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! (See a separate page on WHAJ.)
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.
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.]