Cecil's Lousy Call Letter Answer (repost)

MODERATOR COMMENT: Please note that this thread is from 1999, revived in 2000, 2001, 2004 and a couple of other times. Please don’t bother to post anything that was already posted, and please don’t expect answers from people who may have posted five or ten years ago… – CKDH (4-Feb-2014)

Forgive me Cecil, for I have sinned. I am ashamed to admit that a couple of weeks ago I posted the following screed on alt.fan.cecil-adams, suffering, at the time, from some sort of intellectual 'roid rage, but that is no excuse. I invite your learned thoughts on my comments. (I still think that someone should be horsewhipped for allowing the horrible so-called answer to appear in your book of writings).

On page 176 of “Triumph of the Straight Dope”, which by now all of us should have purchased, Eddie DiLao of Los Angeles asked:

Why do broadcasting call letters start with certain letters depending on what part of the world the station is in, e.g., K in the U.S. west of the Mississippi, W east of the Mississippi, [snip]

And Cecil badly let him down with a poorly researched, often erroneous answer. In the next section, Cecil’s replies are marked with a leading >>, and my comments and corrections are interspersed with a leading ++. And for a more complete detailed review of U.S. call sign policy, please see: http://www.ipass.net/~whitetho/recap.htm

>> The easy part of the answer is that the starting letters of radio call signs were parceled out to the countries of the world by the Berlin International Radio Convention of 1912.

++ In 1912 there may have been a few stragglers still in Berlin, left over from an international radio convention held there back in 1906. But the 1912 convention was held in London.

>> Canada got C,

++ Did not, although in later years Canada did get part of the C series, specifically CF-CK. In the initial allocation, “Canada (British)” was assigned only VAA-VGZ. (Source: May 9, 1913 edition of “Radio Call Letters”)

>> France got F, and so on. The letters assigned to the United States were W, A, N, and K-“wank,” in other words.

++ The letters initially assigned to the U.S. were actually W, N and KD-KZ, which spells “wnkdkz”. (Originally Germany got all the A calls and also KA-KC: the U.S. didn’t get KA-KC until 1929, and added AA-AL after World War Two.)

>> Surely this means something, although one shudders to think what.

++ Um, lousy research? (Lousy literally means “infected with lice”.)

>> Actually, two of the letters are no great mystery. A and N are used by Army and Navy radio stations. Persons having some familiarity with the armed services will now say, Hmm, I’ll bet Navy stations have A and Army stations have N. But no. You can probably guess which Navy ships have the call letters NFDR and NJFK. A slightly tougher one is NJVF. Time’s up: the James V. Forrestal.

++ The U.S. Navy began using three-letter N calls around 1909, so the 1912 convention merely ratified this practice. And, according to “Radio Call Letters”, in 1913 “the combinations from WUA to WVZ and WXA to WZZ are reserved for the stations of the Army of the United States.” (Before 1913 the Army had used a variety of calls, including two letter F- calls for forts, three-letter AT- calls for Army Transports, etc.)

>> W and K were used by other types of stations, eventually including commercial stations.

++ This should read that W and K were used by commercial land stations “from the beginning” of their licencing. There were already commercial stations in 1913, because there was commercial use of radio for communications years before the appearance of broadcasting. And from the beginning commercial stations normally got K and W calls.

>> At first there was no distinction between east and west.

++ UNTRUTH, UNTRUTH, UNTRUTH!!! A clear pattern of “K in the west, W in the east” is apparent for land stations, beginning with the July 1, 1913 issue of “Radio Stations of the United States”, which was the first official station list issued after government licencing began.

>> The first commercial station, in fact, was KDKA in Pittsburgh,

++ There are still arguments about what should be considered as “the first radio broadcasting station”, but I’ll let this slide…

>> established in 1924.

++ 1924!? In 1924 KDKA was celebrating its fourth birthday! The station was first licenced on October 27, 1920, and started broadcasting with the November 2, 1920 election results. (The station actually used the call sign of 8ZZ–a “Special Amateur” call sign–for the first few days of broadcasting).

>> But most eastern radio stations chose call signs starting with W.

++ They didn’t choose–they had no choice, and followed whatever was the current practice. KDKA was a fluke–for a short period in late 1920 through early 1921, for reasons unknown, most land stations shared the four-letter K calls that were normally assigned to ship stations. KDKA is merely the only surviving broadcast station licenced during that short anomoly. When the original “K-in-the-west, W-in-the-east” policy for land stations was restored in 1921, broadcast stations had to follow that. Thus, although in September, 1921 Westinghouse requested that their new station in Massachusetts be assigned the callsign “KDKS”, they got “WBZ” instead.

>> In order to help persons who otherwise could not tell whether they were in Los Angeles or New York, the Federal Radio Commission in 1927 decreed that henceforth west would be K and east would be W.

++ Your reference for this “decree”, please? In 1927 the newly formed Federal Radio Commission took over regulation of radio from the Department of Commerce. But, to the best of my knowledge, it did nothing more than quietly continue the policy of “K in the west, W in the east” which the Department of Commerce had been using for land stations for over a decade.

>> The remaining question is what W and K stand for. Nobody really knows. Demented theories vouchsafed to this department include: 1) They stand for “watt” and “kilowatt.” Watt? 2) W stands for “watt” and K is from the Spanish que, what = watt. I have notified the police to have the author of this picked up. 3) Recalling W-A-N-K,

++ please don’t remind me…

>> we note that in Morse code A is dot-dash, while N is dash-dot. Add a dash to dot-dash and we get dot-dash-dash: W! Add a dash to dash-dot and we get dash-dot-dash: K!!

++ Then you put your right foot out. Now you’re doing the hokey pokey! Did you know that “dog” is “god” spelled backward?

++ I don’t claim to know why K and W were chosen, but it is possible W originally stood for “west”. The reason is that the initial policy was “W in the west, K in the east”, and applied only to ship stations. This rule was first adopted by the Department of Commerce to keep track of merchant ship identities, and was adopted before the government began licencing radio transmitters. A short time later, with the passage of the Radio Act of 1912, the government started licencing stations, and the Department of Commerce decided to assign the land station calls in the reverse pattern of what it had used for the ship station calls, i.e. “K in the west, W in the east” for land stations.

++ Also, for the sake of completeness, it is worth noting that the original “K/W” land boundary ran north from the Texas-NM border. It was quietly shifted to the Mississippi River in late January, 1923, which explains why some early stations such as WKY in Oklahoma and WBAP in Texas, first licenced before 1923, are now “on the wrong side of the Mississippi”.

>> It tires me just to think about it; I must go home and rest. Maybe it will come to me in a dream.

++ Dream on…

++ I pray that the above errors I’ve documented are the result of a grotesque sequence of typographical errors. If not, then my faith in Unca Cece’s omniscience has badly shaken…

Ignorance is Death! Death to Ignorance!

whitetho@ipass.net == Thomas H. White == Cary, NC
Radio History web page: http://ipass.net/~whitetho/index.htm

Don’t hold back, tell us how you REALLY feel.

your humble TubaDiva

My, we do seem to have a bit of dog’s breakfast here, don’t we? I shall reply in full soon.

C’mere, Little Ed. We need to talk.


Well, since this thread has been unceremoniously wrenched from its slumber, I might as well post an short update to the OP of 21 months ago.

  1. Change the date in “The U.S. Navy began using three-letter N calls around 1909” to “effective November 20, 1909”.

I think that’s it. Still eagerly awaiting Cecil’s reply, I remain, etc. etc.

“With all deliberate speed”, Unca Cece’s promised update – brilliant as usual – finally appears in this week’s column, Why do U.S. radio call letters start with W in the east and K in the west (revisited)? I happily withdraw my earlier posted tirade.

Cecil took approximately 780 days to produce this “reply in full soon” – i.e. 336 days longer than the Iranian hostage crisis (although 120 fewer than the siege of Leningrad). In contrast, he needed but 31 days to get Lee’s brassière-sizing update into print. Not that I’m jealous – this just shows Unca Cece has his priorities straight. (By the way, Cecil hopefully should have gotten his sawbuck by now, unless of course the letter was, you know, waylaid in the mailroom or something). I’d also like to point out an error in my own post – I claimed “infested with lice”; as Cecil pointed out, it was actually “weevils in the Linotype”. I stand corrected and shall strive to be more accurate in the future.

All Hail Cecil! etc. etc.

Yeah, but in explaining why the errors were made in the first place, Cecil said:

To which I must reply:

Cecil and Ed are still using a LINOTYPE in this day and age?!?!! :eek:

Yep, one line at a time. :wink:

Then there are areas that don’t fall into the W = East, K = West plan. In the Twin Cities (Minnesota) both letters apply. Some stations change from one to the other without moving across the river, some recent examples are:
WUSA became KARE (Channel 11 TV)
WLOL became KSJN (99.5 FM)
KMJZ became WXPT (104.1 FM)

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, KXAS (TV) used to be WBAP. WBAP radio still exists. Apparently, if a station changes its call letters, they must use “K.”

Just so everyone knows that not only does CNN think that Guam is west of the mississippi river, radio stations there (at least the ones I know of) start with a “K.”

So, while America starts her day in Guam, Guam is somehow west of the Mississippi. Of course, if you ignore the international date line, it is the shortest route.

To make sure that they (people on Chomorro Standard Time - no DST there) don’t get their TV shows screwed up, by the way, national news is one day late and regular weekly TV shows are 6 and one half!

Ahhhh, to be a neglected territory of a great imperialistic state!

Yes, any material change in the license can cause normalization. Three-letter signs have to be changed to four, too. WOR-TV became WWOR-TV a few years ago when they were forced to move from New York to Secaucus as a punishment for some irregularities. (New Jersey hadn’t had a commercial VHF station since the early 60’s, when the failing commercial channel 13 in Newark was transferred to provide NYC with an NET outlet.)

I am only bumping this thread as what well may be the earliest example of the excellence of the SDMB. :cool:

W was preferred by Westinghouse, and K by Kaiser.

I’m assuming that epepke posted this to showcase the kind of fanciful “folk etymologies” that can develop decades later, which supposedly “explain” origins, in spite of there being exactly zero credible supporting evidence. At the time of the initial 1911 adoption of K and W callsigns for U.S. radio transmitters, Westinghouse was nearly a decade away from setting up its first station. I don’t have any idea what company “Kaiser” is supposed to refer to.

I have nothing to add to this discussion except: When I was in college, at the University of Minnesota, Morris, our campus radio station (on which I was a DJ) had the honor/curse of having the call letters KUMM. Every so often, we would have an open call for one liners to put on carts, as a sort of station ID (we called them bumpers, I don’t know the correct terminology). One of my absolute favorites was: “KUMM–because if we were east of the Mississippi, we’d be WUMM”.

There is/was a radio station in CA with the call letters KOME. Their “bumper” was “Don’t touch that dial, it has KOME on it!”

Or maybe I’ve just been fooled all these years.

You aren’t very bright, are you?

how rude! ilsa lund, no supper for you young man!

North Texas State University had a radio station named KNTU. When the university changed its name to University of North Texas, for some strange reason, the radio station kept its old call sign.

Maybe so, but I’m bright enough to know that personal insults are only allowed in the Pit: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=248772