Spark to Voice – Early WOI Radio

The year was 1911. An Iowa State College physics professor fondly known as “Dad” Hoffman became interested in the new medium “wireless.” Hoffman thought radio might have a future and that the college should begin experimentation. Professor Hoffman approached college administrators requesting money to build a “wireless station” on campus. The rotary spark-gap transmitter and receiving equipment was assembled in 1912, mostly of hand made and the then few available commercial parts. Most likely the station was operated during the forepart of 1912 to a limited extent, unlicensed,
as was common practice of the era.

On August 13, 1912, Iowa State College received a United States Department of
Commerce Land Station License bearing assigned call letters “9YI, “ The station operated as an amateur, or ham radio station, through personalized two-way communication with other similar stations as far as several hundred miles distance. Through 1913 station 9YI remained on-air. The highly recognizable 240-cycle tone note of 9YI’s synchronous spark gap transmitter became well known to ham radio operators throughout the Midwest. The frequency was near 375 meters.

In 1914 the station came under control of the college Electrical Engineering Department directed by Professor F. A. Fish. He maintained 9YI as a highly efficient station, an educational tool for a half-dozen years transmitting weather, farm products and market reports as well as amateur radio communications.

In the fall of 1915 Iowa State College demonstrated their wireless expertise at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Soon after KDKA*, generally accredited as Americas first “broadcast” station, went on-air November 2, 1920, in                                Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania broadcasting in voice Harding-Cox presidential election returns. Professor Fish first heard a voice radio transmission and Iowa
State College began seriously investigating broadcast radio.

Iowa State College was paying due heed to KDKA developments which were proving the possibilities of and the future for “broadcast” radio. Determined to construct a broadcast station, the college’s Electrical Engineering Department chose Massachusetts Institution of Technology graduate Harmon B. Deal to supervise the project. Construction of the transmitter, designed for 50 watts power, began in early 1921 by engineering students Andrew G. (Andy)
Woolfries and Eugene Fritschel, both radio amateurs, at the Engineering Annex.

 A multiple-wire aerial was strung between the building and the college water tower, but this presented a hazard. The water tower was the only metal structure on campus and lightning vulnerable. To minimize danger to the transmitter and staff the station went off-air during storms. The aerial was connected directly to earth ground. At least one engineer refused to return to work during inclement weather following a lightning bolt mishap.

In early 1921 50 watts was considered a “super-power outfit,” but by October, the transmitter design was changed to an even more powerful 100 watts as the constructors learned by doing. The “Big Outfit” was completed and tested the evening of November 21, 1921, on a wavelength of 375 meters. Andy Woolfries, using a carbon element microphone, spoke the first words over 9YI thus becoming “chief announcer.” The first program was one hour of concert music. We shall visit Woolfries’ distinguished history at WOI later.

That first evening on-air 9YI with Woolfries had two-way voice communication with stations in Pennsylvania, Fort Worth, Texas and Denver, Colorado’s Fort Simmons General Hospital. The 100-watt radiotelephone transmitter, technically described by the engineering staff as “a constant current system of modulation of alternating current filament lighting and 1500 volt plate potential,” was constructed at a cost of $1396. Station 9YI initially broadcast only a few hours a week. Each broadcast began with playing Bacchanal from the Tales of Hoffmann. This was done so that listeners could locate the signal of 9YI amongst the clamor of other stations. After an appropriate length of time,
either Woolfries or Fritschel would read weather reports and a few market figures, then sign 9YI off the air. Chancy Hoover, a young Iowa State electrical engineering student and amateur radio operator, recalled later when he joined the WOI radio staff, “You had to search around for 9YI because of interference from other stations, most ham, but Ames always played the Bacchanal so you knew you had the right station.” 9YI’s broadcast operation was not nearly as smooth as it may seem. Government rules of the time required all news and entertainment content to be transmitted upon 833.3 kilocycles (360 meters) and all government reports, e.g., weather information, to be transmitted at 618 kilocycles (485 meters). This regulation, imposed upon all American broadcast stations, forced both the radio station and the listener to change frequencies from 360 to 475 meters and back to 360 meters during the course of single broadcast. Fortunately this regulation was short-lived.

In May 1922 Iowa State College hosted and the Campus Radio Club 9YI sponsored the first statewide radio convention and short course. Over 500 radio operators from across the Iowa attended. The annual conventions continued through at least 1925. A month earlier, on April 28, 1922, Iowa State College received its official broadcast station license with the call sign WOI and assigned an 800-kilocycle frequency assignment. WOI began immediate broadcasting. As true in many discussions of early broadcasting, there is conjecture of how the call sign became WOI, but it appears it was a random selection by the United States Department of Commerce. The original license has not been seen for many years, presumably forever lost. While the WOI engineering staff performed marvelous feats constructing superior equipment and coverage area, the purpose of WOI was its broadcast program content. The station had outgrown its original function as an engineering school experiment. The 100-watt transmitter soon proved inadequate to cover the whole of the intended fledgling Iowa radio audience. A 500-watt transmitter was built and placed into operation during December 1923. This new transmitter, too, was considered the “last word” in equipment and power. The 500 watts gave ‘fair’ coverage of central Iowa and under favorable conditions, the state.

Expansion within WOI brought 1924 demand for additional physical space. It was commandeered from adjacent users in the same building. Improvements included new wooden furniture and the hanging of large, heavy velvet drapes to deaden unwanted studio sound. The drapes remaine d until the studios were moved in 1939 although reportedly tattered. In late 1924 another 500-watt transmitter, having the capability of 750 watts with government approval was built by WOI engineering staff. Permission was granted in August 1925.
The new 750-watt transmitter was built at a cost of $3402. General Electric had asked $18,000 for a similar transmitter they would build. Inasmuch as Iowa State’s president received a $10,000 salary in 1924, it seemed imprudent to spend nearly double for a commercially built transmitter. In January 1925 WOI was reassigned to an operating frequency of 1110 kilocycles by the Department of Commerce. Shared with 13 other stations and therefore interference laden,
1110 proved detrimental to the station’s geographical coverage. To offset the lost of coverage area, ISC graduate student Ralph Knouf, who had been
employed by General Electric, was contracted to build a 5,000 watt transmitter. It went into operation in January 1927. Once again WOI boasted one of the most powerful and technically advanced transmitters in the United States. The new transmitter featured automatic crystalcontrolled frequency in use by only eight other broadcast stations.

June 1927 brought yet another frequency assignment, 1130 kilocycles, which proved interference plagued by stations on nearby frequencies. Similar problems were developing throughout the country as more broadcast stations came on the air. A general nationwide US Government change of broadcast frequency assignments came in 1928 implementing directives of the Radio Act of 1927. This was most welcomed at WOI. Ames was assigned a shared frequency of 560 kilocycles with KFEQ, St. Joseph, Missouri for daylight broadcasting. WOI had to reduce power to 3,500 watts, but that power level at 560 proved vastly superior coverage to any previous frequency. WOI and KFEQ operated without difficulty on 560 kilocycles, although out of KFEQ’s commercial necessity and their need of a full-time license, WOI moved frequency once again.

In November 1929, WOI was licensed for daylight hours at 5,000 watts on present day 640 kilocycles. The frequency was also used full-time by commercial stations KFI, Los Angeles, and WAIU, Columbus, Ohio, but caused no problem with WOI’s daytime broadcast schedule. The Iowa State College administration mandated that “WOI exists for the primary purpose of making available to the state of Iowa (by radio) services of the College. Therefore,
the station should stand for education, information and such entertainment as will be recognized as Iowa State programs.” In July 1922 scheduled daily weather reports were broadcast, one of the first American stations to do so on the exclusive 485-meter wavelength. Market reports were hand copied in code over-the-air from NAJ, a government station near Chicago, and rebroadcast. Come fall 1922 WOI broadcast its first ever college football game with the announcer sitting upon a high wood fence, holding his microphone. Coe College (of Cedar Rapids, Iowa) beat Iowa State 24 – 0.

WOI was reorganized in 1925 funded from the college’s agricultural extension service, engineering extension service and the general college fund. Professor D. B. Faber, director of the engineering extension service, was put in charge of WOI. Professor W. I. Griffith was named program director and Professor Fish was charged with technical operations. During 1925, WOI broadcast a total of 425 hours. The program schedule included short course lectures, weather forecasts, market reports, educational talks, chapel and music played from
the famous Iowa State Campanile Andy Woolfries began his popular program “The Music Shop” which is still aired today on WOI-FM. The program remains as one of the longest running radio programs in the United States. In 1925 the program aired between 7:30 and 8:50 AM and included Woolfries’ comments about the composers and their works. Woolfries retired in 1941 after a distinguished engineering and broadcast career at Iowa State.

1926 was a banner year for WOI. Station organization was simplified and placed
under Professor Griffith’s supervision, a position he held for two decades. Griffith is credited with fostering positive notoriety for WOI’s broadcast product. The United States Department of Agriculture installed its long-sought current crop and market news wire service in July ending the hand copied code reports from NAJ. This valuable information source coupled with expanded services from the college’s educational, music and athletic programs found
much favor with the station’s growing audience.

WOI broadcast 1,228 hours in 1927 including the beginnings of four book club programs which were popular due to lack of rural libraries. WOI began a by-mail circulating library in 1930. The library operated as a nonprofit organization and was granted a special postal rate by the government. This service has highly used by rural Iowans. In 1931, WOI was selected Iowa’s most popular radio station in a national magazine poll.

WOI remains today at 640 kiloHertz with 5,000 watts and a full-time license. WOI is affiliated with National Public Radio, a consortium of cooperating educational broadcast stations in the United States. WOI-FM began broadcasting July 1, 1949, with 100 kilowatts on 90.1 megacycles as an early Iowa FM station. WOI-FM remains as such today. WOI-TV became Iowa’s second broadcast licensed television station February 21, 1950 when it signed on channel 4. It was the country’s first educationally owned television station
that also broadcast commercial programming. WOI-TV exists today as a fully commercial station on channel 5 although no longer owned by now Iowa State University.

Dwight W. Smith
Sachse, Texas
*KDKA had its beginnings as land station, 8XK, built by Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad. Westinghouse and Dr. Conrad were interested in radio as a means of marketing newly developed products, none other than $10 radio receiving sets selling in a Pittsburgh department store.

Author’s Statement: I gratefully acknowledge the permission of Donald T. Wirth allowing me to research WOI archives for information contained in this article. Mr. Wirth is WOI’s Associate General Manager, Finance and Operations. The information was gleaned from newspaper clippings, albums, station memos, thesis papers and my previous knowledge of the subject matter. Any factual error in this article is my sole responsibility. This article is not copywrited and may be republished as useful. — DWS. September 2003.