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The Man Who Fought For and Founded WNYC

A Story From the Dawn of the Radio Age

Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 10:00 AM

WNYC

Grover A. Whalen described himself as "Mr. New York" for his autobiography. Indeed, at various times he was the city's official and unofficial greeter of royalty, celebrity and the political elite. He was a businessman and a public relations guru, and is perhaps best known as President of the 1939-1940 World's Fair. He even had an unpopular stint as Police Commissioner during Prohibition. But without him, there would have been no WNYC Radio.

Oddly enough, Whalen made no mention of WNYC in his autobiography[1], but he sat down with a interviewers for the Columbia University Oral History program just before Thanksgiving in 1950. At that time, he somewhat modestly provided this account:

"In March, 1922, a proposal came before the Board of Estimate and Apportionment for the establishment of a Municipal Wireless Broadcasting Station. Upon my suggestion as Commissioner of Plant and Structures, the Borough President of Queens made the proposal, pointing out that recent scientific developments in this new medium made possible the dissemination of public information and transmission of non-commercial entertainment to the people of the City of New York upon an enlarged scale and therefore of a higher caliber than was possible heretofore."[2]

Despite radio's growing popularity and growth as an industry, Whalen said the Board was "rather skeptical" about funding such a project. They did, however, agree to appoint a committee to review the proposal, and by June he won the Board over. They approved $50,000 to build and equip "a complete radio-telephone broadcasting station."[3] Finding the money was relatively easy compared to Whalen's next step: actually getting on the air. Judging from newspaper accounts and public documents of the time, the effort turned into an extremely frustrating two-year struggle against the technical limitations of placing a transmitter at the Municipal Building but, more than anything else, it became a fight against the nation's leading radio and telephone company's efforts to thwart competition in the new media.

Getting the Runaround

With funding approved, Whalen issued a request for bids on a transmitter with the nation's leading radio equipment manufacturers:  Western Electric, General Electric, Westinghouse, RCA and AT&T. Before proceeding, however, he needed to conduct suitability tests for housing a transmitter at the Municipal Building. Western Electric did a site survey and in December, 1922 concluded that the iron and steel in the building itself and interference from the Brooklyn Bridge next door made the proposed location a poor choice for reaching all New Yorkers with a radio signal. With the new year came a new site in Elmhurst, Queens and plans for developing it.

But Whalen found Western Electric's enthusiasm for the project "becoming lukewarm."[4] He was told that the company could not furnish the necessary equipment unless it was leased by the City from the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, the owners of New York radio station WEAF. In February, Whalen responded saying the City did not want to change its plans and must own the transmitter. Ignoring Whalen's position, Western Electric submitted a proposal for the Elmhurst site with an assortment of leasing fees for land lines and equipment, a proposal which the commissioner deemed outrageous. He told the Board of Aldermen, "By the acceptance of this proposal the control of the municipal broadcasting station would have been placed in the hands of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company."

By the summer of 1923, Whalen abandoned plans for Elmhurst in lieu of a site in Central Park he believed would relieve the City of Western Electric's most onerous terms. The Department of Plant and Structures drew up plans for a Central Park transmitter site and sent them to Western Electric. Meanwhile, General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA claimed they were not licensed to sell broadcast equipment, forcing Whalen to move ahead with his plans for a radio station without public bidding. He was furious and convinced there was a conspiracy afoot with AT&T at its head. Whalen told the Board of Aldermen on December 11, 1923:

"After an investigation it was found that the Radio Corporation of America, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co., the General Electric Co., the Western Electric Co., and the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., through their ownership of radio patents, were in control of the radio industry and through mutual agreement were maintaining a monopoly of it...I feel that the City's interest will best be protected against those who are seeking, if they have not already obtained, complete control of the air. I believe that the people of the city of New York, with its million radio fans, should be acquainted with the commercial aims and monopolistic tendencies of this company to coerce this city, which is endeavoring, by means of the establishment of this broadcasting station, to give maximum service and greater happiness to its citizens."[5]

Busting The Radio Trust

By the end of February, plans for broadcasting from Central Park too had been cast aside and Whalen's formal request for relief from public bidding went before the Board of Estimate. Here he underscored AT&T's efforts "at complete control of the air," by forcing New York City's Health Commissioner to qualify his expert remarks over WEAF. AT&T Vice President W. E. Harkness responded, "We follow precisely the methods of the newspapers in selecting what we think worthwhile to broadcast."[6]  By now critics of the industry were referring to 'the radio trust,' a conspiracy the manufacturers denied. For them it was an issue of protecting and controlling the use of their patented inventions. Harkness replied to Whalen and others, "Broadcasting is our business and we think we know something about it...it would be much cheaper to rent our station [WEAF] from time to time."[7]  Yet, the Federal Trade Commission had recently issued a report confirming Whalen's suspicions of monopoly practices in the manufacture, sale and distribution of radio equipment.[8] On March 5, 1924, in a letter to the Commission, he thanked the FTC for their work but said they had not gone far enough. He argued the monopoly "is even a more far-reaching and injurious monopoly than in the fields your commission so diligently investigated."[9]

Release of the letter and the press it generated set the stage for the Board of Estimate vote freeing the Department of Plant and Structures from the bidding process in this instance. Whalen had driven home his point; how could the city possibly open up this project for bids in light of monopoly control? He told reporters:

"It means that we are throwing down the gauntlet to the radio monopoly, and that there will be a fight. It means that we will not have to take our religion or education or our politics from the radio trust. We will erect a broadcasting station as powerful as WEAF and the country at large will be able to listen to a station that is not operated for commercial gain."[10]

Three days later, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (below left) was asked about the battle between the City of New York and AT&T. Hoover said that while he couldn't comment on any specific case currently before the FTC, he condemned any private monopoly in broadcasting.

"I can state emphatically that it would be most unfortunate for the people of this country, to whom broadcasting has become an important incident of life, if its control should come into the hands of any single corporation, individual or combination. It would be in principle the same as though the entire press of the country was so controlled...I believe it is safe to say irrespective of claims under patent rights on apparatus that broadcasting will not cease and neither will our public policy allow it to become monopolized."[11]

Next came the first of four days of hearings on Capitol Hill concerning sorely needed legislation to overhaul federal communications law left untouched since 1912. Unable to appear himself, Whalen sent Raymond Asserson, New York City's Broadcasting Supervisor, to make his case. But even before the hearings began, Whalen believed he had succeeded in busting the trust. Asserson testified that just ten days earlier "purely by accident" they heard that Westinghouse had a transmitter to sell with no strings attached.[12] Whalen promptly wrote asking for a quote and on March 15th announced a deal had been made. In his statement to the press the commissioner said, "This action on the part of the Westinghouse Company of scrapping the terms of existing agreements will result in a 'sink or swim' policy and this company apparently has the jump."[13] Industry officials argued otherwise given the unusual provenance of the equipment.

Whalen Declares Victory

The transmitter had been used previously by the 1922 Brazilian Centennial Exposition in Rio de Janeiro (below right) and was described as an exact duplicate of the one at KDKA, Westinghouse's pioneering station in Pittsburgh. At 1,000 watts of power, and heard as far away as Hawaii, this second-hand unit would overcome the limitations of the Municipal Building and being next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Additionally, under the restrictive contract with Western Electric, the city had been limited to 500 watts.[14]

Whalen was now on the crest of a wave and riding high. He had beaten the giant AT&T and was promising the municipal station would be on the air in time to cover the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York City, a promise he was unable to keep.  Elated by his victory, he predicted the yet-to-be-named WNYC "will be one of the best stations in the East." Whalen was also quite taken with Westinghouse chief Guy E. Tripp's notion of a 'super station,' hoping WNYC would figure into those plans and exclaiming, "if carried out, [it] would result in the real development of radio beyond expectations."[15] 

An experimental license was granted to the City of New York with the call letters, 2XHB and a few months later, WNYC went on the air on July 8, 1924. Here is Whalen in his tuxedo making calls prior to the station's opening night ceremonies with an unnamed engineer (seated) and Public Service Director, Bert L. Davies. They are in the transmitter room on the 25th floor of New York City's Municipal Building. (This photo, taken by Eugene de Salignac, and the one above* are courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives)

Soon after the opening, Whalen resigned from his post as Commissioner of Plant and Structures, thus ending his directorship of WNYC.

 

Still, whatever people may say about Grover A. Whalen, they all agree he was one snappy dresser.

                 Grover A. Whalen as New York City's official greeter in the 1920s (WNYC Archive Collections)

____________________________________________________

[1] Whalen, Grover A., Mr. New York: The Autobiography of Grover A. Whalen, G.P.  Putnam's Sons, NY, 1955.

[2] "Reminiscences of Grover A. Whalen," November 22, 1950 on page 1 in the Columbia University Center for Oral History Collection (hereafter CUCOHC).

[3] Ibid., pg. 2,3.

[4] Whalen, Grover A., "Statement before The New York City Board of Aldermen," December 11, 1923.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "WEAF Rules the Air is Whalen's Charge," The New York Times, March 1, 1924, pg. 9.

[7] "City in Radio Fight; $50,000 For A Plant"  The New York Times, March 8, 1924. pg. 4.

[8] "Report of The Federal Trade Commission on The Radio Industry," December 1, 1923, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1924.

[9] Whalen, Grover A., letter to the Federal Trade Commission, March 5, 1924.

[10] "City in Radio Fight; $50,000 For A Plant," Ibid.  

[11] "Hoover Condemns Private Monopoly of Broadcasting," The New York Times, March 11, 1924, pg. 1.

[12] "Testimony of Raymond Asserson before House of Representatives Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries on H.R. 7357, March 11-14, 1924, U.S. Congress, House, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1924, pg. 95.

[13] "1,000-Watt Radio Obtained By City," The New York Times, March 16, 1924, pg. 1.

[14] "City's Radio Station Ready in Convention Week, Says Whalen," The Brooklyn Standard Union, March 16, 1924, pg. 20.

[15] Ibid. Whalen again endorsed Tripp's notion of 'superstations' just two weeks after WNYC went on the air. Writing in The Nation Magazine (July 23, 1924) the outgoing commissioner once more railed against corporate control of the airwaves and for government regulation. "Government regulation should be had by establishing in each area comparatively strong stations, such as the municipal broadcasting station which has just been put in operation in New York City, and by cutting out poorer and weaker stations which broadcast inferior programs," wrote Whalen.  He  no doubt came to regret this less than democractic stance later when WNYC was forced to share its desirable frequency with WMCA and then subsequently lost this favored position on the dial. See:The 1931 Files.

*The above photograph of the Westinghouse 1,000 watt transmitter on location in Brazil prior to purchase by the City Of New York in 1924 courtesy of the New York City Department of Records, Municipal Archives Collection.

The recording of Grover A. Whalen at the opening of this piece is an excerpt from his remarks at the dedication of Idlewild Airport during New York City's Golden Jubilee on July 31, 1948. You can listen to the full unedited ceremony from the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC collection at: WHALEN.

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