Capital Region radio station WGY, New York State’s oldest broadcaster, will celebrate their 100th year with a live afternoon of broadcasting on Sunday, February 20th.
WGY’s original licensee was General Electric (GE), headquartered in Schenectady. In early 1915, the company was granted a Class 3-Experimental license with the call sign 2XI. That license was canceled in 1917 due to the First World War, but 2XI was re-licensed in 1920.
In 1919 GE purchased the assets of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America and formed the subsidiary Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which became the leading radio company in the United States. In 1921, the company signed a cross-licensing agreement with the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company and RCA became sales agent for radios made by both firms. (This violated United States monopolies rules under the Sherman Antitrust Act and in 1932 RCA was forced to spin off on its own.
By the early 1920s improvements in vacuum tubes made audio transmissions practical (initially radios transmitted in Morse Code). On February 4, 1922, GE received its first broadcasting license for WGY in Schenectady. The original transmitter produced 1,500 watts, three times the standard “high-powered” station at the time. Also unusual, the station’s studio and transmitter site were at separate locations with broadcasts originating from a studio in GE’s Building 36.
WGY’s debut broadcast started at 7:47 p.m. on February 20, 1922, when Kolin Hager, known on the air as “KH”, signed on with the station’s call letters, saying that the W stood for wireless, G for General Electric, and Y, the last letter in Schenectady. In reality, the call letters were randomly assigned.
The first broadcast lasted about an hour and included mostly live music. Two days later the station’s second broadcast included a speech about George Washington, celebrating his birthday and delivered by W. W. Tranch, Schenectady’s American Legion post commander, which was followed by another live concert.
On that same day, GE ran a telephone line to the Union College gymnasium, where New York governor Nathan L. Miller and others gave speeches commemorating the 17th anniversary of the Rotary Club. This was also followed by a short concert. Other early programming included coverage of the Yale-Harvard football game live from New Haven, Connecticut; the WGY String Orchestra live from the State Theater in Schenectady, and talks and presentations by various GE innovators, explorers, state and local officials.
A few months after their first broadcasts, Edward H. Smith, director of the Masque community theater in Troy, suggested to Hager that his station carry weekly 40-minute long adaptations of plays. The resulting troupe, the WGY Players, then performed radio’s first dramatic series. Smith became a pioneer of radio sound effects and the station received thousands of letters. The station also used the first condenser microphone, developed by GE, on February 7, 1923.
On September 11, 1928, the Players broadcast the first televised play, the spy melodrama The Queen’s Messenger. The only viewers were newspaper and magazine writers, watching the program on a 3 x 3-inch screen in the station’s studio.
The station will mark its centennial anniversary with past and present hosts, news anchors and members of New York’s Capital Region taking part in the special event. A retelling of radio’s first radio drama “The Wolf” will also be presented live from the Kenmore Ballroom in Albany, where the station first broadcasted from in 1923.
The event at the Kenmore begins at 3 pm with a lecture from Chris Hunter from the Museum of Innovation and Science. Music from the Musicians of Ma’alwyck will also be featured. Tickets for the event are $35 and can be purchased online. The event can be heard live on WGY.
The on air program schedule for February 20th includes:
From 1 to 3 pm WGY’s Doug Goudie and the WGY team will explore WGY’s rich history in the special presentation, “WGY at 100.”
From 3 to 4 pm Former longtime WGY Host Joe Gallagher will host an hour in honor of WGY’s 100th birthday.
From 4 to 5 pm WGY goes live to the Kenmore Ballroom in Albany as the “WGY Players” and the Musicians Ma’alwyck to perform a comedic adaptation of the first radio drama in history (which WGY pioneered) of Eugene Walter’s “The Wolf.”
From 7:30 to 8 pm WGY’s Diane Donato will speak with VP of Collections & Exhibitions at MiSci, Chris Hunter, as WGY’s first broadcast took place at 7:47 pm 100 years ago on February 20th, 1922.
More information is available online.
Photo: WGY Radio Players performing a dramatic scene from William Vaughn Moody’s “The Great Divide” in 1923.