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The Birth of Radio and the Theater of the Mind

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Stage plays, motion pictures, and later, television, left little to the imagination. Directors, scenic designers and actors showed their audiences what they wanted them to see. But radio allowed listeners to plumb their imaginations, to create the scenes, the actor’s appearance and the world they inhabited in the theater of their own minds.

Amateur radio operators began “broadcasting” around 1910. Their “audience” was a scattered group of fellow enthusiasts who huddled around crystal sets, headsets clamped firmly to their ears. It was not until the fall of 1920 when station KDKA in Pittsburgh signed on that modern, licensed commercial radio began. Within two years there were 596 radio stations on the air.

However, it was not until November 13, 1926 that Terre Haute got it first radio station. Not surprisingly, it was established by engineering students at Rose Polytechnic Institute. The students built the station using equipment donated by local businesses. The first broadcast featured the score of Rose’s homecoming football game followed later by the sounds of the band entertaining the homecoming dance. Broadcast on the 27.5 meter band, the signal reached throughout the Wabash Valley and into southern Illinois.

The students announced the station would then go on “standby” while they sought a broadcast license from the government. They hoped to have the station designated as WRPI, Rose Polytechnic Institute, Terre Haute, Banks of the Wabash. As part of the licensing agreement the government would set the broadcast hours of the station and its designated bandwidth.

The standby lasted longer than expected. The license for WRPI was not granted until April 1927.

As usual, start-up money did not last long. The sponsors of the station, local businessmen, announced that it would be funded by selling advertising. They proposed charging companies $25.00 per hour (established stations charged up to $150.00 per hour) to advertise their products and provide entertainment programming, usually music groups of all sorts.

One of the most popular programs was the Saturday night broadcasts from the Trianon Ballroom on East Wabash Avenue. On August 1927 a “cabaret” featuring “Cyrella Tuite, a singer and dancer and George Riddle, a cellist and accordion player,” both from Indianapolis, was broadcast. Football games, barbershop quartets and hillbilly bands were also part of the offerings.

Such programs were not enough. Two months later the station had to cease operations for a period and feared it would close forever unless more financial support was forthcoming. It seemed that station operations only continued because two businessmen, Carl Stahl and Harry Musick, were keeping it afloat with their financial support.

It was feared WRPI would lose its license unless it resumed broadcasting. As a result, the Chamber of Commerce and Terre Haute Merchants Association led an effort to sell stock in the station. It was pointed out that the station could be a very important asset to the city and businesses. In those days before the government limited signal strength, it was confirmed WRPI was clearly heard as far away as California, Florida and Canada.

After some initial success selling stock, interest in the project faltered. Once again, the station’s future looked bleak. The station began broadcasting again in January 1928, its future still uncertain. Business interests took control of the effort to make the station permanent. The funding effort basically took the station away from Rose Poly. The studio was relocated to the Pickett Service Company downtown.

On March 31, 1928 the station was re-named WBOW (standing for Banks of the Wabash.). Radio was now a permanent part of Terre Haute.

(Note: I am often asked why station call letters begin with W or K. After WWI the government set up four categories for radio stations. Letters A and N were reserved for military use, while W and K were designated for commercial radio. K was arbitrarily assigned to stations west of the Mississippi River and W for those east of the river. Stations in the east whose call letter already began with K, like KDKA, were grandfathered in so they could retail their original call sign.)

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