decades of advancements that lead up to the day that most historians agree was the birthdate of modern radio– November 2, 1920.

That’s when Experimental station 8XK in Pittsburgh–which would eventually become KDKA–broadcast the results of the Presidential Election in what is often heralded as “the start of the radio era.

But Pittsburgh was not alone on the radio dial that night. That same historic night, at the same exact time, election results broadcast by The Buffalo Evening News also came in loud and clear on wireless sets across Western New York.

Radio listeners in Buffalo and Pittsburgh had the same mind-blowing, history-making experience on what was a rainy evening in Western New York. People sat around their wireless sets in their living rooms, finding out in real time that Warren G. Harding had been elected President.

The newly born power of radio was equally evident in both cities, and the marvel and wonder surrounding this growing technology was exactly the same. In fact, it was all part of the same plan.

The American Radio Relay League, an amateur radio operator group still in business to this day, created a plan to “beat the regular wire service in getting the election returns to the public.”

“The plan is to have a good amateur transmitting station in each important city throughout the country send broadcast via radio the available data in his territory once every hour. This information will be picked up by thousands of radio amateurs who will arrange, through the local newspapers or in some other manner, to bulletin the returns for the general public in their respective territories.”

All this is described in a Pittsburgh Daily Post article, which goes on to say that Frank Conrad’s 8XK will take part in the effort for Pittsburgh area listeners.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 21, 1920

A Buffalo Evening News article announcing the broadcast of election returns for Western New York doesn’t mention the larger plan, but does offer more detail about the Buffalo plan.

Buffalo Evening News, October 28, 1920

So how is it that high school text books say Pittsburgh’s broadcast that night was “the historic first commercial broadcast” but the remarkably similar experience that listeners had in Western New York (and in other cities around the country) at the very same time goes unmentioned?

The simple answer is—the amateur operator in Pittsburgh, Frank Conrad, worked for Westinghouse Electric. Westinghouse had a lot riding on getting its radio equipment and vacuum tubes out on the market before David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America did.

Westinghouse saw gold in making sure that when people bought radios—they had something reliable to listen to. The company also saw an edge in being able to promote that they’d got a head start over RCA.

Westinghouse’s Pittsburgh station, the one that would eventually take the call letters KDKA, was first to broadcast in the battle between Westinghouse and RCA. That was the original claim. Even the Pittsburgh newspaper makes it clear that the station was one of many—tied for first, if we mark that day as the start of the modern era of radio.

As it often happens, Westinghouse’s heavy marketing very quickly dropped the “tied for first” notion, and over the last century, history has accepted the muddled marketing of a radio manufacturer as fact.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, nobody was bending the truth of radio’s birth to sell vacuum tubes. In fact, the historic events that took place that rainy night were mostly lost as history quietly turned the page. The high school electronics teacher who broadcast Buffalo’s first elections results didn’t work for a giant corporation.

In fact, after participating in the world’s first scheduled radio broadcast, Charles Klinck continued a normal life as an electronics teacher for the next four decades at various Buffalo high schools and then at Buffalo State Teachers College (Buff State) and Erie County Technical Institute (ECC). For Klinck, that night was about nothing more than using technology to get Western New Yorkers the news faster.

The point is, the listener experience was the same in Buffalo and in Pittsburgh. Thirty years later, teens who were choosing between WKBW and WNIA for their rock ‘n’ roll didn’t care that KB was in a million-dollar broadcast center and WNIA was (and is) in a ranch house in Cheektowaga. From its infancy, radio has been the theater of the mind.

Before the 1920s were out, Westinghouse and KDKA mounted bronze plaques and created marketing pieces calling their broadcast “the world’s first scheduled broadcast.” Buffalo’s participation that night was so utterly forgotten that the Courier-Express didn’t even mention any connection to radio when Klinck—Buffalo’s first broadcaster– died.

Eventually in Buffalo, marketing drummed up another radio “first” which, much like KDKA in Pittsburgh, has now been celebrated so long nobody seems to question it. May 22, 1922 is often marked as the anniversary date for the start of Buffalo radio.

That’s the date WGR signed on. WGR promoted its first broadcast as “the birth of Radio in Buffalo” when the station called itself “Buffalo’s First Licensed Broadcasting Station” during the station’s 25th anniversary year in 1947. By the mid-50s, that had been shortened to “Buffalo’s First Radio Station.”

First, let’s be clear. WGR did something Charles Klinck didn’t. WGR was a licensed commercial radio station, and the first successful radio station to survive– but it wasn’t the first.

But back in 1922, WGR was not claiming that their broadcast was the birth of Buffalo radio– because that would have sounded foolish to the people who’d been listening to Buffalo radio for years by then. Not only had folks listened to Klinck, but they also listened to another licensed station—WWT, which signed-on before WGR.

WWT had a host of technical problems and had nowhere near the support, staff, and finances that WGR had as an arm of the Federal Telephone and Telegraph Co.– but WWT, not WGR, was Buffalo’s first licensed station, for better or for worse.

Again, WWT disappeared when WGR signed on, and was mostly forgotten to history—to the point where nary an eyelash was batted when WGR “forgot” about the station 25 years later.

So the question remains…when should we mark the start of broadcasting in Buffalo?

It’s hard to say. Like most technological advances, the early days of radio were more about experimentation and evolution rather than definitive dots on a timeline.

To fix that, I don’t think we should erase dots—just add a few more and celebrate them all.

The research and writing presented in this book adds a few more dots on Buffalo’s broadcasting timeline, and reclaims some rich history that’s been long forgotten. It simply means more dates, stations, people and great moments in Buffalo broadcasting that are worthy of celebration.

Combined, they make for a full, rich history of a medium that has been a part of our lives—and reflective of our lives– in Buffalo for a century now.


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

Buffalo in the ’40s: When downtown Buffalo had a ‘flashcast’ news crawl

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The WGR-sponsored ribbon message board was installed just below the roof line of the Western Savings Bank in 1949. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1940s America, the frenzied commercialism, hot-burning bulbs and pulsating neon of Times Square ignited a sense of wonder and excitement over what an American city could be.

Buffalo had its share of the lights – Main Street near Chippewa was aglow with what was described as “Buffalo’s great white way,” and the greatest display of dazzling and flashing marquees and signs between New York and Chicago.

One lighting element Buffalo didn’t have – until 1949 – was a flashcast news sign.

A flashcast news sign was installed at Main and Court streets, sponsored by WGR.

WGR Radio was the sign’s sponsor, which meant in red neon, those call letters brightly bookended the revolving ribbon of news headlines at Main and Court streets from atop the Western Savings Bank building. Visible from the WGR studios across Lafayette Square in the Rand Building, the scroll was controlled from WGR’s newsroom.

A 1949 poster advertising the flashcast news sign.

While the sign was promoted as Times Square coming to Buffalo, the event to throw the switch on the sign, hosted by Mayor Bernard Dowd, was called a “Hollywood premiere-type event.”

A few months after the first messages started streaming across the lights, a News story talking about improvements being made downtown mentioned the sign. “Here is a group of men at Main and Court streets, looking up at the Flashcast. They’re squinting a little to read the moving electric words in the sunlight.”

By the time WGR Radio’s studios had moved to the building behind Channel 4 at 2065 Elmwood Ave. in 1959, the sign had gone dark. It had been completely removed by 1962 when construction was started on a new $4.5 million, 12-story Western Savings headquarters next door.

At the time of its demolition in 1964, the Western Savings Bank, which had been in operation for 92 years, was Buffalo’s oldest continuously used banking building.

In 1981, Western merged with longtime rival Buffalo Savings Bank, and eventually became Goldome Savings Bank.

Goldome grew too quickly and went under during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. In 1991, Goldome’s assets were split between KeyBank – which entered the Buffalo market after Empire of America succumbed to the S&L crisis – and another bank in 1989.

The flashcast news sign was removed from the Western Savings Bank building by 1962.

From Hamburg WKBW flips the switch on rock ‘n’ roll history

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Hamburg’s biggest contribution to the early history of rock ‘n’ roll might be more technical than musical, but it was from the 50,000 watts worth of radio waves flying out of Big Tree Rd. that Western New York and much of the east coast and Canada were introduced to the format.

The WKBW-WGR Transmitter facility on Big Tree Rd. as it looked when opened in July, 1941. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation opened its transmitter and tower facilities on Big Tree Rd. in July, 1941. The facility cost $350,000– $5.7 million in 2017 dollars—and was described as “truly a showplace of electric marvels.”


A technician adjusts the audio driver tubes of WKBW’s transmitter. 1941. (Buffalo Stories archives)

When the building first opened, a series of telephone lines carried programs from the Rand Building studios of WGR and WKBW to Hamburg for broadcast.

Live from the WGR/WKBW studios inside the Rand Building. (Buffalo Stories archives)

WKBW’s mainstays were the network programs of CBS with stars like Orson Welles, Hedda Hopper, Cecil B. DeMille, and Kate Smith. WGR carried Mutual Network shows like “The Lone Ranger” and talent like Milton Berle.

WGR/WKBW Sports reporter Ralph Hubbell at the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation microphone, and RCA 74-B. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The local talent included Billy Keaton, Ralph Hubbell, and WGR Orchestra leader David Cheskin. Before Howdy Doody came along, Bob Smith hosted “The Cheer Up Gang” every morning, and before spending 35 years on WBEN, Clinton Buehlman hosted “WGR Musical Clock.”

Clint Buehlman behind the Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation microphone of WGR. (Buffalo Stories archives)

After spending time at a few smaller stations, in the mid-1950s, George “Hound Dog” Lorenz took his rhythm and blues program featuring the music which would soon be known as rock ‘n’ roll to 50,000 watt WKBW Radio. The powerful signal allowed “The Hound” to introduce the evolving music genre to the entire northeastern United States.

Live from the streets of downtown Buffalo on WKBW, 1941. (Buffalo Stories archives)

WKBW would eventually be known as “one of America’s two great radio stations.” The voices of Stan Roberts, Tom Shannon, Irv Weinstein, Danny Neaverth, Joey Reynolds, Jack Armstrong, and so many others were sent out over the four and later six towers in our backyard.

The Buffalo Broadcasting Corporation newsroom of WGR & WKBW inside the Rand Building. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Today, WWKB Radio and WGR Radio still transmit from Big Tree Rd. Both stations are owned by Entercom Communiucations, which is in the middle of a $1.7 billion merger with CBS Radio.

This story originally appeared in The Hamburg Sun.

 

Memorable Christmas broadcasts with John Otto and The Sylvania Choraliers

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

We’re opening up the Buffalo Stories audio archive vault in search of Christmas memories today.

John Otto, “on the radio, on the telephone at long last.” Buffalo Stories archives

Up first are two selections from the John Otto collection. These recordings were found in Otto’s personal files. The first is a series of Christmas stories told by listeners during the Christmas season in 1986.

The stories are great, and of course, listening to John listen to the stories is great as well.

These all come from Otto’s short-lived Nightcall program on WWKB radio. He returned to WGR the following year.

The second Otto selection is a WGR Production from 1963. This radio play has John Otto as “Live in Bethlehem,” and covers the birth of Christ as if it were being covered by modern journalistic means. Featured are many voices of WGR in the early 60s.

Plenty more on John Otto from Buffalo Stories:

John Otto: Hold the Phone!

Niagara’s Talk Pioneer: John Michael, CKTB/St. Catharines & CJRN, Niagara Falls, Ontario

John Otto’s Love Rubs Off: The best ever never lost his fire and passion


Sylvania Choraliers, 1955, WBEN-TV

Another selection is a listener submission, audio as aired on WBEN-TV on December 24, 1955, featuring the Sylvania Choraliers.

Jonathan Kinney writes:

My grandfather, Edmund Koval, graduated Penn State as an Electrical Engineer, did a stint in the Navy at the end of WWII. My grandparents moved to The Town of Tonawanda from Franklinville in 1955 when they built their new house in the suburbs.

He got a job as an electrical engineer at Sylvania. The chorus rehearsed at the Wood & Brooks Building on Kenmore Ave near Ontario-had the big ivory tusks on it. (See that Riverside landmark here.) He was always very proud of this recording, and he’d play it for me as a child near the holiday season.

Here are a few selected highlights from the audio only recording from Channel 4:


Other sights and sounds of Buffalo Christmases past from Buffalo Stories:

Buffalo’s Christmases Past: Channel 4’s Santa Show

Stan Jasinski on WKBW, Christmas Day 1954

From the Archives: Sounds of St. John Kanty in 1967

More Buffalo Christmas memories from Buffalo Stories:

Christmas in Buffalo 1954: Department Stores

Buffalo in the ’80s: Holiday shopping at Hills

Buffalo in the ’80s: Smiling Ted’s Used Cars (and community service)

The soft-edged memories of AM&A’s Christmas Windows

Buffalo in the ’80s: Electronic games from Hengerer’s, Brand Names

What It Looked Like Wednesday: The yuletide beautification of Buffalo in the ’30s

Christmas Shopping in Buffalo 1910

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Christmastime at Sattler’s, 998 Broadway

Buffalo in the ’80s: (Ugly) Christmas sweaters at AM&A’s

Buffalo’s Christmases Past: A look back

Buffalo in the ’60s: Mom’s Christmas perfume at AM&A’s

Black Friday shopping in Buffalo…1968

Remembering WBEN-TV’s Visit With Santa (And Forgetful the Elf)

What it looked like Wednesday: The changing look in front of Channel 4, 1960 -2016

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When Don Paul retired as Buffalo’s pre-eminent weather authority last month, the folks at Channel 4 wished him luck on the message board in front of the station’s Elmwood Avenue studios. The high-definition display replaces a scrolling light sign which had been in place for at least 40 years.

Steve Cichon/Buffalo Stories photo

The station now known as WIVB-TV has called 2077 Elmwood Ave. home since 1960, and until 2000, the building also was home to WBEN Radio. The yellow buildings across Elmwood Avenue in this 1983 photo have long since been torn down, and replaced by Popeye’s and Napa Auto.

Buffalo Stories archives

In 1977, it wasn’t Don Paul, but another fabled Buffalo weatherman — Channel 2’s Kevin O’Connell — who was then Channel 4’s main weatherman, broadcasting live from underneath the sign as a blizzard descended upon the region.

Buffalo Stories archives

It was a simpler sign — almost bizarrely similar to next-door neighbor and competitor WGR’s sign in 1961. The tiny building that housed WGR’s radio studios for several years has been owned by Channel 4 for decades. It still stands directly across Elmwood from McDonald’s.

Buffalo News archives

Looking further down Elmwood, none of the buildings in view past the former WGR building are still standing. A paint store stood where the former Don Pablo’s/Advance Auto now stands. Off in the distance closer to Hertel, the water tower of the Kittinger Furniture factory is visible.

 

Buffalo in the ’70s: Frank Benny pulls off ‘most outstanding comeback’ of Buffalo broadcast history

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Forty-five years ago, Frank Benny’s story was called “the most outstanding comeback in the history of Buffalo broadcasting” by News critic Gary Deeb. Nearly half a century later, that record appears to be intact.

Frank Benny, 1971. (Buffalo News archives)

Benny was a constant on Buffalo radio dials for 25 years. His voice and style were smooth and sonorous. He quickly became Buffalo’s definitive warm, friendly announcer upon coming to WGR Radio in 1965. By 1968, he was a regular on Channel 2 as well, first on the sports desk, and then for nearly a decade as the station’s main weather anchor at 6 and 11.

By 1970, he was one of Buffalo’s most in-demand announcers. He told The News he was generally working on about four hours of sleep. His day started as WGR Radio’s morning man, then he hosted WGR-TV’s Bowling for Dollars and Payday Playhouse 4 o’clock movie, and he did the weather forecasts on Channel 2. He was the NBA Buffalo Braves’ first PA announcer in the 1970-71 season.

1968. (Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon collection)

In five years at WGR, he became one of Buffalo’s most popular media personalities. That was helpful in identifying him the day he robbed a bank on his way home from the radio station in June 1971.

Only minutes after the holdup of the Homestead Savings and Loan at the corner of Main and Chateau Terrace in Snyder netted $503 for a man wearing a stocking over his head and brandishing a (later-found toy) gun, Amherst Police were arresting Benny at gunpoint in the driveway of his Williamsville home.

The case was a local sensation. Management at WGR and at least three other stations ordered that the on-air staff not make any snide remarks or jokes at Benny’s expense. One notable exception was Channel 7, where the 6 p.m. “Eyewitness News Reel” featured the title card “Forecast: Cloudy” for the otherwise-straight Benny story. At 11, the title was changed to “Under the Weather.”

The disc jockey, TV weather man and father of two was charged with third-degree robbery and was tried in a non-jury trial. The prosecution rested when Benny’s attorney agreed to the facts of the case — that the announcer had indeed stuck up the bank — but that the he was innocent of the charges in the “poorly planned, ludicrous robbery” because he was temporarily insane.

Four psychiatrists testified that Benny was “not in sufficient possession of his faculties at the time of the holdup.” A Buffalo General psychiatrist who had examined Benny said that the temporary mental illness was caused by extreme and prolonged stress.

First, Benny was a central figure in a protracted labor strike at WGR AM-FM-TV. Eighty members of NABET, the union representing nearly all the operations personnel and announcers at WGR, spent nine months on strike. About 10 — including Benny — crossed picket lines to continue to work. Station management provided Benny an armed guard after rocks were thrown through the windows of his home and his family was threatened.

Benny’s family was also threatened the very morning of the robbery. He’d racked up thousands of dollars of gambling debts, and the bookmakers were calling in their markers — or else.

In October 1971, the judge found Benny not guilty by reason of mental disease, and he was ordered to spend two weeks at Buffalo State Hospital.

Then, in December, within six months of the robbery, Benny was back on WGR Radio and TV. Having been found not guilty, and “on a wave of public sympathy,” management thought it was the right thing to do.

“A lot of people have told me that it takes guts to do this, to go back on the air,” Benny told The News during his first week back at WGR. “But to me, it’s not a courageous thing. It’s a simple case of going back to what I know.”

That’s not to say that Benny wasn’t thankful.

“It’s hard to fathom that people can be that nice,” Benny told News critic Deeb. “It’s nice to know people can be forgiven.”

All told, Benny spent 19 years at WGR, walking away from the station in 1985. For a year and a half, he was the morning man at WYRK Radio, before finishing out the ’80s as a weekend staffer at WBEN.

Frank Benny at WGR in 1983 (Buffalo News archives)

No matter what his personal life sounded like, he always sounded like Frank Benny on the radio. After leaving WBEN Radio in 1989, Benny left for Florida, where he was on the radio for 16 years — until he died in 2005 at age 67.

John Otto: Hold the Phone!

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

 This page first appeared on staffannouncer.com in 2004, and was last updated May 21, 2014.

Weekly vintage John Otto airchecks from buffalostories.com
Weekly vintage John Otto airchecks from buffalostories.com

In celebration of John Otto’s 85th birthday, and mindful that it was 15 years ago this year that your congenial co-communicator signed off, we introduce several hours of John Otto recordings unheard since the day they were first broadcast in 1998.

It’s truly one of Buffalo’s greatest broadcasters at his finest: John Otto, broadcasting live from the Tralfamadore Cafe on the night he was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

John talks with and interviews dozens of our city’s finest broadcasters, and they pay tribute to him– on the radio, on the telephone, at long last.

And the more to come sign is up– As we draw nearer the 15th anniversary of our-operator-on’s last show, we will present dozens more recordings from the 1950s through 1999 in this space. We’ll get to that in as soon as it takes to tell it– in the meantime, enjoy that Hall of Fame day broadcast below, and hold the phone.

John Otto played many of his own sound effects on the show… You could often hear him fumbling for the right cart as someone asked to guess the voice, or Joann the Just would call– of course, the trumpet was necessary to announce her presence. Here are a few of the sound effects “Your operator on” would play– taken directly from the broadcast carts which he himself used on the show.

otto-cart-label

John spent most of five decades on Buffalo radio, and his show was introduced by various jingles and production elements through the years. Several of these were given to me by the late Ben Bass, who aside from sending 30 years as a disc jockey himself, was also an engineer on the Otto show in the 1970’s.

Finally, here are some clips of the man himself– These were saved at the radio station by many of John’s producers through the years, including Mike Maniscalco, Brad Riter, Greg Bauch, Ben Bass, and others. They are mostly short, entertaining John Otto clips on pop culture and bad callers– others are just a taste of how John sounded on the air. The last clip is 46 minutes worth of a show– enjoy!

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

The Knoxes, Rands and Diebolds — the big names in Buffalo banking

Thirty-five years ago this month, The News began celebrating the 100th anniversary of the paper’s starting a daily edition.

In the special section called One Hundred Years of Finance and Commerce, The News recounted the history of a handful of Buffalo’s financial and commercial industries, and provided ad space for many companies involved in those industries to tout their own contributions.

Buffalo’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families through most of the 20th century were in change of Buffalo’s banks. Each was known for its pop-culture contributions to Buffalo as well.

The grandfather of the founder of the Sabres, Seymour Knox Sr., was credited with building Marine (later Marine Midland) Bank into a modern giant. It was Seymour Knox II’s love of art and patronage that saved the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, know now, of course, as the Albright-Knox.

The Rand and Diebold families made their wealth in banking — but they were also well known in the broadcasting world.

It’s an old, probably apocryphal story that the call letters of Buffalo’s first successful commercial radio station — WGR — were selected in homage to George Rand, an early financier of the station. It’s more likely that the call letters were randomly assigned and the Rand reference was a happy coincidence.

The Diebolds were influential in early television in Buffalo, helping to bring the financial backing of Western Savings Bank to a handful of stations in the 1950s.

Buffalo in the 40s: Buffalo’s Manru Beer sponsors a daily joke on WGR

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Manru Beer was brewed by Fillmore Avenue’s Schreiber Brewing Company from 1899 to 1950, except during the Depression, when Manru Coffee was produced in its place and became rather popular.

Manru Beer was popular among Buffalonians of Polish extraction, because Anthony Schreiber was born Anthony Pisac in Poland. He changed his name to a German one to help him compete in the German-dominated brewing industry.

Seventy years ago tonight, listeners to WGR heard Merry Mac the Manru Man offer his daily chuckle at 11 p.m.

May 6, 1940