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For more than 30 years, John Kiesewetter has been the source for information about all things in local media – comings and goings, local people appearing on the big or small screen, special programs, and much more. Local media is still his beat and he’s bringing his interest, curiosity, contacts and unique style to Cincinnati Public Radio and 91.7 WVXU. Contact John at johnkiese@yahoo.com.

It's the Big One: Happy 100th birthday to WLW-AM

John Kiesewetter
WLW-AM still broadcasts from the Tylersville Road tower used for the 500,000-watt signal from 1934 to 1939.

Cincinnati entrepreneur Powel Crosley Jr. put WLW-AM on the air on March 2, 1922, and it's still going strong.

Commercial broadcasting license No. 62 arrived from the U.S. Department of Commerce authorizing Powel Crosley Jr. to go on the air with call letters WLW 100 years ago today, March 2, 1922.

That fueled a half-century of technological innovations for everything from the birth of television to compact cars, household appliances, sports broadcasting, electronic data transmission and international broadcasting.

The legacy of Crosley, who died in 1961, and his Crosley Manufacturing Company, still touches the lives of a majority of Greater Cincinnatians today when they enjoy programs broadcast by WLW-AM (700) and former sister station WLWT-TV; enter Great American Ball Park by passing the statues in Crosley Terrace; tune in to public TV and radio stations broadcasts from the Crosley Telecommunications Center on Central Parkway; watch an afternoon TV soap opera; visit the Crosley exhibit at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting; attend events at Crosley's Pinecroft mansion in Mount Airy; or exercise at the Powel Crosley YMCA branch in Finneytown.

All of this because of an entrepreneur with a desire for building an inexpensive "wireless" (radio) set for his son in 1921 turned it into the mass production of affordable $7 Harko radios later that year, and then created a radio station to drive demand for his receivers 100 years ago. (You can see a Harko at the VOA Museum.)

John Kiesewetter
WLW-AM broadcast from the top from of this Arlington Street building, near the I-75/I-74 interchange, in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Crosley started broadcasting from his College Hill home on July 1 the previous year after receiving a license for radio station 8XAA from the Commerce Department, according to Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed The Nation by Rusty McClure (grandson of Powel's brother Lewis), David Stern and Michael A. Banks, now available as an audiobook.

Using a four-tube 20-watt transmitter, Crosley began repeatedly playing "The Song of India" phonograph record by holding a microphone to the record player's horn-shaped speaker. (Ironically, DJs in the 1970s and '80s would do the same thing as a promotional stunt, claiming they had locked themselves in the studio to prevent their bosses from making them play a different song.)

There was no regular programming 100 years ago at the birth of radio, as with television 25 years later, so station operators made it up as they went along. Crosley broadcast on 8AXX three evenings a week. During breaks, he'd give his name and telephone number of the air, and ask that any listeners call him, the Crosley authors wrote. They did.

It took Crosley's staff three weeks for an official "grand opening" on March 23, 1922, when the station advertised its first regular broadcasting program schedule. (That's the date WLW-AM is expected to celebrate its centennial.)

Clyde Haehnle archives
Powel Crosley Jr. at his desk.

Soon Crosley moved the studio from his home to the Crosley Manufacturing Co. plant in Northside, and then to Camp Washington.

In 1924, WLW-AM was billed as the first "super power" station in 1924 when it became the first station to broadcast on 5,000 watts for a tower in Harrison, says Randy Michaels, a radio historian and former Jacor Communications and Clear Channel president. He also programmed WKRQ-FM in the 1970s and WLW-AM in the 1980s.

Within a dozen years, WLW-AM truly became a super power after Crosley engineers built the nation's unprecedented 500,000-watt commercial transmitter. WLW-AM was given government permission to broadcast experimentally on 500,000 watts from 1934 to 1939 on its new diamond-shaped tower on Tylersville Road, reaching nearly coast to coast. (Today's 50,000 watts reach 34 states at night, from New England to Florida and to most of the way to the Rocky Mountains.)

WLW-AM, which dubbed itself "The Nation's Station," fed shows to the NBC network from Cincinnati, including comedian Red Skelton's weekly series and a musical variety show called An Evening At Crosley Square with Burt Farber's orchestra.

In addition to Skeleton, WLW-AM's "Cradle of Stars" in the 1930s and '40s helped launch the careers of jazz pianist Fats Waller; actor Eddie Albert (Green Acres); singers Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams, McGuire Sisters, Ink Spots and Mills Brothers; announcer Durward Kirby (Candid Camera, Garry Moore Show); and country musicians Chet Atkins, Homer & Jethro, Merle Travis, Red Foley and Cowboy Copas. (Here's a link to my story last year, 100 reasons to celebrate WLW-AM's 100th year.)

John Kiesewetter
WLW-AM's transmitter building on Tylersville Road, just west of the station's tower.

The station also aired the first soap opera, Ma Perkins, sponsored by Procter & Gamble's Oxydol, and won Cincinnati's first distinguished Alfred I. duPont Award (1943) and Peabody Award (1944).

In 1934, after Crosley was persuaded to buy the financially troubled Cincinnati Reds franchise, he brought Florida sportscaster Walter Lanier "Red" Barber to town to broadcast games on radio. Barber, the first of four WLW broadcasters to win the Baseball Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award, was followed into Cooperstown by Marty Brennaman, Al Helfer and Al Michaels.

Much of WLW-AM's broadcasting equipment was built by Crosley's brilliant engineers. Sidney Ten-Eyck, who went from WLW-AM to New York in the early 1930s, said he was surprised to discover that NBC's RCA equipment was inferior to Crosley's.

John Kiesewetter
The Crosley Shelvador refrigerator (center), with a radio above the door, is on display at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting in West Chester Township.

Crosley Manufacturing also made record players; refrigerators with door shelves (and some with a built-in radio); ice machines; the Reado facsimile machine, which printed out headlines; the top-secret Proximity Fuse used during World War II; and headphones and other items.

Crosley engineers also built the Voice of America Bethany Station nearby on Tylersville Road, one of five VOA transmission facilities in the U.S., and tinkered with television in 1939 in the Carew Tower. The video project was suspended until after World War II.

Work on television resumed in 1946, with experimental W8XCT televising Cincinnati's first Reds game, variety show, boxing matches and college basketball game in 1947. WLWT-TV premiered on Feb. 9, 1948, as Cincinnati's first official television station, 14 months before WKRC-TV and 18 months before WCPO-TV.

But Powel Crosley Jr. wasn't around for the TV adventure. He sold television, one of the most profitable businesses in the 20th century, to the Aviation Corp. (AVCO) in 1946 to build a compact auto, the Crosley. (It was a short ride. The Crosley ceased production in 1952.)

 A 1950's advertisement for WLWT-TV's radar weather with meteorologist Tony Sands.
A 1950's advertisement for WLWT-TV's radar weather with meteorologist Tony Sands.

Crosley's engineers, however, continued to produce technical marvels without him. WLWT-TV built a Midwestern network with sister TV stations in Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis (and briefly Atlanta); was NBC's second affiliate (1948) and first color affiliate (1953); one of the first TV stations with its own weather radar (1955); and the first to televise a Major League Baseball game in color (1959) and at night (1960). WLWT-TV's relentless promotion of color telecasts of Ruth Lyons' 50-50 Club, the Reds, Midwestern Hayride and other shows gave Cincinnati the highest per capita penetration of color TV sets, earning the city the title of "Colortown USA" by RCA.

WLW radio also had its firsts, including providing the city's first helicopter traffic reports in 1959 by Cincinnati Police Lt. Art Mehring.

The Cradle of Stars kept producing talented offspring in the early days of TV, with Earl Hamner Jr. (The Waltons), Jean Shepherd (A Christmas Story), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Bill Nimmo (Johnny Carson's Who Do You Trust?) going on to network careers. The Cincinnati-Dayton-Columbus-Indianapolis regional network also propelled Dayton talk host Phil Donahue into national syndication in 1970.

John Kiesewetter archives
Jim Scott (left), Gary Burbank and Bob Trumpy were featured in this 1984 Yellow Pages telephone book advertisement.

Even after AVCO sold WLWT-TV and WLW-AM to separate owners in the 1970s, the self-proclaimed "Big One" helped launch more national TV and radio stars: CNN anchor Gene Randall; sportscasters Bob Trumpy, Cris Collinsworth, Dave Lapham and Andy Furman; newsmen Harry Smith, who hosted overnights on WLW-AM in the late 1970s, and Bill Hemmer; and national radio shows hosted by Bill Cunningham, Gary Burbank and Mike McConnell.

In the 1990s, WLW-AM was part of Michaels' Jacor Communications which pioneered group contesting, in which radio giveaways were done on a national level by a radio conglomerate instead offering a prize at each station. Jacor also was one of the first radio companies to do "voice tracking," in which DJs recorded localized comments for multiple stations so they could host radio shows across the country at the same time from one "hub" studio.

Jacor later merged with Clear Channel, now known as iHeartMedia. Last December, WLW-AM got the newest broadcasting technology again, when iHeartMedia gave up part of its space in an office building at 8044 Montgomery Road in Kenwood, and built new studios for the consolidation.

Courtesy City of Mason
Plans for the Tower Park development around the WLW-AM tower (green space on right half) on Tylersville Road in Mason.

Remnants of Crosley's historic 500,000-watt transmitter are still housed in the red brick building near WLW-AM's distinctive diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox tower at 710 Tylersville Road in Mason. It's soon to be surrounded by restaurants, offices and storage space in a complex called Tower Park. More than five years ago, debt-plagued iHeartMedia sold the Mason tower property to Vertical Bridge Holdings of Boca Raton, Fla., the nation's largest private owner and manager of communication infrastructure.

Customers will enter the 27-acre site on Powel Crosley Boulevard, which goes into a roundabout allowing motorists to go east or west on Powel Crosley Drive. A plaque honoring Crosley also is planned in a small park west of the tower. There's also an Ohio Historical marker erected in 2002 at the entrance.

And all of this happened because of Powel Crosley Jr.'s fascination with radio 100 years ago.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.