By Michael Sznajderman
July 20, 2022
Innovation is at the historic heart of Alabama Power, beginning with its founding in 1906 and Capt. William Patrick Lay’s vision of electrifying the state by harnessing the power of Alabama’s rivers.
But the company’s embrace of another cutting-edge technology, just 16 years after Alabama Power’s incorporation, is also historic.
One hundred years ago this year, on April 24, 1922, Alabama Power hit the airwaves with the state’s first operating radio station. WSY (an acronym for “We Serve You”) began broadcasting from rented space in a building on Powell Avenue in Birmingham.
The 500-watt AM station was initially designed as a company tool, to provide better communications among employees – especially those in the field and at remote generating plants. In fact, radio technology was so new – regularly scheduled radio programming in the United States started only in 1920 – Alabama Power engineers had to design and build most of WSY’s transmitting equipment.
“We began assembling the set … with intentions of using it for purposes of operation of the system exclusively,” wrote George Miller, the employee in charge of the station, in the July 1922 issue of the company’s Powergrams. “The broadcast feature came up, though, and materially changed our plans.”
Indeed, a month before the station went on the air, The Birmingham News published a do-it-yourself piece about “how to make your own radiophone receiving set” so local residents could pick up WSY when it began broadcasting.
Interest in the station was so strong that within weeks it began offering entertainment programs, according to “Developed for the Service of Alabama,” the centennial history of Alabama Power, written by noted historian Leah Rawls Atkins.
Dee Haynes, with the Alabama Historical Radio Society, recalled one story that underscores WSY’s popular embrace. Soon after WSY went on the air, earpieces began disappearing from the handsets of payphones all over Birmingham, apparently because people were swiping them to use in home-built receiving sets.
WSY wasn’t just the first radio station to start broadcasting in Alabama. It was one of the first in the region, with only 127 licensed stations in the United States when it went on the air. Because there was so little interference from other stations, WSY’s signal could reach as far as Canada, Cuba and Mexico when conditions were good. The station soon began receiving letters from listeners far and wide, urging it to expand its programming.
The excitement spurred Alabama Power’s president, Tom Martin, to drop in on WSY not long after it went on the air. At the time, the station was operating out of a cramped space hardly suitable to host visitors, let alone live performances. According to Miller’s account in Powergrams, Martin decided to give broadcasting a try for himself.
“He gave a short (four-minute) talk and after he had spoken to our thousands of listeners, gave our station the once over,” Miller said. Whatever Martin proclaimed from behind the microphone is lost to history, but “The next day, we had carpenters, painters, inside wiremen, carpet-layers and even piano-movers, and we built a whole studio in one day, and that night had more comfortable quarters for our artists,” Miller wrote.
“Tom Martin was a very forward thinker,” said Dave Cisco, also with the historical radio society. Cisco, Haynes and a few other society members gathered on a recent Saturday at the organization’s Birmingham workshop, which is filled with historic radios, to reflect on the significance and legacy of WSY.
Cisco said Martin had read about the nation’s first commercial radio station, Pittsburgh’s KDKA. Like WSY, it was first envisioned as a way for Westinghouse to communicate with its facilities, but soon began providing programming for the public.
Cisco said Martin was impressed with radio’s potential – not only as a communication device for the power company, but as a way to share important information with farmers, business leaders and the community at large.
“Martin saw what a powerful tool radio could be to serve the community and also to promote Alabama Power Company,” said Bill Tharpe, retired Alabama Power archivist. “When Martin saw the incredible response to WSY’s broadcasts, he began to understand the tremendous potential that this new medium possessed.”
WSY’s programming soon ranged from weather forecasts and stock market reports; to music performed by local chorales; to lively sessions by the WSY Radio Serenaders, an orchestra composed mainly of Alabama Power employees.
“It has been the constant aim of those in charge of the station to make it yield the greatest amount of good to industry, agriculture, commerce and, in a word, to the State of Alabama and its people,” stated an article about WSY in the March 1923 Powergrams. Just a few weeks earlier, the station moved to a bigger studio in the radio department on the top floor of the Loveman, Joseph & Loeb Department Store. The move allowed the station to install a more powerful antenna, strung across two towers on the store’s roof.
One of WSY’s most popular offerings was religious programming on Sundays, provided by five of Birmingham’s most prominent churches. The station ran cables to microphones installed on the pulpits of Highlands Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, Independent Presbyterian Church, Southside Baptist Church and First Methodist Church. Morning and evening services from one of the five churches were broadcast live every week, and the feature “is by far the most popular with listeners, as is attested by hundreds of letters received from one end of the country to the other,” according to a 1923 article in Manufacturers Record, a national business publication.
“One elderly, retired gentleman who has lived most of his life in the very shadow of a church, confessed that his radiophone had brought him to worship, or rather had brought worship to him, for the first time in forty years,” wrote Manufacturers Record correspondent Richard M. Johnson.
In another letter to the station, a farmer in rural north Alabama expressed “overwhelming gratitude” on behalf of his ailing and deeply religious 72-year-old mother, who had been confined to her bed for four years. Unable to attend church, she listened avidly to WSY every Sunday to hear “both morning and evening services of a great city church and her happiness in confinement knows no bounds.”
In February 1923, a massive ice storm struck the region, cutting off telephone communications and pulling down lines that supplied area newspapers with reports from the wire services, and vice versa. Filling the gap, WSY broadcasters stayed on the air to share reports from Associated Press and United Press International correspondents in ice-locked Birmingham back to their respective wire service offices. The station broadcast pleas from the public for help, and messages from Birmingham-area families trying to contact distant relatives to let them know they were OK.
Among the programs that generated the most correspondence to the station was a performance on Feb. 26, 1923, of a quartet from Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University.
“I must write you this morning, congratulating you on your wonderful concert of last evening, which was the most beautiful, sweet and harmonious that was ever sent through the air,” wrote O.W. Blackstone of Akron, Ohio.
“I get concerts from New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Havana, Michigan; in fact, all over the United States, and we frankly say that we enjoyed yours above any we ever listened to,” exclaimed Ollie Wright from Auxvasse, Missouri.
Every night, WSY signed off the air with the distinctive sound of three, slow strikes to an anvil – a nod to Vulcan, the Roman (and Birmingham’s famous cast-iron) god of the forge. WSY had its own, beefy cartoon rendition of Vulcan that graced the station logo, with his hammer striking an anvil and sending bolts of lightning into the sky.
As the station’s popularity grew, the public’s desire for more and a greater variety of programming ballooned. The job of meeting those expectations fell to Richard Johnson in the company’s “Publicity Department.”
Johnson, Powergrams reported, combined “the ability of an impresario with the scent of a bloodhound, for he must constantly be on the lookout for new talent to render entertainment to his extremely critical audience; and, unlike professionals, he cannot call on a booking agency, but must find and develop his own talent.”
By the fall of 1923, it was clear WSY would need more staff to meet the demand. Running a popular radio station was never the company’s primary intention, and a decision was made to exit the broadcast business.
On Nov. 6, 1923, WSY aired its final program. Its equipment was dismantled and donated to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), along with the station’s license. Cisco said the institute already had a station, WMAV, launched in September 1922. Indeed, it turned out WSY’s equipment was obsolete and of little use to WMAV, according to a history of WSY posted on the historical radio society’s website.
Rather than disappoint supporters of WSY, the college’s Extension Service and Department of Electrical Engineering voted to purchase a state-of-the-art, 1,000-watt transmitter, according to the historical society. Two 200-foot towers were installed next to the school’s new radio building, and a studio was constructed on the third floor of Comer Hall.
WSY and WMAV merged to form a new station, WAPI, named after the school. Its first broadcast, in September 1925, featured an in-studio announcer reading telegraph dispatches from that day’s football game between Auburn and Birmingham-Southern College.
Three years later, according to Bham Wiki, the station moved back to Birmingham to grab the larger market on behalf of the 2-year-old NBC Radio Network; the city agreed to pay half the operating costs for the station. For a time, WAPI was jointly owned by Auburn, the University of Alabama and the Alabama College for Women (now the University of Montevallo) before being purchased by private investors. Today, the call letters WAPI are still riding the airwaves in Birmingham, on both the AM and FM dials.
Alabama Power, in coordination with the Historical Radio Society, still has its hand in preserving the history and legacy of WSY. Photographs and documents about the station are on display in a radio history museum maintained by the society in the atrium of Alabama Power’s Corporate Headquarters.
Haynes said WSY likely helped build awareness around the country about Birmingham as a growing metropolis and industrial center. The station represents the first chapter in what is now a century of broadcasting history in Alabama.
This story originally appeared in Powergrams, Alabama Power’s employee magazine.
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