Long-time listener here, but I’m the first to admit to some gaps in my knowledge of radio history. Oh, sure, I knew that US radio and TV call letters begin with “W” for stations east of the Mississippi and “K” for stations west of the Mississippi*, and that Canadian stations’ call signs begin with “C.” I recognized many call letters as representing the networks that owned or operated them: KABC, WCBS, KPBS. I knew that the call signs of many public-radio stations include the initials of the colleges and universities that house their studios: KFJC (Foothill Junior College), KCSM (College of San Mateo), KPCC (Pasadena City College), WBUR (Boston University Radio). And I appreciated the Bay Area references in many local stations’ call letters: KABL, KFOG, KOIT (for Coit Tower, one of the city’s quirkier landmarks).
I also knew one call sign whose initials stood for a phrase: Chicago’s WGN, for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” aka the Chicago Tribune. But it wasn’t until I started watching Ken Burns’s excellent eight-episode Country Music on PBS (that’s Public Broadcasting System, in case you didn’t already know) that I learned how many other early call signals—though randomly assigned—took on extra character as initialisms for slogans and phrases used as commercial gimmicks or mnemonics.
Undated ad for WSM, which began broadcasting from Nashville on October 5, 1925.
WSB, which began broadcasting on March 17, 1922, from Atlanta, was assigned its call letters randomly, but in advertising would claim that the letters stood for “Welcome South, Brother.”
KFKB was also issued randomly to a station in Milford, Kansas, that began broadcasting in September 1923. The story told about the call letters: “Kansas First, Kansas Best.”
WLS, “World’s Largest Store.” That would be Sears, Roebuck, which sold radios through its mail-order catalog and launched a radio station in 1924 to promote them. Its first broadcasts, from the company’s Chicago headquarters, were under the call letters WES, for “World’s Economy Store”; a few days later, on April 12, it switched to WLS. The station transferred owners many times and is still operating as an NBC affiliate.
WSM, the home of The Grand Ole Opry—the world’s longest-running radio program (since 1932)—was founded by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, whose slogan was “We Shield Millions.” (It’s unclear whether the slogan was developed to fit the call letters, or whether strings were pulled to obtain a fitting station name.) It’s now a 50,000-watt clear-channel station.
When I tweeted about my discoveries, I received a couple of additional entries: WGH in Newport, Virginia (“World’s Greatest Harbor”) and WSBC in Chicago (“World Storage Battery Company”). (Thanks to The_Dickinson and MBShoshani, respectively.)
Call letters like WSBC that serve as initialisms for a corporate owner that isn’t a broadcast network are more common than you might think, although not always transparent. In Minneapolis, WCCO originally stood for Washburn Crosby Milling Company. KAND, in Corsicana, Texas, stood for Wolf Brand Canned Chili Company. (The company had wanted WOLF, but those east-west regulations prohibited it.) Los Angeles’s KMPC stood for McMillan Petroleum Company. And in Bakersfield, KPMC represented the Pioneer Mercantile Company.
KFWB in Los Angeles, the AM radio soundtrack of my youth, has gone through many format changes but kept the same call letters since it went on the air in 1925. Because it was originally owned by the Warner Brothers of movie fame, the call letters were sometimes backronymed to “K-Four Warner Brothers” or “Keep Filming Warner Brothers.” The true story is more mundane: The letters had been sequentially assigned between KFWA (Ogden, Utah) and KFWC (San Bernardino, California).
When I moved to the Bay Area I sometimes listened to KFRC, which lasted from 1924 to 2005. According to a Wikipedia entry, the callsign letters
did not stand for “Francisco” or “Frisco,” nor did they stand for “Known For Radio Clearness,” though this was the slogan used when the station first signed on with 50 watts of power. Broadcasts had been heard over a much larger area than had been anticipated. Other slogans KFRC used in its early days were “Keep Forever Radiating Cheer,” “Keep Freely Radiating Cheer,” and “Far Reaching Channel.”
Religious call-sign backronyms abound in our super-religioso land. There’s KJAK in Lubbock, Texas (“Keeping Jesus As King”), KJIR in Hannibal, Missouri (“King Jesus Is Returning”), KJIL in Meade, Kansas (“King Jesus Is Lord”), KJLY in Blue Earth, Minnesota (“King Jesus Loves You”), WJIW in Greenville, Mississippi (“Where Jesus Is Worthy”), WJIE in Louisville, Kentucky (“Where Jesus Is Exalted”), and WJCR in Upton, Kentucky (“Where Jesus Christ Reigns”). And then there’s WAMN in Green Valley, West Virginia. Let us say: AMEN.
On the secular side, when the Bay Area’s KDFC had a classical-music format, its call letters were said to stand for “Damn Fine Concerts.” KWAK (Stuttgart, Arkansas) and KWAX (Eugene, Oregon) are homages to, you guessed it, ducks. And how did Fresno manage to land KSXY? I have no idea.
You can burrow deep into the rabbit hole of broadcast call signs on the American Radio History website. It’s where I learned about Dallas’s KNON, whose call letters stand for “noncommercial,” and whose mission, I learned on the station’s website, is “to be the Voice of the People in the Dallas area.” Really, you’re going to want to learn more—and you can.
Read my post about Canadian radio station CFMQ in Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan.
* The naming convention began in late 1912 with the introduction of station licensing. The historical exception is KDKA in Pittsburgh, which is considered the first commercial radio station in the US. It began broadcasting on November 2, 1920, “during a short period during which land stations were being issued call letters from a sequential block of ‘K’ call letters that had previously been assigned only to ship stations.” (Wikipedia)