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WEW Was Definitely First

One of the biggest gripes among broadcast historians is the amount of misinformation being passed off as fact in the field of radio history. KDKA in Pittsburgh is regularly credited with many “firsts,” yet historians have found other stations accomplished the same “firsts” earlier. The explanation, it seems, is the public relations machine of Westinghouse, which owned KDKA.
So it is assumed that such claims are to be taken with a grain of salt when the information is published by ownership of the station in question. That said, it’s interesting to look at the history of WEW, which signed on under the ownership of St. Louis University. In 1951, an article in The Alumni News of St. Louis University said WEW was the second radio station to operate in the United States and the first in the world operated by a university. It also claimed WEW was the first station west of the Mississippi River.
The key to deciphering the validity of these claims lies in the definition of “radio station.” It is known that station 9YK, WEW’s experimental predecessor, was active as early as 1912, originating wireless Morse Code broadcasts of weather reports to agricultural interests from St. Louis U’s observatory. The government shut the station down in 1917 because of the war, but two years later, the transmitter was humming again, this time under government control, sending out weather, grain and livestock reports.
9YK became a university station again later that year. As the industry evolved, experimenters sent sound, instead of code, through the air. Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad broadcast concerts from his garage over 8XK, and in October of 1920, the government approved changing that license to KDKA. That station’s first broadcast as a licensed commercial operation was on November 2, 1920. At the St. Louis University radio station, the inaugural broadcast came April 21, 1921.
That morning at 10:05, University President Reverend William F. Robison read the weather forecast over the airwaves. Regular service continued with livestock and grain market activities being reported to farmers during the week. July 16, 1921 was the date of the first musical broadcast on WEW. Religious and educational programs followed. The station, since its first broadcast, had been under the watchful eye of Brother George Rueppel, S.J.
A listing of shows heard on WEW in 1928 indicates that the station stayed with that programming philosophy, with shows like: The United States Farm School Program; Students Hour (music and fifteen minutes of interesting reading); Music of High Mass; and the Question Box Hour (with answers to listeners’ mailed-in questions.)
An article published at WEW’s 10-year anniversary, quoted University President Reverend Robert Johnston, S.J. as saying “WEW is not a commercial station and sees no time for advertising purposes, hence has no fixed income…The money necessary for improvements…has been furnished by a Catholic benefactor of St. Louis who realizes the great good and advantage that such a station can do for the community.”
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 03/2001)