History of WHIS Radio, Bluefield
Some pictures of WHIS radio and television are here.
A 1939 full-page advertisement for WHIS can be found in this blog.
This history was supplied by the station.
It all began 65 years ago! From the first moment young Jim and Hugh Shott, Jr. actually detected recognizable sound above the piercing "Squee-ee" static emitted from their earphones "tuned" to KDKA, a dream was born.
In 1922 older, wiser men put little stock in this new toy called radio, but young visionaries were predicting a great new world of communications. It was in that year—1922—that the Shott boys commissioned Ernest E. Kitts to build them a transmitter. The crude affair, powered by batteries, was set in operation in the office of the owner-editor the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, the late Congressman Hugh Ike Shott, Sr.
Here, with a Victrola and a batch of quarter-inch thick records, Station WHAJ (Hugh and Jim) beamed its first signal. "Programming" which was very sporadic and entirely at the whim of the young broadcasters consisted of various individuals dropping by to play the records, and gradually anyone in town who could "do anything—sing, pick a guitar, talk"—began haunting the office for the chance to "get on the rad-dio."
As the traffic of would-be radio performers in the editor's office became more congested, the Editor's temper became shorter. On the floor of that office was his prized possession—a white "liberty rug" with the Great Seal of the United States in the middle and seals of each state forming a colorful and impressive border. One fateful day the transmitter's batteries spilled acid, eating great holes in the beautiful rug.
And that was the end of station WHAJ—but not the end of the dream!
In 1928 Hugh Ike Shott, Sr., was running for Congress. Young Jim and Hugh, Jr., thought it would be a great stunt to "broadcast" election returns. In the six short years following the rug incident, the air waves had become so congested with "ham operators" transmitting on any frequency at any time, that the government had established the first Federal Radio Commission, making it mandatory to obtain a license and an assigned frequency. An old friend, Judge Ira Robinson of Grafton, was chairman of the federal agency, and Jim contacted him for a temporary permit just to broadcast the election returns.
In no uncertain terms, Judge Robinson made it clear that radio was serious business not a gimmick. Permission denied! However, Judge Robinson advised the boys that West Virginia had one license allocation left. They began immediately to "walk" their application through miles of red tape, and in the Spring of 1929 obtained approval to transmit on their assigned frequency of 1420 kilocycles, sharing time and frequency with Station WRBX in Roanoke. At this point, "to soften up the old man," call letters were changed to WHIS (Hugh Ike Shott).
Now, as bona fide licensed radio operators, they were sorely in need of a station. At the same time that radio was suffering its first growing pains, the motion picture industry was converting to "talkies" all over the country. Any company with the know how to construct broadcast transmitting equipment was too busy making talking picture equipment to promise anything.
Undaunted, Hugh and Jim rented rooms on the top floor of the West Virginian Hotel, built a tower on the roof, and hired a staff—Ken Beaugee as manager, Leo Davidson, and Ed Shumate, an engineer. With a crystal-powered transmitter and power of 100 watts, at 6 p.m. on June 27, 1929, Atwater Kents and Radiolas in the vicinity picked up a strange voice saying, "This is WHIS, Bluefield, signing on the air!"
It was a moment of great triumph and great confusion! Moments before the switch was to be pushed, it occurred to someone that they didn't have a theme song, an absolute MUST in radio's early years. The new manger, Ken Beaugee, said "How about 'Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life'? God knows, that's what we've got here!" Thus it was that "Ah Sweet Mystery of Life" remained the WHIS theme song for many years. . .until recording companies ceased releasing new prints.
Being more concerned with the moment than those who would attempt to chronicle the event in later years, little evidence remains as to just what transpired on the first two hour broadcasts. It was live, of course, and featured The Lions Club Quartet, made up of Bill McDougle, Joe Wilds, Dick Morgan and John Mastin. Other local talent, and there was an abundance of it in those days, included James Elmer Brown, Maurie Barrett, Marion Smith, Blanche Armentrout and Charles Spencer. The first of many millions of records to follow was "Broadway Melody," No. 1 hit of the day.
Beginning the next day, WHIS inaugurated its regular schedule: 12-1 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. The still skeptical owner, Congressman Shott, issued a statement that "WHIS had been established for the purpose of serving Bluefield and the great surrounding territory." In all its years of continuous broadcasting, WHIS has never lost sight of this responsibility for service to the community.
The senior Shott had good reason to take a dim view of his days' expensive new venture. During the first year, the station grossed approximately $85 a week. There were salaries and rent to pay, records to buy, equipment to maintain and replace constantly with new developments as the budding industry grew. Fortunately, for the most part, good talent was plentiful merely for the privilege of broadcasting. With the great stock market crash and "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" the number one hit song because almost everyone could identify with it, subsidizing a rather rocky radio station became a problem.
WHIS not only survived, but racked up some notable "firsts."
It was in 1931 that WHIS became the first radio station outside of Russia to ever broadcast a murder trial direct from the courtroom.
Minnie Stull was accused of murdering her three-year-old stepchild by scalding it to death in a wash tub of boiling water. Such a heinous crime had aroused the public greatly. At this time, the Mercer County Courthouse in Princeton was under construction, and Minnie's trial was to be held in the American Legion building across the street. As the room was too small to permit spectators, Judge Dillard suggested to Jim Shott that perhaps loudspeakers could be rigged up so folks on the outside could hear the proceedings.
Jim and Hugh grasped the opportunity to go a step further and actually broadcast the bizarre murder trial. Several carbon microphones were obtained and these were placed in cut-out shoe boxes, surrounded by cotton to absorb outside noises, and the boxes were passed from judge to witnesses to attorneys, etc. Ken Beaugee used one to describe the scene and to provide the "color" for those listening in.
Minnie was convicted and given a death sentence, but the case was appealed on the grounds that broadcasting the proceedings had made a "circus" of the trial. In a re-trial in Greenbrier County Minnie was given life, and served twenty years.
By 1933, with the country struggling valiantly to survive the worst depression in its history, radio had come into its own and was a household necessity. It was radio that dispelled the economic gloom with its constant "whistling in the dark" attitude; the one voice that was always cheerful, hopeful.
But radio stations were as hard hit financially as any other business, and some didn't make it. In 1933, WHIS bought out the Roanoke station with whom it shared time. After having already been moved from 1420 to 1410 k.c., the Federal Communications Commission found it necessary to move all stations 30 k.c. up the dial to provide for more stations.
With its new frequency and power of 250 watts, WHIS went full time. Mel Barnett had seen the handwriting on the wall and had moved to WHIS in 1930. Later several others from WRBX came to WHIS. . .Pat Murphy, Bill Saunders, Barney Nash.
In 1935 a new 500 watt transmitter was purchased for the West Virginian Hotel operation, and the staff was moved to temporary studios on Commerce Street. Just one month later, the first of two major fires destroyed the brand new transmitter. At this point, to compound its woes, the city fathers "requested" that such a hazard be moved out of the city limits. A location was found at Harry Heights, and a powerful new tower was built.
The Commerce Street location saw WHIS emerge as a business that could stand on its own. Pat Murphy, a salesman from Roanoke, succeeded Ken Beaugee as manager. Kathryn Mattics, Margaret Subelet and Martha Jane Becker were perhaps the first female account executives in the business.
"Dear Diary," the forerunner of all soap operas, was the most popular program on the air, while C. C. Pyle and football's famed Red Grainger did a series of records on sports, becoming radio's first syndicated program.
Some 28 years later, Jack Ruby was to become the first to commit murder while millions watched on TV, but on February 8, 1935, at 7:17 p.m., Kid Canfield, a reformed gambler who lectured on the evils of the vice, became the first known victim of "mike fright" when he dropped dead at the WHIS microphone. Mel Barnett had just introduced the nationally known lecturer, and Mr. Canfield uttered one opening remark and keeled over. In the excited confusion that followed, someone had presence of mind enough to put on a record. The same record played over and over until midnight, much to the baffled annoyance of listeners. [The March 13, 1935, Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported that Canfield (real name: George Washington Bonner) “collapsed while speaking over radio station WHIS last night,” so apparently this event occurred on March 12, 1935. -jm note]
By this time, the major endeavor had become the annual broadcasting of the Community Christmas Tree fund-raising marathons staged from the Granada Theatre. To this day, these programs are recalled nostalgically as Bluefield's greatest entertainment triumphs.
Work began in September each year lining up the best talent in the area, writing scripts for live playlets dramatizing the eight to ten hours on the appointed Sunday each year: The Theatre was jam-packed with spectators, while thousands of listeners waited at home to hear their names and donation broadcast. These radio spectacles were broadcast annually for more than twenty years, and good times or bad, they never failed to meet their financial goal.
And each year just as surely as Christmas would come, at some point during the hectic preparation for the shows, the entire radio staff would be fired and rehired. It was during one of these firings that Lindsay Alley was hired as manager of WHIS. A short time later he married WHIS's talented script writer-actress, Norma Lee Davis. Charlie Armentrout was taken on as the new announcer. This team wrote, produced and performed radio's first dramatized commercials. These commercial "playlets" caught on and were soon being emulated all over the country.
Through those early years, WHIS presented a lot of local talent: Ed Kitts, Jack Clark, Tom Stewart, "Bugs" Wilson, Louis Douthat, Miles Foland: Stuart O'Dell and Red Clark's "Breakfast Club" was a perennial favorite.
Also WHIS was well-known as a proving ground for country music artists. Among the WHIS "regulars" who moved on to fame and fortune in this field were Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Wright (husband of Kitty Wells, Martha Carson, the Holden Brothers, Lynn Davis and Molly O'Day, Lee Brothers, King of the Fiddlers Arthur Smith, ad infinitum!
In 1939 the station moved next door to a newly erected building, and for the first time had studios tailored expressly for broadcasting purposes.
It was in that year that WHIS became affiliated with the "Blue Network" of the National Broadcasting Company, bringing great live shows of radio's "Golden Era" into area homes. In 1941 the government decreed that NBC could not operate two networks (the "Red" and the "Blue") so the Blue was sold and became what is now the American Broadcasting Company. At this time, WHIS elected to stay with NBC and has retained this affiliation to the present.
By now, radio had "arrived" as a tremendous force on the American scene. By the time the entire nation listened to that Sunday's fateful announcement that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, already there were rumors of radio with actual pictures! But there were far more urgent directions into which electronic know-how must be channeled during the war years that followed.
Spinning records was not a job that the draft board considered worthy of deferment, so personnel came and went. But true to tradition, the show went on, sometimes under most adverse circumstances. Like the time Pat Murphy was doing a somber newscast of war catastrophes when a mouse ran up his pants leg. Without missing a word, Pat grabbed the mouse and held on so tightly that when the newscast was over, so was the mouse! But humor and tragedy ran hand in hand. One evening O. C. Young was recording the piano playing of Bob Longworth, a Daily Telegraph employee. The record completed, as Longworth opened the heavy soundproof door to leave, he dropped dead in O. C.'s arms, thus becoming WHIS's second on-the-spot fatality.
In 1948, in order that more people in the area could received the great network entertainment programs, WHIS increased its power to 5,000 watts and erected four towers to beam the powerful signal directionally after sunset; a great theory that proved costly and technically impractical.
After the failure of the directional towers (known locally as "Shott's Folly"), WHIS management continued to search for some means of reaching ALL the people of the area. The answer appeared to be a new development called Frequency Modulation. And so it was that in 1948, WHIS-FM was born.
With an effective radiated power of 186,000 watts from a transmitter and tower 3,850 feet above sea level, the voices of WHIS-FM could be heard within a radius of 150 miles.
WHIS-FM was the world's most powerful commercial FM station!
More powerful than commercial. There was one hitch: there were very, very few homes equipped with the special radio required to receive FM broadcasts! After waging a lengthy and costly battle, it became apparent that WHIS-FM had been born fifteen years too soon!
Win a few. . .lose a few! With hardly more than shrug, Jim and Hugh, Jr., gave up on FM and turned to the new rage sweeping post-war America. . .television.
Humble Beginning is Climaxed by Opening of Elaborate Studios
Pioneers and "Bugs" Give Way To Efficient Organization As WHIS Progresses From Plaything and Fad To Powerful Bluefield Public Servant
This article appears to have been published in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. It describes WHAJ, which was licensed to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph & E. K. Kitts in July 1922 and was deleted in late 1922 or early 1923. The same newspaper which operated WHAJ started WHIS in 1929.
By RALPH E. SHUPE
Sleepless nights, angry and neglected wives, gallons of coffee, miles of half-smoked cigarettes, exultation at unearthly squawks and weird squeals, despair at unexpected and unexplained silences, jumbles of wires, screwdrivers, queer looking tubes and gadgets, smiles of amused and skeptical neighbors and business associates, fascination at the amazing results of a combination of storage batteries, dry cells and twisted wires—out of all these Radio Station WHIS was born.
But WHIS had an elder though short-lived "big brother."
Twenty years ago, radio broadcasting was a wild dream, a vision in the minds of a few enthusiasts who were regarded as "nuts" or "screwballs" by their brethren who drew regular salaries and lived by the clock. The telephone was generally conceded to be a sound and useful instrument. But the very idea of sending one's voice through the air without wires—you might accomplish the feat occasionally— but to talk regularly over the "wireless"—Ha! Ha! Fantastic!
Under such conditions, a few amateur radio "bugs" began to experiment with wireless broadcasting in Bluefield two decades ago. An unknown "hero" had a crude receiving apparatus set up in a shack on Stoney Ridge on the north side of Bluefield. It looked like a "Buck Rogers" contraption. You felt as though you were calling on a spiritualistic medium when you entered the crude outbuilding. With poorly concealed misgivings you placed headphones to your ears. Then you watched with pop-eyed amazement as the operator began his mysterious manipulation of the innumerable dials and controls. After a head-splitting succession of squeals and eerie whistling, you became skeptical. "It won't work—it's just a crazy idea," you thought. "But here, what's this?"
Faintly, but surely, you hear the voice of a man. From some unknown place you have heard the voice of a man without the aid of wires. He is actually talking through the air. Ye Gods! It works!
Thrills! Chills! "I must have one of those things!"
Thus was the idea of radio broadcasting first imbedded in the mind of one of the men who has steadily developed radio in Bluefield.
About ten years before WHIS went on the air for its first broadcast, a 5-watt transmitter was installed in the directors' room at the Bluefield "Daily Telegraph" building. It was purely experimental. Something for the boys around the office to work with in their spare time. But it would really broadcast!
With little ceremony, it was dubbed Radio Station WHAJ. Programs were broadcast "at will." In the first place, there were very few receiving sets in this section. Among those were the receivers operated by Guy C. Mace, of Gary, and Edward Cooper, Jr., of Bramwell.
Back in those days, folks were convinced that radio signals could be heard only at night. And heard them with the aid of considerable imagination. Pittsburgh's KDKA was experimenting constantly and was the only radio station beside WHAJ which could be heard in this section. And KDKA could often be heard at several different places on the dials. Occasionally, WHAJ would be broadcasting on the frequency on which KDKA could be heard best. Since the thrill of listening to a distant station in Pittsburgh far surpassed the satisfaction in hearing a local "whistler," irate listeners would frequently telephone Station WHAJ an urgent order to "move over." The wizard at the controls of WHAJ would merely change his broadcasting frequency to the opposite side of the caller's dials and all would again be well.
Notwithstanding the fact that WHAJ was a lowly 5-watt unit, fan letters were received from every state in the union. Such extensive coverage was, of course, a source of great pride to the toilers of the night.
Ernest Kitts, of the Bluefield Telephone Company, one of Bluefield's earliest and most proficient radio "bugs," was the unofficial WHAJ engineer. With Monroe Worthington, who was then an employee of the "Daily Telegraph," Kitts tinkered with his magical charge. Other newspaper workers would drop around in their spare time and lend their bit to the operation of this unique toy. By adding to their vocabularies such words as antenna, kilocycles, ohms, condensers, bakelite panels, detector tubes, power tubes, variable condensers and such, they achieved greater stature among their fellows and added to the boredom of their long-suffering and neglected wives.
WHAJ programs were the last word in ingenuity and cleverness. Many moderns can recall the phonographs of the early post-war years with their big horns. Records played on such a talking machine made upon the major part of the radio "menu" of that day. The tinny music was broadcast by holding the crude microphone up before the horn on the phonograph.
Breakdowns were commonplace. Antenna trouble was one of the chief sources of headaches for the enterprising radio operators. The WHAJ antenna was located on the roof of the "Telegraph" building. When it got out of "whacq," the doughty Monroe Worthington often volunteered to climb to the upper roof and make necessary repairs. Late one night, the antenna became disconnected in the middle of a broadcast. Out went Monroe, roofward bound.
Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour passed. Monroe did not return. And the antenna was still out of order. Thinking that the volunteer repairman had become disgusted and gone home to get some sleep like proper husbands should, the group around the transmitter were preparing to go home when the chief of police, N. Dow Dillow, walked into the room. Looking with much suspicion at the assembled radio "bugs," in the approved officer-of-the-law manner, Chief Dillow suddenly demanded to know:
"What is a antenny?"
Shaking off their amazement, the radio experts explained the meaning and use of an antenna to the fascinated officer.
"Does a fellow named Monroe Worthington work for this newspaper?" he then inquired.
"Sure, why?" was the quick response.
"Well, I've got him up here in jail," the chief announced.
"You see," the officer continued, "these doggone nurses over at the sanitarium have complained about a Peeping Tom who has been in the habit of climbing up on your roof here late at night. So tonight we nabbed this fellow Worthington and he told us that he often went up on the Telegraph roof to fix this antenna. We thought he was crazy!"
After releasing Worthington from jail, the police chief joined the WHAJ staff in the continuation of the broadcast. Monroe Worthington was Bluefield's first real radio announcer in addition to being innocently radio's first local jailbird.
Chatauqua came to Bluefield during the short life of WHAJ. One of the chief attractions offered by Chatauqua that year was a lecturer who was an expert on this new fad known as radio. To add force and effect to his lecture, he used a number of tube and gadgets which would make nose under his deft manipulation. Among his equipment was receiving set. However, due to the belief that radio broadcasts could be heard only at night the set had not been used except to demonstrate the other equipment prior to the showing in Bluefield. Popular belief again fell before the local radio promoters.
A broadcast was arranged especially for the Chatauqua crowd in the big tent out in South Bluefield. Rev. Tom Hamilton, local Methodist pastor, was chosen as the speaker for the epochal broadcast. Came the hour for the big show. And the Rev. Hamilton went into the annals of local radio history as the first sufferer from that dread nervous disorder known in the radio world as "mike" fright. Shaking as though afflicted with the ague, the intrepid minister approached the WHAJ microphone. Perspiration was popping out on his brow and his lips. Fearless and experienced speaker before vast audiences, he was almost overcome by this new and strange sensation.
Nevertheless, he began to speak. Wonder of wonders! His words were heard by the huge audience gathered in the South Bluefield show tent. Daylight broadcasting was reality in Bluefield. The Rev. Hamilton continued to speak and to perspire until the end of his lecture. The Chatauqua was a sensation. The radio lecturer was held over for a week and Bluefield flocked to be convinced.
WHAJ also gave Bluefield its first "Church of the Air" program. A makeshift telephone line was rigged up between the transmitter and Bland Street Methodist church and sermons while-you-lie-in-bed were introduced to Bluefield.
Harry Snodgrass, of "Three o'Clock In the Morning" fame, is said to have made his radio debut on WHAJ. The piano which he used and the important phonograph with the little transmitter made up the equipment of the short-lived station.
Jimmy Rantis, proprietor of Jimmy's Restaurant, was the first radio advertiser in Bluefield. On those nights when the WHAJ gang was filling the air with recorded music in the wee, small hours, Jimmy would thoughtfully send doughnuts, coffee and sandwiches up to them. They, in turn, would gratefully acknowledge the food and coffee on the air.
All the boys were having lots of fun. Then, one day, someone became careless. In the directors room (the WHAJ studio) of the Telegraph was a large rug. Woven into its rich fabric were the great seals of each of the forty-eight states. This unusual rug was a source of much pride and pleasure for H. I. Shott, publisher of the Telegraph. On day, some thoughtless fellow left a storage battery setting on the great seal rug. The battery acid ate a hole in the rug—and radio station WHAJ, with 5-watt power broadcasting on the frequency which did not interfere with reception of KDKA, went off the air forever.
From the FCC microfiche files, September 19, 1994.
WHIS 2/14/29 Granted a C.P. for new station on 1420kc with 100 watts, unlimited, in Bluefield, WV. 5/17/29 Date first licensed. The licensee was the Daily Telegraph Printing Co., West Virginian Hotel, Federal St., Bluefield, WV. They were granted 1420kc with 100 watts, unlimited. 1/13/31 Granted a C.P. to change freq. to 1410kc with 250 watts, shared 1/2 time with WRBX. License to cover the C.P. granted 6/26/31. 2/5/35 Granted a C.P. to change to 1410kc, 250 watts, 500 watts LS, shared with WRBX. License to cover the C.P. granted 5/28/35. 9/17/35 Granted a modification of license to change to unlimited hours, using the facilities of WRBX, eff 9/23/35. 6/20/36 Granted a modification of license for 1410kc, 500 watts, 1kw LS. 3/24/41 Under NARBA, they were granted 1440kc, 500 watts, 1kw LS. 4/29/47 Granted a C.P. for 1440kc, 5kw DA-N. 2/12/48 Granted a modification of C.P. to change type of transmitter to Federal Telephone and Radio Corp 196-A. 2/29/49 Granted a license to cover the C.P., as modified, for 1440kc, 5kw DA-N. 8/10/55 Granted a C.P. for a new main transmitter (Gates BC-5E). 9/11/56 Granted a modification of C.P. for 1440kc, 5kw-D, 500 watts-N (non-DA operation). License to cover the C.P. granted 10/9/56. 2/22/77 Granted auth. to install new main transmitter (Gates MW-5).
A QSL card from WHIS in November 1931 listed the regular broadcasting schedule as 8-9 a.m., 12-3 p.m, and 6-8 p.m. At this time the station shared time with WRBX in Roanoke.
On April 9, 1956, WHIS filed to change from 5 kw-U, DA-N to 5 kw-D, 500 w-N, ND. Because of the fire that destroyed much of the WHIS site (including the transmitter) in May 1955, it appears WHIS was operating at considerably reduced power, reportedly using a 250-watt transmitter lent to them by WELC in Welch. [Information from Clarke Ingram.]