Friday, August 21, 2009

Haverford College Radio's Heyday in the 1920s

Photo of Radio Club from Haverford College yearbook "The Record of 1924"
Yearbook from Haverford College Special Collections

It would probably surprise most people to find out that college radio dates back to the 1920s. As Hugh Richard Slotten points out in his new book Radio's Hidden Voice, this early history of college radio has been largely undocumented, even though radio stations at universities, "...pioneered some of the earliest experiments with radio in the United States..." In fact, the 1920s were boom years for college radio, with at least 90 college radio stations in operation by January 1924, including WABQ at my alma mater Haverford College.

In this article (the first in a series about the history of radio at Haverford College), I'm going to share radio station WABQ's early history from the 1920s. Subsequent pieces will look at how radio at Haverford evolved decade by decade (transforming into WHAV, then WHRC) and will include stories from former DJs and staff members.

The Radio Club and WABQ at Haverford College 1920-1929

The 1920s were truly the heyday for radio at Haverford College, at the time a small, all-male Quaker College on Philadelphia's Main Line. Around 1920 a radio club began on campus and the first radio station, WABQ, was launched by students in 1923. Located on the third floor of Sharpless Hall at Haverford, WABQ began in grand style with the installation of a steel radio tower just before the beginning of the school year in fall 1923.

WABQ in the 1920s
Photo courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

Soon after WABQ was launched, they embarked on a series of ambitious projects that brought fame to both the station and the campus. On February 10, 1924 members of the Radio Club were conducting wireless experiments and succeeded in communicating by Morse code with students in London, Montreal, Maine, Nova Scotia, and Pittsburgh. According to an article in the New York Times this event was "understood to have been the first time that educational establishments in America and England have talked to one another by the means of wireless."

According to the 1924 Haverford College Record (aka yearbook),

"The Club is proud of its wireless equipment and the records it has hung up. To date the telegraph signals have been heard in England, Hawaii, Porto Rico [sic], Maine, Texas, California, and Washington."

The article goes on to document the Radio Club's foray into broadcasting and that fact that WABQ was getting more press than Haverford's sports teams:

"The Club secured a broadcasting license WABQ and the broadcast programs have been received from Maine to Michigan. Many entertainments have been transmitted which include speeches by members of the Faculty, music, (classical and dance), scores, etc. Hundreds of cards have been received from pleased radio fans attesting to the popularity of WABQ. Only the highest class programs in keeping with the ideals of Haverford have been sent out. WABQ is a good publicity agent. Altho funny as it may seem the Radio Club has had more space in the newspapers than all of the Haverford teams together."

WABQ in the 1920s
Photo courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

The most press coverage for WABQ happened when they began conducting chess matches by wireless using code. Initially these matches were with other colleges in the United States and eventually they spread to ambitious inter-continental games across the Atlantic Ocean. The 1924 Record described the Radio Club's "wireless chess match with the College of the City of New York," as the "first intercollegiate game." Additionally, the article points out that the Haverford Radio Club was an early member of the Intercollegiate Radio League (formed in 1924):

"This year an Intercollegiate Radio League was formed which included all the large universities and colleges. Haverford was one of the charter members. The League hopes to be useful to managers of the sports in arranging schedules and also to the college newspapers in reporting games, etc."

Chess Match at WABQ in the 1920s
Photo courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

As a testament to these accomplishments, the 1924 article concluded with the line: "The Haverford College Radio Club is helping to put Haverford on the map."

This is an amazing statement about the radio station's success in the 1920s. Unfortunately that level of acclaim was to be short-lived and the story of WABQ's accomplishments has not been documented. Every few years a Haverford College publication will reveal bits and pieces of the station's history, but the full story is largely unknown to people on and off campus.

WABQ in the 1920s
Photo courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

The 1925 Haverford College Record article on the Radio Club states, "...the Radio Club grew in membership and it is now one of the largest undergraduate organizations." It also mentions that the station aired concerts by campus musical groups and that these broadcast were heard as far away as 1500 miles from the college. Additionally, lectures and speeches were aired on the station.

Most famously, in December 1924 Haverford received a great deal of attention when it participated in the "first international chess match by amateur radio," with Oxford University according to the New York Times.

In these early years, WABQ worked with other colleges to conduct various radio experiments through the Intercollegiate Radio League. One such experiment happened in 1925 when they worked with students at Harvard University to test the effects of a solar eclipse on radio transmissions.

WABQ in the 1920s
Photo courtesy of
Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

Additionally, Haverford's early broadcasts that reached thousands of miles away functioned much like the Internet does today, allowing alumni to listen in to goings on at their college from afar. The 1925 Record article states,

"WABQ forms an invisible link between hundreds of alumni scattered throughout the East, and it is the goal of the club to have, within the near future, a station powerful enough to reach a thousand miles in every direction, spreading Haverford thoughts and ideals into many homes within hearing of WABQ."

By December 1925 plans were underway to increase the scope of the Haverford station. According to an article in Christian Science Monitor (12/28/1925),

"A 1000-watt transmitter, the most powerful college radio installation in the United States and second only to KDKA among the Pennsylvania stations is now nearing construction at Haverford...the station is hoping to establish a range in excess of three thousand miles."

The article also points out that Haverford College was a unique radio station at the time since it was created entirely by undergraduate students:

"WABQ stands unique among American radiocasting stations in that its design, construction, and operation in their entirety are carried on by undergraduates majoring in scientific work at Haverford."

1925 Haverford College Record
Courtesy Haverford College Alumni Relations and Annual Giving Departments

The piece also mentions that WABQ was planning future chess matches, including one with a college in New Zealand. An article in the New York Times adds that a chess match with University of Paris was scheduled to begin January 18, 1926.

In 1926 Haverford station WABQ is listed among the college stations cited as members of the College and University Association of Broadcasting Stations. The 1926 Haverford College Record again recounts the station's accomplishments, giving much credit to Williams S. Halstead for his work to both raise funds from alumni to build the original 50-watt station. The Record article states, "From this small beginning, gradual improvements were made, weekly programs were instituted and WABQ, the College call letters, became known over a wide range of territory as coming from the 'first college broadcasting station in the East.'" And, indeed, the power did get boosted with the help of the manager of the Ardmore Theater and the Record reported that the station was now at a "750-1000-watt capacity, thus giving it a power exceeded, in Pennsylvania, only by KDKA, in Pittsburg."

But (you knew this was coming).... by 1927, WABQ became a victim of its own success. A January 2, 1927 piece in the New York Times reported that WABQ was discontinuing its broadcasts. Although the Radio Club was successful in attracting more members (reportedly around 25 members compared with a handful in the early days) fame, and listeners; it also was being courted by commercial interests. They had a powerful transmitter and this was very appealing to commercial stations who were trying to gain a bigger slice of the radio dial.

This was apparently not uncommon at the time. In Radio's Hidden Voice, Hugh Richard Slotten argues that, " 1923 competition with commercial stations was inhibiting the establishment of university stations..." He also points out that "Commercial stations aggressively worked to convince colleges that private stations would provide all the airtime they needed free of charge."

The 1927 Haverford College Record states,

" December, 1926, an attractive offer was made to the club by the Keystone Broadcasting Company. Though loathe to part with the station, it was deemed advisable to sell it at the time mainly because the men who had built and operated the apparatus were to graduate in June, and the continuation of the broadcasting activities would be in doubt. Accordingly the station was sold and removed to its present location atop the Lorraine Hotel, in Philadelphia, where it has become one of the foremost commercial stations in the city."

Through this deal, WABQ was sold to WFAN (The Keystone Broadcasting Group). At the time many stations were forced to share frequencies on the radio dial and according to an article on Philadelphia Radio Archives, by 1928 WFAN was sharing the frequency of 610 kHz with WIP (which began broadcasting in 1922). Eventually WFAN was purchased by WIP in 1931 and it's now a CBS-owned station.

As articles in the Record and elsewhere point out, Haverford was allowed to continue broadcasting for once or twice a week from the new station WFAN and they also kept the radio towers that they had installed on campus atop Sharpless Hall. As one might have predicted, by 1928 radio was relegated to a list of "minor organizations" in the yearbook. The blurb states, "After the removal of the broadcasting station, WABQ, radio at Haverford suffered a decided relapse." However, students in the club continued to offer "code classes."

1929 Haverford College Record
Courtesy Haverford College Alumni Relations and Annual Giving Departments

A 1929 profile of Haverford student Frank Karr Briggs in the Record pointed out that he was working to get a radio station up and running again on campus. The article stated that he had [revived] "the dormant Radio Club" and was "running...a Haverford Hour, over one of Philadelphia's biggest broadcasting stations." An article about the Radio Club adds, "Several fine programs were sent on the air before the Club's use of the station was cut off by an unfortunate circumstance..."

Indeed the Haverford Radio Hour on WFAN in Philadelphia (as promised by the station when WABQ was sold to them) was short-lived. An article in the 1930 Haverford College Record stated that the show aired for one hour every week, but that "when the novelty died out, the broadcasting did also."

As we'll see in future posts, radio did continue at Haverford after WABQ was sold off, but it had its fair share of ups and downs depending upon the enthusiasm and technical skills of the students at the time.

Many thanks to Haverford College Communications Office Intern Heather Harden for her help in tracking down copies of vintage yearbooks for me and for her fantastic research assistance. Images from the Haverford College Record were provided by her and came from the collections of the Alumni Relations and Annual Giving Departments at Haverford College. Additionally, thanks to Diana Peterson from Haverford's Magill Library. She's the Special Collections maven and has been a great help to me in securing old WABQ, WHAV and WHRC materials and was responsible for bringing many of the old WABQ photographs to my attention.

Coming up next...Haverford College radio in the 1930s.

Related posts:

Ups and Downs of Haverford College Radio (April 2009)
Radio Station Field Trip 16 -Haverford's WHRC (May 2009 visit)


daniel john said...

I am really surprised see this, super analysis of the current and past scenarios of haverford college!

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks so much. I need to continue this series of articles, as the first-person accounts from the 1940s through present bring even more life to the story of radio at Haverford.

broadcasting schools said...

Appreciate the work and analysis!! Simply awesome!!