Wednesday, April 17, 2013


     These days, if you're driving though central Indiana and put your radio on 94.7, you hear a (mostly) older-rock station, playlist locked down in the 1980s, anchored by a long-lived (30 years?) and highly popular morning show.

     The usual history has it the station was originally put on the air in 1959 by the WFBM stations, who already had a 5 kW AM and the city's first commercial TV station that sent out more than test patterns.  (Wm. H. Block's department store briefly held WWHB and even started testing in 1947 on channel 3, previously used by experimental W9XMT, then got cold feet.[1])  Why not add FM?  Fast forward to when WFBM-AM-FM-TV was sold in the 1960s and the FCC decreed radio and TV had to go their separate ways; they have done so ever since.  Nice, neat story.

     ...Not so fast. 

     The story is a lot longer, goes back a lot farther -- and produced an AM station, lawsuits and an FCC battle over the license as a side-effect.

     It starts in April, 1944, and not on 94.7 but in the old FM band, the one you probably never heard of, with a construction permit granted to WABW at 47.3 Mc/S on your FM the unlikely event you had an FM dial, that is, let alone a receiver to go with it.  Associated Broadcasters owned the station and by October 1945 they were on the air, probably from 445 N. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis.  (The studios were there and it's tall-enough building).

       In May, 1945 they made history as the first FM station to broadcast the Indianapolis 500 -- earlier that month, they'd covered a record-breaking qualifying run, when Ralph Hepburn barely missed 134 mph for four laps. Pretty exciting -- if you'd known it was there and had a radio that went that high.

     By the fall of that year, they were testing on the new FM band, at, yes, 94.7 Mc/S.[2]  (And/or 94.9, sources vary).  No one but hobbyists who'd made their own had receivers for that frequency.  There were a few -- a very few! -- commercial radios that picked up the 42 - 50 Mc/S band, so 47.3 soldiered on, too.  (It was probably shut down in 1946 or 47.)

     They now had two FM radio stations and few listeners.  Something had to be done.  Associated Broadcasters had picked up an AM "construction permit," a sort of pre-license license, for WBBW, 250 Watts on 1550 kc/S (daytime only) and by April of 1946, they were trying to sell both stations to Curtis Broadcasting, who already had stations in Terre Haute and Evansville, Indiana.  They were also being sued for nearly $9000 in back wages by local radio engineering legend Martin Williams, who had an 8% stake in WABW.

     In August 1946, a new player filed to buy the stations: Radio Indianapolis, Inc, "owned by World Wars I and II veterans."  Meanwhile, Curtis planned to pay Associated Broadcasters in stock and assign WABW-WBBW to their Evansville On The Air subsidiary.

     After various filings and counter-filings, the dispute went before the FCC in 1947.
    In February of 1948, Associated Broadcasters applied to move WBBW -- still not on the air! -- to 1,000 Watts on 1590 kc/S.  (Maybe they were hoping to get a better price from whoever won the license fight?)

   The Commission ruled for Radio Indianapolis, Inc. in March 1948, and they filed to "take over immediately."  They also applied for a new studio and transmitter location: 30th and Kessler, former home of experimental TV station W9XMT, a ready-made studio and tower for the stations.

     By August 1948, the Radio Indianapolis stations, WXLW and WXLW-FM, on 1590 and 94.7 respectively, were on the air.  The AM was still only on between sunrise and sunset; in December, 1949, they applied to stay on the air at reduced power until midnight (denied) and May of 1950 found them asking to move to 1130 kc/S (never happened.).

     In February, 1950, WXLW-FM applied to suspend operations for sixty days and by April, Radio Indianapolis was granted deletion of the FM license.  By their reckoning, the FM station had never turned a profit in six years of operation.

     94.7 Mc/S was nothing but hiss until WFBM lit it back up in 1959.

In the intervening years:

     In mid-1954, WXLW had made another application, this time moving to 950 kc/S and 5,000 Watts from a brand-new transmitter location on 56th St. The move was complete by 1955. The station was still daytime-only but the increased power made them more competitive.

     Martin Williams, undeterred by his tribulations at WABW, put Indianapolis's second commercial FM on the air in 1957.  WFMS, at 95.5 Mc/S from the Antlers Hotel downtown, played classical and "popular concert" music; in the 1960s, they moved to a tower on the East side. The format has changed, but the station is still on the air.

     And 94.7?  In the early 60s,  WFBM passed up a chance at "superpower," 250 kW, but the station has been grandfathered in at a few thousand watts above the usual 50kW limit ever since and as WFBQ, it's been the next best thing to owning a gold mine for decades.

     A bit too late for Associated Broadcasters.

     (Many thanks to David Gleason's amazing archives at American Radio History, without which I'd still be wondering whatever happened to WABW and why "WBBW" never showed up as having been on the air in Indianapolis, let alone that it became WXLW!)
1.  The prehistory of FM in Indianapolis is complicated -- in 1947-48, Wm. H. Block's had an FM license (dropped when they dropped their TV experiment) and so did most of the big AM stations in town -- none of them on the frequencies their FMs would eventually occupy!  Most were never on the air.  It was a decade before FM got much attention.

2. FM was "kicked upstairs," to make room for TV...and, it is said, as a spite-move by RCA against FM pioneer Edwin  H. Armstrong.  Possibly; but FM stations were supposed to serve well-defined, line-of-sight areas, and during WW II, long-standing radio lore has it that plenty of East Coast radio fans heard military tank communications in the 40-50 Mc/S range from North Africa when propagation conditions were favorable!  (This could be nonsense; on a quick search, I can't find any tank or other WW II military vehicle  radios in that range.  They all seem to skip the range between 30 and 70 Mc/S.) If local service was the plan, the real question was why RCA thought those frequencies would be okay for TV.  Unpredictable interference is a heavy price to pay to satisfy spite.


  1. "General" Sarnoff was known for holding grudges, and being a ruthless businessman. I'm sure his wanting to "win" over Armstrong had a lot to do with it, although I've read he was somewhat shaken when Armstrong died.

    Armstrong was the real genius; Sarnoff was a user and manipulator.

  2. Fascinating history.

    And now, another reason to dream about a surplus tank; six-meter mobile.

  3. Alas, I may have been talking nonsense; though I have heard the story, I can't find any tank radios that work in the 30 - 70 Mc/S range!

    ...A "19 Set" tank radio is still usable on HF and they have a devoted following. Plus, many (all?) are labeled in English and Russian!

  4. A lot of current military stuff still works in that range, so maybe some of the stories got crossed a bit?

  5. That's possible. I can't remember where I heard the story.

  6. Violently tangential, but I just came across a WH Block's department store hanger while cleaning out a closet in my parents' house in Tulsa. I remember the name from growing up in Indianapolis, but I can't say I actually remember the store. Is it still around?