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If You Had Listened To WBZ
During The 20s--

By Donna Halper

Most people reading this today were not around for WBZ's first broadcast, from the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, on September 19, 1921. There were only a handful of stations on the air at that time, most notably another Westinghouse station, KDKA in Pittsburgh (whose famous first broadcast occurred on November 2, 1920), and the first station in greater Boston, 1XE (later known as WGI) at the Amrad plant, Medford Hillside. WBZ had a strong signal, which on some nights could be heard as far away as Europe. Back then, WBZ was not found at 1030 AM; its first dial position was 833 kHz, or as it was more commonly called, 360 meters. WBZ's earliest broadcasts originated at the Westinghouse plant in East Springfield, on Page Boulevard. By early 1922, the station had studios at the Hotel Kimball (many early stations broadcast from hotels).

If you had listened in the early 20s, you would have heard a variety of live musical programming-- mostly classical and opera. In fact, one of WBZ's first major events was a live broadcast of the famous contralto, Madame Louise Homer, from the Springfield Auditorium in February 1922. WBZ also broadcast late baseball scores, farm and agriculture reports, college lectures, and talks by local politicians. No radio station was on the air full-time: WBZ only broadcast from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm during the week, and on Sundays, it only broadcast church services. But gradually, WBZ's schedule expanded, as did the events it offered. It was WBZ that broadcast the opening game of the 1923 World Series at Yankee Stadium (October 10). Also that month, WBZ began a series of radio extension courses, with lectures by some of the region's best professors; listeners could receive credit from the Mass. State Department of Education. On February 24, 1924, WBZ had opened a Boston studio (called WBZA), bringing to the combined Boston and Springfield audience a wider range of talent. Because of its wide coverage area, the station used the on-air slogan "WBZ, New England." And, thanks to a 1924 affiliation with the Boston Herald-Traveler newspapers, WBZ was able to greatly expand its news presence. (Many listeners were so impressed with the station that they called it "W-bees knees"-- the expression "it's the bee's knees" was 1920s slang for "it's the best!") And while it is difficult to know exactly who did what in those early days, George H. Jaspert seems to have been WBZ's first manager (what we would call the GM today), a position he held for over six years, till October of 1928.

One of the station's first Programme Directors (that's how they spelled it in those days) was a woman-- Emilie Sturtevant. Back then, the PD actually was like a Music Director-- he or she scheduled the guests and often had to fill in if the talent didn't show up. Like many PDs in those days, Miss Sturtevant was also a musician (as were several of WBZ's announcers.) And like many women in early radio, she also did double-duty, as the General Manager's administrative assistant. In those days, the vast majority of the announcers on the air were men, and WBZ was no different from other stations in that regard. Women could be singers or do a "women's show" (home-making tips, food, fashion, etc), but they rarely did serious announcing. And at WBZ as with most stations, you got to know your favourite announcer by initials only, because most stations of the early 20s did not allow announcers to use their name. (For example, WBZ chief announcer Arthur F. Edes was identifield as "EFA"; W. Gordon Swan, who several years later became WBZ 's P.D., was known as AGS.)

WBZ's signal enabled its announcing staff to win friends in a number of cities across the USA; if you listened in the mid-20s, among the announcers you might have heard were William S. Tilton, Thomas H. McNally, Alwyn E.W. Bach, and Thomas Shaw Young. Mr Young was so popular that he was hired by the NBC Radio Network. Gordon Swan became known for his skill at doing sound effects (very useful for radio dramas) and commercial production. When NBC, the first radio network, went on the air in mid-November of 1926, WBZ was part of a chain of stations that broadcast the four hour premiere program.

If you were a Boston Bruins hockey fan in the 20s, it was WBZ that first carried the games, beginning in 1924; the play-by-play announcer was Frank Ryan. Gradually, by the late 1920s, more and more programming was originatung from the Boston studios rather than from Springfield-- WBZ's first Boston studio was at the Hotel Brunswick, and then in 1927, the studio was moved to the Hotel Statler; perhaps you went there to watch a radio performance and you danced to the music of the hotel orchestra.

In March of 1931, WBZ exchanged call letters with WBZA -- the Boston station became WBZ, while the Springfield station became WBZA. On September 18,1931, WBZ celebrated its 10th anniversary with an impressive 30-hour show of music, famous guests, and even a tribute to New England's business community. Part of the show was broadcast over the NBC radio network. Among the 800 guests who attended this giant radio party were Mayor Curley of Boston, Mayor Winter of Springfield, Massachusetts Governor Cox, and a number of past and present WBZ announcers and performers. In November of 1931, a controversy took place over so-called 'obscene lyrics'-- the manager of WBZ, John L. Clark, censored a song by famous bandleader Joe Rines because Clark felt the lyrics were too suggestive. Rines was performing on NBC when the plug was pulled right it in the middle of the song; needless to say, Rines was not amused, but Clark stood his ground, saying WBZ stood for purity and decency. In late April of 1932, the now legendary 'lion incident' occurred. The headline in the Boston Post read "Lion Wrecks Radio Studio-- Seven Hurt", as a supposedly tame lion brought into the Hotel Bradford studio to roar on cue suddenly became agitated and ran through the studios and offices, destroying windows, knocking over equipment, terrifying spectators, and injuring several WBZ employees before being subdued by the police. On a more informative note, in 1933, WBZ began airing regular weather reports from the national weather bureau. The station's first staff meteorologist was G.H. Noyes. Radio stations began developping morning shows during the 1930s, and WBZ was no exception-- one of the first moring show hosts on the station was Bradley Kincaid. Known on-air as the "Kentucky Mountain Boy", he started his career as a country and western performer in the midwest; in addition to singing, he also did radio comedy. You would have heard him on WBZ in the late 1930s; his wife Irma arranged his music and sometimes was his accompanist when he performed. Another announcer who joined WBZ in the late 30s was Fred B. Cole, who would later work for NBC; he became known for his love of big band music, and frequently introduced the famous band-leaders. Also in the 1930s, WBZ had a popular women's program with Mildred Carlson, "The Women's Forum". It was also in the 1930s that WBZ began developping its own news team rather than relying on affiliation with a newspaper; among the most respected newsmen in Boston for many years was Arch McDonald, who joined WBZ in 1938 and was on air for many years afterward (he also was a TV first, being part of the first telecast of WBZ-TV in June of 1948). And, eager to further expand the station's signal range, WBZ began construction of a new transmitter (in the town of Hull, on Boston's 'south shore'); it was scheduled to be put into operation by July of 1940. [And when the transmitter was activated, it made the news-- as perhaps the first station to be put on the air by atomic energy!]


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