Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Shortwave KDKA and its Many Callsigns and Transmitters

On this occasion here in Wavescan, we pick up this the next episode in the very interesting ongoing story of the famous mediumwave and shortwave station KDKA in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania; and in particular, we briefly examine each of the callsigns, mostly shortwave, that were associated with this historic radio complex.

            But first, we review a very remarkable sports event that has never yet been superseded.  It was back on Sunday December 8, 1940 that the Chicago Bears played the Washington Redskins at Griffith Stadium in Washington DC for the final championship game of the year for NFL, the National Football League.  It was a sellout event with a record attendance of 36,034 and not a spare seat anywhere.  A special train carried 1499 excited fans from Chicago to Washington DC for this historic sports occasion.

            The Press Box facilities at Griffith Stadium were overtaxed with 150 media personnel; newspaper, radio, and even the very new TV.  The Mutual Network had bought broadcasting rights for this climactic football clash, and their programming was fed nationwide to 120 stations.  It was the first occasion for nationwide coverage in the history of sports and radio in the United States.  Other radio networks also gave wide coverage to this sports matchup emanating from the national capital.            

            It was an exciting game; it lasted a little over 3 hours, and there were many injuries, some major.  Among the reported injuries: One player broke three ribs, there was a bruised kidney, a broken fist, and a hurt knee.  So many footballs were kicked into the stands and scored by attendees that sports officials asked for some to be returned.  All available new balls were taken into play, old practice balls were used up, and the final scoring point was taken with a scroungy old resurrected ball. 

            This historic game that was played a little more than ¾ century ago, ended with an impossible score; the Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins with the unbelievable tally 70 - 0.  This has to be a record high, or maybe a record low, never equalled in any other NFL game, and probably never matched in any other form of popular sport either.

            Radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was aware in advance of the popular enthusiasm attached to this highly publicized sporting event in the national capital.  Thus, on Sunday December 8, 1940, station management gave the order to place all available KDKA transmitters on the air simultaneously, and thus ensure maximum coverage; local, national and international.  The young Broadcast Engineer J. William Miller, just 20 years old at the time, stated that the 50 kW mediumwave KDKA and 5 or 6 shortwave transmitters were all airborne for this striking radio occasion. 

            So what were all of these transmitters and callsigns that KDKA had at its disposal back then?  The FCC had mandated that each transmitter should be identified with a separate callsign, and in addition to that, some transmitters were given more than one callsign, depending on what form of broadcast activity was involved.  And to complicate the issue still further, some forms of licensed activity could be performed by more than one transmitter, yet still under the one callsign.

            At the time when radio broadcasting station KDKA was born in 1920, there had already been a slew of licensed wireless stations on the air in Pittsburgh, and perhaps even more that were unlicensed.  Beginning in 1915, government documents show at least 10 wireless stations in Pittsburgh before KDKA, including of course the famous amateur radio operator 8XK with Frank Conrad.  During World War 1, Westinghouse was permitted to operate two special wireless stations; 2WE at the factory, and 2WM at Conrad’s home, his own 8XK. 

            Early in the year 1920, Fred Conroy from the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh gave a wireless demonstration at the Westinghouse factory with his station 8XC.  At the time when KDKA was inaugurated later that same year on November 2, a temporary call was affixed, 8ZZ.

            The callsign 8XP was allocated to a small portable transmitter back in 1921, and this was used for the relay of offsite programming back to the main KDKA facility.  In 1923, 8XP, listed at 200 watts, was installed in the Presbyterian Church with the antenna wire running up the steeple.  This callsign 8XP was subsequently applied to other KDKA transmitters, sometimes fixed and sometimes portable.

            In August 1922, a new 1 kW shortwave transmitter 8XS was co-sited with KDKA on the rooftop of Building K at the Westinghouse factory at East Pittsburgh, and this was used to relay KDKA programming to the two mediumwave stations, KDPM in Cleveland Ohio and KFKX in Hastings Nebraska.  Three years later, Frank Conrad transferred his amateur callsign 8XK to Westinghouse, and the call 8XS was relinquished and returned to the FRC, Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner to the FCC.

            In 1924, callsign 8XAU was licensed as a special land station for use at the factory, though during the following year this callsign was deleted and instead, the call 8XK was implemented.  Another special land station during the 1920s was 8XAV, though this unit, rated at 20 kW, was in use for television experiments in the 2 MHz range.

            Some historic documents give the callsign 8XI to Westinghouse during World War 1 and they state that this station was a forerunner for the Westinghouse shortwave station 8XK.  However, this information is incorrect.  Back during the Great War, the call 8XI was held by the University of Pittsburgh, not Westinghouse. 

            However, Westinghouse was allocated the by then relinquished 8XI callsign on July 31, 1928, long after 8XK was already on the air.  This second application of the callsign 8XI was for 20 kW on a variable range of shortwave channels.  Three years later, on February 28, 1931, the Westinghouse usage of this callsign 8XI was deleted.      

            During the year 1923, the FRC announced that all mediumwave stations in the United States should adopt callsigns composed of three letters, not four, and therefore KDKA was to become WKA.  However, this unpopular move was never implemented.

            In 1937, the callsign 8XKA was given to another Westinghouse transmitter for experiments in what was called the ultra shortwave bands, the forerunner to modern FM.  A main channel for this unit was 55.5 MHz, which was heard back in those days in both Australia and New Zealand.  Twenty years later again, Westinghouse inaugurated a new FM station KG2XIU in what has since become the standard international FM Band 2. 

            Well, that’s all we have time for today in this episode of the story of KDKA, which over the years  has utilized 16 shortwave callsigns.  More on a coming occasion.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 399)