17 July 2013

The history of radio station call letters

Excerpts from an article at Big Think:
The origin of the division goes back just over a century. In 1912, the U.S. federal government started licensing terrestrial radio stations, assigning the call letters W and K to stations in the east, respectively the west of the country...

Incidentally, radio call signs are reversed out on the ocean. Ship radios on America's Pacific coast start with W, and with K on the Atlantic side. It's unclear whether this practise, which precedes call signs for terrestrial radio, is the reverse by intention (i.e. to facilitate the distinction between radio stations on land and at sea) or, as some sources state, the result of miscommunication. ..

Quite early, the border between K Country and W Land had to be fixed geographically. But that dividing line lay further to the west than it does now... After January 1923, new radio stations in the switchover states would be assigned a K call initial rather than a W one. But a grandfather clause provided that those radio stations in those states which already had a W call sign could keep it. This explains some of the anomalous call signs still in existence today, if not quite all of them.  There are currently 27 exceptions to the general K/W divide - 9 Ks in W Country, and 18 Ws in K Land.  This map shows them all... Note that Louisiana and Minnesota are marked separately on the map: they are the only states bisected by the Mississippi, and call sign practice varies greatly as a result.


  1. Wow, Stan, I see from the headline that someone else in the world has a finger that mistakenly double-dips on the letter "i"! But maybe it's just this once. My middle finger does this repeatedly, causing me often to backtrack and edit whatever I type.

  2. One additional letter was assigned to the United States by the international organization which allocated letters. All of the United States Navy and Coast Guard Radio Stations (mostly ships) began with (and still begin with) the Letter "N". During and before World War Two, the Army used the letter "W" for War Department, but what it currently uses, I do not know.

    I would suspect that the letter B was allocated to Great Britain, the letter C was given to Canada, the letter D was given to Germany (for Deutchland), and the letter F was given to France, among other allocations.

  3. Thanks. I have been curious as to why KDKA in Pittsburgh had a K, but too lazy to look it up.

  4. Speaking of radio stations! Stan, you should definitely check out the podcast "Welcome to Night Vale." It's basically a radio station for the fictional town of Night Vale, and it's... well, it's pretty bizarre. Lots of strange and inexplicable things happen and are duly taken in stride. I'm not explaining it very well, but it seems like it would be right up your alley. You can listen to it for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or Feedburner.


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