A Second Chance in Radio
By Charles Langlois
For Dr. Biggs, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama
A Second Chance in Radio
In 1928 on New Year's Eve WAPI went on the air in Birmingham. This was a momentous occasion in Alabama's history. At 7:55 KVOO at Tulsa, Oklahoma, which split the "time on the same wave length" with WAPI, announced that WAPI was taking over the air waves. Following KVOO's announcement the Star Spangled Banner opened up the program. It was performed by the Boys Industrial Band of Birmingham. After this musical opening several dignitaries gave speeches.
The first speech was given by Governor Bib Graves. He took advantage of this situation to give a highly political speech. He claimed that Alabama was first in public health service, educational advancement, railroad building and "relatively first" in the construction of docks, bridges and roads. He portrayed Alabama as being a "sound state and one of the few in the country without a bank failure." He then spoke of how the state was trying to make radio accessible to the people of Alabama. He informed the audience that Alabama's Department of Education had met with all of the count y school boards about purchasing receiving sets for all of the state's accredited schools. Finally he promised to install receiving sets in community centers so that all of the state's citizens would have access to radio.
Dr. Bradford Knapp, president of Auburn,*1 spoke next. He claimed that he wanted this station to be the "voice of Alabama" and he expressed his hope that through this station people of other states could learn about Alabama. He wanted them to discover "the resources, the climate, the people, the industries she is developing, the farm life, the very spirit of her people." He also spoke of the purpose of the station. He described it as being for "entertainment and amusement."
L.N. Duncan, the director of the Extension Service followed Knapp. He spoke of the station as having the potential of "carrying messages of entertainment and education." The most interesting thing about Mr. Duncan's speech is not what he said but what he did not say. He did not speak about agriculture. This is interesting because the school put the extension service in charge of Auburn radio so that it could provide agricultural information to farmers.
P.O. Davis followed L.N. Duncan in the speaking order, He described the station as being "an invaluable institution in the material, the social, the religious, and the cultural
- *In this paper Auburn refers to Alabama Polytechnic 'Institute.
advancement of Alabama and the nation." He considering radio to be an ingenious product and to be an example pf "mem harnessing a law of nature and making it serve mankind" He also gave a brief history radio and thanked those who made it possible.
The last speaker was Victor Hanson. He said he was interested in any development along the lines of "general publicity." He felt that radio and newspapers should be able to complement each other. As publisher of The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Age-Herald he promised that they would "join with the station actively in serving its audience."1
Even though Auburn radio was reaching larger audiences in 1929 and appeared to have a bright future, things had not always looked so good. Its early days were difficult and often seemed uncertain. During these early days of radio many small stations £ailed. Even though Auburn's first attempt in the radio business, under the extension service failed they had the courage to try again. How were they able to get back in the radio business and avoid having to shut down their second station?
- Thousand Greet WAPI Opening" The Auburn Alumnus, Auburn, Alabama February, p. 1, 4,22-26.
Auburn Radio, under the Extension service began in 1922 with the donation of $2,500 by The Birmingham News. The News donated the station after Lonnie P. Murger and Hayden Brooks, Auburn alumni, convinced Victor Hanson that Auburn needed a modern station.
After the donation was made The Birmingham News ran articles informing the readers of its gift to Auburn and the purpose of the station. However, the purposes given were not consistent. On Monday, March 20, The News ran an article entitled "Radio at Auburn opens new field to Agriculture." This article stated that "primarily, of course it will be an agricultural broadcasting station and the farmer will receive the greatest benefit." This statement was made by Professor Dunstan, Head of the Engineering Department. 3 The day after this article was published The News ran an article entitled "New Radio Gift Opens New Field." This article was written by P.O. Davis before he knew that he was going to be in charge of it. He indicated that many people were speculating on how the powerful radio broadcasting equipment given to Auburn by the Birmingham News", Birmingham News, Sunday, March 19, 1922. 2
3 "Radio at Auburn opens new field to agriculture, "The Birmingham News , Monday, March 20, 1922 p.1.
station could be used. However, he believed that it would be used "as a service station for instructing, entertaining and helping who ever it may reach".
Since Auburn was given a station they had to figure out what to do with it. President Dowell met with L.N. Duncan, the Director of the Extension Service, and told him that "it was his belief that since a radio station would extend Auburn to the people of Alabama it was a proper function of the Extension Service." Putting the station under the control of one department allowed them to come up with one goal for the station. L. N. Duncan put P. O. Davis (the Director of Publicity) in charge of the station and left him with the responsibility of deciding what to do with it. He decided that the purpose of Auburn radio would be to serve the farmers. They expected to do this by broadcasting programs for the farmers benefit. These programs included "general agricultural information, instructions to county agents, marketing and weather reports as well as other timely information."5
4 P.O. Davis "News Radio Gift Opens New Field" The Birmingham News ,Tuesday, March 21, 1922 p.1.
5 Director's Report 1922 A.C.E.S. RG 71 Box 117, Auburn University Archives.
Once the problem of deciding what to do with it was solved they were faced with another one. The equipment for the station was in boxes at the railroad station and needed to be moved. In order to solve this problem Davis got help from the Engineering Department which had been involved in Radio Broadcasting since 1912. They had a station which was donated by Miller Reese Hutchinson who was a former Auburn student and assistant to Thomas Edison. This type of station is not to be confused with the type donated by Birmingham News. This station was a wireless telegraph station whereas the station donated by The News broadcasted the human voice. The man in charge of the engineers station was V.C. McIlvane. Since they had different kinds of stations they were not in direct competition, this made it easier for them to work together.6
McIlvane and other people involved in electrical engineering helped Davis construct the station donated by The Birmingham News. This station was installed in Broun Engineering Hall. On October 3, 1922 the station received
6 James M. Rosene The History of Radio Broadcasting at Auburn University (1912-1961) 1968 thesis Auburn University p. 23-25.
its license by the federal government and was issued the call letters WMAV which stood for we make a voice.7
WMAV was formally dedicated on February21, 1923. It opened with speeches by Victor Hansen, Governor Brandon and President Spright Dowell. The programming of WMAV as previously mentioned was intended to benefit farmers. However, it also consisted of broadcasts of the football games. In The Plainsman it was stated that "Broadcasting for pure entertainment will be of a secondary nature."8 And in the beginning this was true.
The mid 1920s through the early 1930s was a difficult time period for small radio stations. During this time these stations were faced with many problems. The airways were unregulated and very crowded. The newly created FRC wanted to clean up the airways. In an effort to do this it eliminated some of the weaker stations and forced others to share frequencies. This era also saw the beginning of
7 S . E. Frost Education's Own Station Arno Press and the New York Times, New York, 1971 p. 9.
8 "Radio Station- does its share of advertising" The Plainsman November 29, 1922. p. 1
network radio. It was not long until these networks made it difficult for the unaffiliated stations to compete. 9
George H. Douglas the author of The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting gives an insightful account of the beginning of broadcast radio. In this work he discusses the conditions that the small stations faced during the twenties and thirties. He also gives a good description of the crowded airwaves of the 20s and the necessity of the creation of the FRC. long with this he describes the origins of network radio and how they became powerful. In this book Douglas devotes an entire chapter to educational radio. However, he does not discuss the strategies that these stations had to develop in order to survive this difficult time.10
Thomas A. Delong describes the relationship music had in the history of Radio in The Might Music Box. In this work he discusses some of the early radio stations and the role music played in their programming. Although he discusses some of the early radio stations he does not discuss the strategies that they had to use to survive the mid-20s to
9 " Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P. O. Davis November 25, 1961 . WAPI miscellaneous file Auburn University archives.
10 George H. Douglas ' The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting, McFarland & Company Inc. Jefferson, North Carolina 1987.
the early 30s. However this work gives a good history of early radio and the role music played in it.11
WMAV only lasted a few years but they did what they could to try to save it. It was plagued with equipment problems, a small range, and a small audience. From the beginning the future of WMAV never looked that bright.
In 1925 P. O. Davis decided to "junk" WMAV. He felt that in order for Auburn to stay in the radio business it would have to start a new station that would be able to compete with other stations. However, at this time there were not many people who shared Davis' sentiment. There were others who did not see the point in continuing in the radio business. But Davis's determination to build a new radio station at Auburn prevailed. I
Since Duncan asked Davis to get into the radio business in the first place he supported Davis on this decision. In order to do this it would take more than Duncan's approval. They had to get approval from the Board of Trustees. Their proposal was discussed in the June 1, 1925 meeting of the Board of Trustees.
11 Thomas A. Delong The Mighty Music Box, Amber Crest Books, Los Angeles, California 1980.
In this meeting they authorized the Extension Service to use their funds on this new station. They also decided to name the station the Victor Hanson Broadcasting Station.12 They decided to do this in order to pay tribute to him for making contributions to Auburn radio. Once they got approval from the Board they began working on building the new station. They purchased a 1000 watt Western Electric Station and constructed a 200 foot tower on an elevated area west of the school's dairy barn. Once they got the new equipment they changed the location of the studio. It was moved from Broun Hall into the agricultural building, Comer Hall. This brought it out of the engineering department and put it in an appropriate place for an extension service station. However, the engineering department continued to play an active role in this station.13
On February 23, 1926 WAPI was born. It was primarily a music station with occasional special programming. The music on WAPI was performed by local talent and the special
12Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Auburn University IV, June 1, 1925, p. 250.
13" Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P.O. Davis November 25, 1961
programing including lectures by professors, egg laying contests, and sports broadcasts. They covered sports events live. But when they broadcast the World Series they read off a teletype. Incidentally this was one of the most popular broadcasts made by WAPI in Auburn.14
One of the main problems that WAPI faced was its limited range. It had a day time range of thirty miles and at night it could reach a little farther, but the bands were crowded and most listeners did not even make the effort to find WAPI. Instead they tuned into stations with stronger frequencies and better programming.15
This time period was a difficult one for small stations and WAPI was not an exception, They had to develop strategies in order to survive. They were able to come up with different strategies for different situations. flexibility as well as creativity was the key to the survival of the station.
Since not many people were listening to WAPI Davis felt that changes would have to be made. He wanted to increase .the power of the station but he knew that in order to justify doing it he would have to increase the quality of
14Rosene, p. 48.
15Rosene, p. 50.
the programming. Because of the lack of talent in Auburn he went to New York and met with representatives of NBC. He thought that if WAPI had access to national programs it would be able to compensate for the lack of talent at Auburn. However, NBC rejected his proposal because of WAPI's small audience and because Auburn's location was not close to a large population.
Following his meeting in New York, Davis decided that the best way for him to improve the quality of the programs and to justify increasing the power of the station was to move it to Birmingham. This move required money. The university provided some funds but he needed more and looked for support in Birmingham. Birmingham's mayor, Jimmy Jones promised that the city would contribute $20,000 a year to the station. After this WAPI went off the air in Auburn and preparations were made to move the station to Birmingham.16
The first thing they had to do was make preparations to set up the station in Birmingham. They sold off all the old equipment except for the steel towers, they were able to reuse them in Birmingham. They replaced the 1,000 watt
16 '' Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P . O Davis November 25, 1961.
station with a 5,000 watt station, this allowed them, along with the move to Birmingham, to greatly improve the size of their audience.
They purchased 7 1/2 acres on a mountain overlooking the Village of Sandusky from the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railway Company. The station was housed here. The elevation of this location was 740 feet which helped increase the range of the station. The main studio was housed in the Protective Like Building Building.17
Mr. Davis wanted to locate the main studio in the Tutwiler Hotel. However, Hanson who was a big stockholder in the Protective Life Insurance Company was determined that the station be located in the newly constructed protective Life Building. Davis felt that because Dr. Bradford Knapp the President of Auburn easily yielded to pressure Hanson got his way and the main studio was located on the top floor of the 14th floor building.18
Once word got out that Auburn was planning to operate a station with the City of Birmingham others began to show
17 P.O. Davis "Alabama Polytechnic Institute unfolds Big Radio idea" The Auburn Alumnus December 192, p.4-5.
18 "Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P.O. Davis November 25, 1961.
interest in radio. This had to be taken seriously because if there were conflicting forces it would be hard to get favorable assignments from the FRC and it would also be hard to get the attention of a network. Davis knew that if he was going to make this station work he was going to have to make sure that this station was not in competition with other state owned stations.
In order to keep other state owned stations from starting Davis had to make compromises. The first compromise that he had to make was with Governor Graves. During this time the governor was thinking about stating a 500 Watt Station in Montgomery to broadcast market news information for farmers. Davis was able to talk him out of this by suggesting a telephone circuit be connected from Auburn through Montgomery to the main studio at Birmingham. This circuit was provided by the department of agriculture and industries. This circuit was allowed to be used for broadcasting 6 hours a week. The Department of Agriculture use their time to broadcast market news.19 This compromise worked to the benefit of everyone involved, it allowed the Department
19 " Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P. O. Davis November 25, 1961.
of Agriculture to reach large audiences and it allowed WAPI to broadcast from Auburn without cost to the school.
The governor was not the only one who suddenly developed an interest in starting a radio station. George Denny the president of the University of Alabama also developed an interest in radio. Following the announcement of WAPI's move to Birmingham "Denny sent Ben Wooten, University Head of Physics to Washington, in hope of getting a frequency assignment from the FRC for a station at Tuscaloosa." This worried the people at Auburn because at this time they were still forced to share a frequency with KVOO in Tulsa and they wanted their own frequency. They felt that they would not be able to get it if there were conflicting forces in Alabama. They also felt that "one station was enough for all institutions of higher learning in Alabama." In order to solve the problem Duncan and Davis "went to the university to talk with Dr. Denny and offer cooperation." According to Mr. Davis it did not take long for him to agree to this. He also mentioned "that Dr. Denny had several members of his top men in that conference but he did most of the talking and all deciding."
20 " Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P. O. Davis November 15, 1961.
On February 22, 1929 The Board of Trustees met. In this meeting they discussed Auburn accepting partners in WAPI. The board authorized President Knapp to negotiate with'' the University of Alabama and the Alabama college for Women (now Montevallo). The Board of Trustees gave Knapp several guidelines to follow in his negotiations. It was stated that Auburn should "retain a sufficiently large share in ownership of WAPI." They also wanted Auburn to be able to broadcast programs over the station. Finally, they wanted the Extension Service remain the "active manager" of the station.21
After Knapp got his instructions, Governor Graves called a conference at the Governor's mansion to discuss the radio station's future. The governor invited the presidents of the three colleges to this conference. Dr. Bradford Knapp, President of Auburn, brought P.O. Davis with him, "George H. Denny, President of the University of Alabama, brought university professor S.C. Houser with him, and Dr. Oliver C. Carmichael, President of the Alabama College for Women, came alone. In this conference an agreement was reached between the three schools.
21 Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Auburn University, Vol. IV., February 27, 1929, pp. 240-241.
Each school was allowed to have a remote control station at their respective institutions. These stations were connected with the main station in Birmingham. It was also decided that ownership would be divided between the three institutions. Auburn retained 39% while the university got 39% and Alabama College for Women got 22%. The three schools were responsible for financing and constructing their own studio for their remote broadcast. This was fortunate for Auburn since the Department of Agriculture already hooked them up and they had the old studio in Comer Hall.22
Since Davis was made the general manager Auburn and the Extension Service continued to play a major role in running the radio station. This is important because even though Auburn had to share WAPI it was still able to exert control and the people at Auburn did not feel that they completely lost their radio station.
After making all of these compromises they were able to get NBC's attention. affiliated with NBC. In late March 1929, the station became It was connected through a telephone hookup. Through this connection WAPI received their
22 Bradford Knapp "University of Alabama"
programs. The bill for the telephone line was picked up by NBC. They also paid WAPI for broadcasting their programs. This helped them to make ends meet. However, the FRC would not give them their own frequency so they still had to share with KVOO in Tulsa. Since they were both NBC affiliates they attempted simultaneous broadcasting but they were not able to do it successfully.23
Even though WAPI was receiving an income from NBC it was still having a hard time meeting its expenses, so in April of 1930 the station was authorized to accept commercial programming from Birmingham. This was a good move because it allowed them to generate some income that they needed. However, it was not enough to compensate for the financial troubles that they were about to face.
The City of Birmingham was feeling the effects of the depression and had a hard time coming up with its share of the money for the station. In June of 1930, Birmingham "served notice of its intention to withdraw from participation in the cost of operating the* station and the entire burden reverted to the owners in January of 1931." This withdrawal of support hit the station hard. According to P. O. Davis "we could not meet our payroll; and soon our
23 Rosene, p. 78.
employees were hocking their chattels, and instruments to get money to buy food."24
Once the depression had set in and was effecting just about every one the three institutions were no longer able to afford the radio station. However, after putting so much time and money in this station no one wanted to just shut it down. They decided that the only thing that they could do was lease the station to a private group. Even though Davis did not want to lease the station out he felt there was nothing else that they could do. A five year lease was made with the WAPI Broadcasting Corporation, on June 27, 1932. They were required to pay the owners of the station $775 per month, maintain the station and provide the owners with free air time. They provided the owners with more air time than they could use.
When the lease was coming to a close the owners decided to try to increase the wattage of the station to 50,000 watts. They required that anyone who submitted a bid to lease the station would have to demonstrate how they could increase the power. The estimated cost of this increase was $250,000. The lease was awarded to Ed Norton and Thad Holt
24 " Radio Station WAPI" letter, to Ralph B. Draughon from P.O. Davis November 25, 1961.
of the Voice of Alabama Incorporated. With the financial assurances of the Voice of Alabama Incorporated they started applying for permission to increase the power to 50,000 watts.
The attempt to increase their power was opposed by the FCC which replaced the FRC. At this time the appointed Commissioner had an incredible amount of control over the stations in his state. The Commissioner for Alabama was F.I. Thompson. "His son-in-law Bascomb Hobson had been a party to the 5-year lease and declined to submit another bid due to the power provision and money. Naturally Mr. Thompson was unhappy and as usual, very mean."25
According to P. O. Davis, Thompson had no practical reason to oppose the power increase and must have done this for emotional reasons. In an effort to persuade Thompson to change his mind Davis contacted Senator Lister Hill. He thought that since this power increase would benefit the State of Alabama without cost to the State that Hill would support him. But to his surprise Hill supported Thompson.
After losing this battle Davis really disliked Thompson and in a letter to Ralph Draughon he wrote, "my feeling about
25 P . O. Davis "Some Auburn History" 4/13/68 Auburn University Archives, p.5
Mr. Thompson can't be expressed except in words that should not go into this letter. My sympathy is with the Devil on having him in his company."26
Even though The Voice of Alabama Incorporated was not able to get the power increased at that time they still took over the lease on August 1, 1937. They made some changes in the station but they sill provided the free air time to the owners. On January 1, 1938 they changed their affiliation to CBS. After this, CBS purchased stock in The Voice of Alabama Incorporated. This substantially changed the programming of the station.
The Voice of Alabama Incorporated was able to increase the power of the station to 50,000 watts of power in 1958. This was a good achievement but if it would have been done earlier they would have benefitted more. In 1961 they purchased the station from the three institutions who owned it. They bought it for $340,000. This ended Auburn's direct connection to the station.
If WAPI is looked upon as an investment it can be seen as being a good one. It cost them $115,000 to build up WAPI
26 " Radio Station WAPI" letter to Ralph B. Draughon from P.O. Davis, November 25, 1961.
27 Rosene p.87.
in Birmingham and sold for $340,000 an appreciation of $225,000. The owners also received a steady income from 1932-1961 from the lease agreement. But most importantly they received free air time. Since broadcasting is why they went into the business it is safe to say that they made the right decision by leasing the station when they no longer could afford it.
The history of WAPI is important for many reasons. It was able to survive at a time when many other stations failed. It is an example of cooperation between the state's colleges. It was the first network station in Alabama, and it is also an example of how determination and perseverance can pay off.
Auburn got in the radio business at the same time many other stations did. Even though Auburn's first attempt in the radio business was a failure they had the courage to try again. This is one of the things that separates Auburn from many of the other institutions that shut down and never tried again. The mid twenties to the early thirties were a time of change for those who were involved in the radio business. After beginning in 1926 WAPI had to weather these changes and it had to come up with strategies to survive.
The move to Birmingham is important for many reasons. It is a good example of the creativity and ingenuity that the staff of WAPI used to keep the station going. The move to Birmingham is also significant for other reasons. It put the station in the center of the State which was the perfect location for a station whose goal was to serve the entire state. It was also good publicity for Auburn.
I think that asking the University of Alabama and Alabama College for Women to join Auburn as partners in the station shows that they were able to use compromise effectively. This compromise kept the schools from competing which eliminated conflict between the schools. It also showed that they were able to successfully work together on a project. Their unity enabled them all to benefit from being able to broadcast programs from the center of the state. If it was not for this cooperation, it is doubtful that one school could have stayed active in radio for very long, during this time.
The recognition of the importance of network programming was important to the survival of WAPI. Even though they were turned down the first time they attempted to become affiliated they did not give up. Instead Davis changed the way they ran the station in order to become the type of station that a network would consider. Once they got affiliated they were able to bring national programming into Alabama. Becoming affiliated also made WAPI the first network radio station in Alabama. That fact alone is historically significant.
The lease agreements that WAPI went into was key to the survival of the station. Leasing out WAPI was also a wise decision. It kept the radio station on the air when the schools could no longer afford to run it. The lease allowed the school to profit from the radio station, and most importantly it allowed them to have free air time. This let them broadcast their programs and to continue to use radio as a means of providing information to the people of Alabama.
The perseverance and the determination of those involved in running WAPI in its early days is the main reason that it as able to survive that time period. If it was not for their determination to survive it is doubtful that WAPI would be on the air today. The leadership provided by P. O. Davis is also an important factor in the survival of WAPI. Most of the strategies that were used to keep the station going were developed by him. Considering that Davis was in the radio business since 1922 he is one of the pioneers of Alabama radio. By keeping WAPI on the air while others were failing was no small accomplishment. He was aware of his contributions and wrote "my pay was in doing the best possible job under hard circumstances and knowing that without me there never would have been a WAPI radio station."28
Auburn got in to the radio business because a station was given to them. But the school stayed in the business as long as it could because it believed in what it was doing. Even when they were faced with difficulties they did what they could to keep the station going. When they need to sell the station, radio was no longer the powerful medium that it had once been.
28 P . O. Davis "Some Auburn History" 4/13/68 Auburn University archive, p.5
Extension Service Annual Report, 1922. Extension Service Annual Report, 1925. Extension Service Annual Report, 1928.
Minutes of The Board of Trustees, Auburn University, IV, June 1, 1925, p. 258.
Minutes of The Board of Trustees, Auburn University, IV.,
February 27, 1929, p. 240-241.
Davis, P.O., "Some Auburn History" 4/13/63 Auburn University
"History WAPI-TV and Radio" Edited by Thad Holt Auburn University Archives.
Newspapers & Periodicals The Auburn Alumnus
The Auburn Engineers
Birmingham Age Herald Journal of Communication The Plainsman
Delong, Thomas A. The Mighty Music Box, Amber Crest-Books, Inc. Los Angeles, CA 1980.
Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting
McFarland & Company Jefferson, North Carolina 1987.
Frost, S.E. Education's Own Stations Arno Press and New York Times, New York, 1971.
Rosene, James The History of Radio Broadcasting at Auburn University (1912-1961). Thesis Auburn University, 1968.
Chesney Robert W. "Battle for the U.S. Airwaves, 1928- 1935" Journal of Communication, Autumn 1990.