The WENR-KYW Station collection documents the history of two radio stations in Chicago, Illinois, during the early days of radio broadcasting. A core group of on-air talent (singers, musicians, actors, and comedians) as well as engineers, music directors, and other administrative personnel began their broadcasting careers with Station KYW and then moved to Station WENR, where they remained until WENR was sold to NBC.
The history of WENR is connected to that of KYW, a joint venture of the Westinghouse Corporation and The Commonwealth Edison Company. Station KYW first began broadcasting on November 11, 1921 and was the first station to broadcast live opera.
The station sat atop the roof of the Commonwealth Edison Building at 72 West Adams Street. The agreement between the Westinghouse Corporation and the Commonwealth Edison Company stated that the station would be under the control of Westinghouse, although housed on the roof of the Edison Building. The station would be operated jointly by both companies. The Edison Company provided most of the musical, dramatic, cultural, and educational programs.
In 1922, KYW became affiliated with the Chicago Evening American newspaper. They were to provide news, market, and stock reports. Radio news became a daily part of KYW's broadcasting programming. By 1923 the station introduced the "World Crier" service which broadcast on the hour and half-hour, 24 hours a day. It gave listeners information about national and world events. This service was discontinued in 1927 due to scheduling problems.
The station was also one of the pioneers of sports broadcasting. The station broadcast its first baseball game on April 22, 1922, giving listeners a play by play account of the opening game of the series between Chicago and Cincinnati at Cincinnati. The broadcast of the Marron-Northwestern football game on Saturday, October 14, 1922, directly from Staff Field in Chicago, was the first football game ever broadcast in the area.
Other programs included the Midnight Revue, which brought listeners such entertainers as The Duncan Sisters, Wendell Hall, Dream Daddy Harry Davis, Uncle Bob, Little Jack Little, and Paul Ash.
By 1926, the joint venture between the companies was in danger of unraveling as each company had a different purpose for the radio station. The Edison Company was committed to provide public relations and cultural services to the area, while Westinghouse "wanted to make a profit and build an exclusive franchise."
The Edison Company soon became affiliated with four other companies and organized The Great Lakes Broadcasting Company. These companies were: Public Service Company, Peoples Gas Company, Midland United Company and the Middle West Utilities Co. John F. Gilchrist, vice-president of the Edison Company, became president. They purchased two radio stations, WENR from E. N. Rauland and WBCN from J. R. Foster and Walter McDonnell. These two stations shared time on the 266-meter band.
WENR was initially owned and operated by the All-American Radio Corporation and began broadcasting in April 1925 as a 10-watt station. Soon, power was increased to 100-watts and programs could be heard as far as Cincinnati, Ohio. By August of that year, power was increased to 1000-watts and the station could be heard as far away as New Zealand.
WBCN was known as the "Station of the Southtown Economist." It was owned and operated by Foster and McDonnell, publishers of the Southtown Economist, a weekly newspaper that covered many Southside Chicago communities.
On June 1, 1927, Edison dissolved its relationship with KYW and began broadcasting from the Spanish Garden Studios of WENR, which were located on the 23rd floor of the Straus Building at 310 South Michigan Avenue. WENR became known as "The Voice of Service."
Morgan Eastman, the musical director of KYW and one of the pioneer broadcasters of the United States, became the general manager and brought many of the former KYW staff with him to the new station. Frank Westphal, a veteran orchestra leader, vaudeville entertainer, and composer became the first station director and later became director of the WENR Jazz Orchestra. According to Paul McCluer, a former announcer, "practically all of the Edison Studio staff moved from KYW to WENR simultaneously creating immediately the most experienced radio program and engineering staff in the Middle West." Staff members included Gale Swift (assistant manager), Sallie Menkes (accompanist and director of the Edison String Trio), and Ernest Gager (chief engineer). Everett Mitchell, announcer, baritone, and popular radio personality, also became part of the staff.
WENR became one of Chicago's most popular radio stations, especially because of its outstanding programs. WENR offered listeners orchestral music, children's features, home service talks, string trios, comedy teams, plays, and operas. Programs included The Weener Minstrels, The Smith Family, Mike and Herman (Dutch dialect comedy team), and the WENR Derby, an original radio horse race run twice each day. Jim and Marion Jordan, before they became Fibber McGee and Molly, broadcast a children's program called The Air Scouts. Irma Glen, another popular entertainer, played the mighty WENR Wurlitzer Organ throughout the broadcasting day, as well as participating in many other shows.
Programming also included educational features such as Mrs. Anna J. Peterson's show which "discussed management methods and economics in terms that benefit the housewife."
By April 1928 a new 50,000-watt transmitter was built in Downers Grove, about 23 miles from downtown Chicago, and WENR and WBCN moved from 266 meters (11130 kc) to 288 meters (1040 kc).
In the fall of 1928 WENR was ordered by the Federal Radio Commission to share the 344.6-meter band (870 kc) with WLS, previously owned by Sears Roebuck and recently acquired by The Prairie Farmer. WLS was awarded 5/7ths time, and WENR only 2/7ths time. The decision was immediately appealed but pending a decision, WENR had to change its channels and reduce its airtime to conform to the order. Eventually, the Radio Commission's decision was reversed and a year later WENR was granted half time with WLS.
WENR was acquired by NBC in 1931 and became, along with WLS, the Chicago outlets for the NBC Blue Network. This gave NBC a 50,000-watt outlet in the nation's second-largest urban area. According to the March 1931 edition of RCA News, "the move is said to be an answer to the repeated suggestion of listeners in the Chicago sector who said they were denied many outstanding air programs and features." The majority of the station personnel were incorporated into NBC, which moved the studios into the newly built Merchandise Mart. WENR soon lost its local identity and personality.
In August 1943, WENR was sold by NBC to ABC in compliance with FCC requirements regarding multiple ownership of stations in the same community. Soon after WENR and WLS made the change from 870 to 890 kc. WENR continued to share equal time with WLS on that channel but eventually the two half-time licenses were combined into one and by 1954 the WLS call letters were used full time. WENR became an ABC-FM facility on 94.7mc and by 1964 the call letters were dropped and the change was made to WLS/FM.