KDKA Shortwave in Pittsburgh: Four Locations

KDKA’s logo from the 1920s. Image: The Pennsylvania State University

On several occasions here in Wavescan, we have presented a series of topics regarding the backgrounds and history of the famous American mediumwave and shortwave station that is known widely as KDKA. Because of their significance to international radio development around our world, we present another topic about KDKA shortwave, and this time we summarize the collected information about their four Pittsburgh locations into just one topic.

First Location: East Pittsburgh

The first location for KDKA mediumwave and shortwave was atop the eight story high Building K at the Westinghouse factory at East Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Building K was the tallest building in this large manufacturing complex and the fledgling KDKA, studio and transmitter, was installed in a wooden shack at the western end of this flat roof.

A Pittsburgh staple, KDKA radio hit the radiowaves Nov. 2, 1920 to broadcast the results of the 1920 presidential election. Image: Flickr

Mediumwave KDKA was inaugurated under the callsign 8ZZ with presidential election information at 8:00 pm on Tuesday November 2, 1920. The 100 watt transmitter radiated on 550 kHz on what we would call today the low end of the standard mediumwave band. The station engineer, Frank Conrad, was ready to activate his amateur station 8XK on the second floor above his detached garage at Wilkinsburg as a back up transmitter if needed, though the primary transmitter 8ZZ at East Pittsburgh performed admirably.

Two years later in August 1922, a 1 kW shortwave transmitter was co-installed in the wooden shack atop Building K at East Pittsburgh. Over a period of time, this unit operated on several different shortwave channels, though one of its main channels was 100 m, approximately (3,000 kHz).

Shortwave 8XS was on the air at East Pittsburgh for a period of just two years, extending from 1922 to 1924. Their tall building, Building K, was ultimately demolished in 2007, and an industrial complex known as Keystone Commons now functions at that location.

Second Location: Forest Hills

In July 1924, radio station KDKA-8XS was transferred into a new building that was specifically constructed to house the station. This transmitter building was in the form of a single storey house, or bungalow, and it was constructed on a Westinghouse property on Greensburg Pike, Forest Hills, one mile east of the previous location.

New radio equipment was installed for KDKA-8XS at the Forest Hills location, including three mediumwave transmitters, ranging in power from 500 watts up to 10 kW, and at least one shortwave transmitter. In the summer of that same year 1924, the shortwave callsign 8XS was dropped, and instead the Frank Conrad amateur callsign 8XK was transferred from his home location and applied to the KDKA shortwave transmitters at Forest Hills.

Hill Station QSL Card, Image: KDKA Centennial website

Four years later, on October 1, 1928, the shortwave callsign was amended from 8XK to W8XK, due to the implementation of new international radio regulations.

Radio station KDKA-W8XK was on the air from Forest Hills for a period of seven years, running from 1924 to 1931. After the transfer to a new facility at Saxonburg, the Forest Hills building lay idle for a while, though it was subsequently taken over by Westinghouse for use in community and company events. The original concrete and brick transmitter building was incorporated into a modern new building complex as the Westinghouse Lodge.

Third Location: Saxonburg

In preparation for the next move, Westinghouse investigated a total of 62 possible sites for use as a brand new radio complex. Ultimately, 130 acres were selected at Saxonburg, some 20 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh.

An ornate new building was constructed at Saxonburg for KDKA-W8XK in 1931, and new radio equipment was installed. The mediumwave transmitters were installed at the north end of the new building, and the shortwave transmitters were installed at the south end.

KDKA Transmitter Building in Saxonburg. Photo: KDKA website

The official date for the experimental callsign W8XK to change to a regularized callsign was September 1, 1939, though the new callsign for W8XK was implemented as WPIT a couple of weeks in advance.

Fourth Location: Allison Park

During November 1938, Westinghouse made another thorough search in Pittsburgh and its environs for a suitable new location for KDKA mediumwave and shortwave. It was discovered that Saxonburg was just too far away and thus there were dead spots in the built up areas of Pittsburgh where signal reception was inadequate.

Promotional poster for KDKA history podcast. Image: listennotes.com

Much of this search was made from the air with the use of their famous KDKA arial balloon. Ultimately a property at Allison Park, just 8½ miles from downtown Pittsburgh was chosen and a totally new station was constructed.

An ornate transmitter station was built in the New England Colonial Style, a new 50 kW mediumwave transmitter Model 50HG was installed, and a new antenna system was erected. There was space for several shortwave transmitters, and the antenna system was designed for simultaneous usage on both mediumwave and shortwave.

Mediumwave station KDKA is to this day still successfully located at Allison Park, though subsequently two 50 kW Gates transmitters were installed, and later again, two 50 kW Harris units. The historic, though nowadays very modern KDKA is heard widely in North America and beyond on its long term channel 1020 kHz.

However in spite of the original planning and official announcements, the KDKA shortwave adjunct W8XK-WPIT was never installed at this new location, Allison Park. Instead, the shortwave station under its new callsign WPIT remained at Saxonburg, at least temporarily.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of July 25, 2021

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