Friday, August 2, 2013

Michigan in Radio History, Part I: WWJ makes history

On August 20, Detroit AM station WWJ will celebrate the 93rd anniversary of its first broadcast, which hit the airwaves in 1920. In honor of that milestone, for the next week, I'll publish a daily story about a significant event in Michigan's radio history. WWJ's record-making broadcast will be the first story in this series.

This is a picture taken during an early WWJ broadcast, but not necessarily its first one.

WWJ was the first commercial news station in Michigan, and was the work of a Detroit teenager, Michael DeLisle Lyons (who, in an interesting but unrelated side note, later became a Jesuit priest). Lyons was involved in a local amateur radio group, and edited a publication called The Detroit Radio News. This was during a time when media watchers whispered about the possibility of radio overtaking newspaper as audiences' medium of choice. Desperate to stay relevant, many newspaper owners considered investing in radio stations. The Scripps family, which owned The Detroit News, was one of them.

However, radio was still such a new medium that the family feared ridicule if their enterprise turned out to be a bust. The Scrippses wanted to have a radio station under their wing, but in a clandestine way that would cause them little embarrassment if the endeavor failed. To that end, they turned to Lyons, recruiting him to help create their new station, which would be located in The Detroit News building. To further distance themselves from the project, the Scripps family arranged for the station, which received the call number 8MK, to be licensed in Lyons' name (though a falling out between Lyons and the Scrippses caused the license to revert to The Detroit News before 8MK's first broadcast).

That broadcast, as mentioned, took place on August 20, 1920. It included an announcement of the station's call letters and the playing of two songs, one of which was "Roses of Picardy." I can't find any recordings of that first broadcast, but the video below is a rendition of "Roses of Picardy" (not necessarily the one that appeared on 8MK's first broadcast), so you can get an idea of what radio audiences were listening to at the time.

In 1922, 8MK discarded its original call letters, and acquired the WWJ moniker. Now known as Newsradio 950, the station offers news reports 24 hours a day, and has a signal strong enough to be heard throughout most of southern Lower Michigan during the day, and throughout the entire state at night. You can find WWJ on the AM dial at 950. Tune in on August 20 in homage to the radio pioneers that helped the station become a part of Michigan history.

Further Information:

WWJ Newsradio 950 website

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