Undercover Radio

American radio manufacturer Admiral produced a range of transistor radio sets such as this one typical of what listeners heard ‘Undercover Radio’ on during the decade. © National Geographic Magazine 1959, Radio Heritage Foundation Collection.

By Bill Hester

Bob Dylan in his early twenties performing in 1963.
Source: wikipedia.

A teenage boy in Hibbing was older than me then, and grew up a thousand miles from my home, but he could have lived next door. We shared and searched some of the same airwaves for a few years.

Speaking for both of us, Bob later said “very seldom you hear real songs anymore. Well, we were lucky to grow up when you could hear them all the time. All you had to do was switch on the radio and you could hear them.”

The beginnings

Shelton hit it on the head in a couple of sentences about some aspects of Dylan’s early exposure to the roots of rock and roll and blues and gospel and country and bluegrass and other American music as he grew up.

“Dylan had to turn his radio on to a thin line that linked him with the farmers of Louisiana and the truck drivers of Tennessee.” “Bob took most of his journeys down the Mississippi late at night, when the air was clearer. He often placed his radio under the covers to keep waking anyone with sounds he caught from Shreveport or Little Rock.”

American Trucking Industry promotion from the 1950’s
© National Geographic Magazine, 1959, Radio Heritage Foundation Collection

And it was, of course, much more than just music. It was also the travel in the mind, the connections to what seemed foreign places, the wanderlust, the yearning and the learning.

WAPO Chattanooga TN wrote in 1952 “The unfamiliar accent you refer to is that of our popular hillbilly DJ ‘Cuzzin Clem’ who speaks with a distinct Georgia hillbilly accent for his WAPO radio show”
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

The city limits were a boundary to some, but to Dylan and others, the constricting limits of a small town were something to rebel against. What better way to rebel than finding out what was happening elsewhere and following that – wherever it led.

Bell Telephone promoted one way of staying touch with home in the Fifties.
© National Geographic Magazine 1955, Radio Heritage Foundation Collection

It was a big wide country out there, and nowhere was it wider than in the Midwest.

But the story is universal – the lucky ones in the world grow up – and most leave their home towns. And some can’t or won’t really go home again once they leave – for a variety of reasons. Some just must go elsewhere to grow and to survive. ‘Destiny’ is the word Bob used for this.

Heylin says about the fusion of adolescent growth (rebelling with or without a cause) and music in that seemingly placid Eisenhower era: “Like many contemporaries in small town U S of A, young Robert’s connection with the new music was initially through radio stations, which late at night beamed coded messages to the young at heart, as if each three-minute single comprised a series of semaphore signals across enemy lines.”

And Eric Von Schmidt says about Eric Von Schmidt (growing up in suburban Connecticut) “I was an avid radio listener. …. I was also a big fan of the Grand Ole Opry. I was forbidden to listen to the program because it didn’t come on the air until 11:00 p.m., so I would hide the radio under the covers and enjoy it all the more because it was illegal. It kind of faded in and out and it was also suffocating, but well worth the risk of death or discovery….”

WSM Nashville TN was home of the Grand Ole Opry. It was also owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company Inc and this letterhead example features an art deco style design.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

While Von Schmidt pre-dated Bob and me a bit, you will also find other references to undercover listening in the Fifties – or certainly the influence that radio listening then had. How else would have bluegrass music made it to suburban Connecticut, or Delta Blues to Hibbing Minnesota? Via records was one possibility, but the early introduction in most cases would have been via the airwaves.

WJEL Springfield OH said in 1953 “The fast guitar music you hear every day is the theme song of the program ‘Hillbilly Roundup’. Vince Shannon is the announcer and the theme song is called ‘Steel Guitar Rag’”
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation
Muddy Waters was a popular Mississippi musician who joined a migration of blues singers to Chicago.
Source: wikipedia.

I had a radio under my covers too, as I travelled during my early teens. The coded messages made it through parental protection lines many a late night even in the un-reconstructed South. My radio was a proudly acquired Silvertone radio bought on the day that Sears Roebuck turned from something that was available to us only by mail order to something that I could bicycle to – Sears Roebuck had come to town – the first of the big chain stores – and long before town shopping started migrating to malls on the outskirts of town. (Bob bought his first guitar from Sears Roebuck. I’d guess he got his undercover radio from the family appliance store.)

But the soundproofing under the covers was just an illusion – never really keeping the sounds from others. I’m sure Abe sent Beatty to Bob’s bedroom more than once, to tell him to turn it down – and I’m sure David wondered what was really going on under the covers of his brother’s bed – what were those sounds? Muffled Delta Blues was something, muffled Hank Williams something else, and muffled Little Richard something else again.

This was nearing the end of the Golden Age of radio. Radio itself (and the depression) had ended the initial widespread local recording industry of the Twenties and early Thirties – 1927 to 1932 was that Golden Age (if you believe in Harry Smith). And radio in the Fifties was soon to be supplanted by TV and trends within the radio industry which were to turn the radio Golden Age into the American mainstream radio sludge of today.

Popular brand Zenith featured this promotion for its new TV sets in the early Fifties
© National Geographic Magazine 1952, Radio Heritage Foundation Collection

TV was starting to grow in popularity in the bigger cities, but was mainly a novelty to be viewed at a few friends’ houses before 1955. Records were also growing again in popularity – as 78s rapidly faded, replaced by 45s for the teenagers and LPs for the adults. The record stores in the smaller towns arrived as a small corner in the local appliance store – there were no record stores as such.

KOVC Valley City ND featured this cute boy and girl plus radio ‘and a blanket on the ground’ artwork on their letterhead in 1956.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

While families listened to the radio together in the day and around dinner time, younger people listened more but once in their rooms generally alone – especially at night. Playing records was mainly a day time or early evening thing – come homework time the radio took over. Come sleep time and the radios went under cover. At least the undercover listening was the location of choice for some young people.

In the main it was a mostly male diversion for a minority with maybe only two or three of my friends being aware enough of the airwaves to have a sensible conversation about new songs or new stations or new disc jockeys. I never knew a girl who listened at night. Bob was lucky in having Echo Helstrom to share tales of listening as well having access to her mother’s collection of interesting records; my own echo was half Cherokee and was more into flute and classical music– I don’t think she ever listened to the radio. Well maybe we just never did too much talking about that.

But how could you spot the stations in the dark? That’s where call letters come into this story.

Call Letters – where was what – and when

The simplest rule was that a “W” station (like WWVA or WLS) was in an eastern state and a “K” station (like KNBR or KSL) was in a western state. And the call letters always numbered three or four. From about 1923 all new stations west of the Mississippi were “K” stations and east of the Mississippi were “W” stations (with the source of the Mississippi being in upper Minnesota). Canadian stations started with “C” and Mexican stations “X”.

KYW Philadelphia PA ‘was originally located in Chicago IL’ according to this explanation of call letter history received from the station in 1951.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

But there were a few dozen exceptions – older stations kept their original designations so there were numbers of “W” stations west of the Mississippi – and a small number of “K” stations east of the Mississippi.

And the call letters were signs and codes and passwords to other places, sometimes exotic, sometimes not. WABC, WCBS were obvious entries into New York City as the flagship stations for those networks, WRVA was Richmond Virginia, WWVA was Wheeling West Virginia, WCKY was Cincinatti (and Kentucky), WBAL was Baltimore,

WBAL Baltimore MD promoted its wide coverage in this detail from letterhead artwork of the period.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

KSL for Salt Lake City and so on through hundreds of combinations. Sometimes the letters made sense as in the examples with city/state abbreviations. Sometimes they had other descriptive content – WTBS a later campus favourite – Tech Broadcasting System. And some had commercial or bragging content like WGN – World’s Greatest Newspaper (Chicago) or WGH – World’s Greatest Harbour (Norfolk). And many times they meant nothing of lasting interest to anyone, then or now.

There is a similar story for FM radio and TV station call letters, but those are different stories of little import here. A FM station would have limited range (at least pre-internet) and offered little possibility of undercover listening.

WRCA New York NY at 660 AM was heard across many states, and as far away as the South Pacific in the Fifties.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

Whatever – to me in Virginia about 98% of my listening would have been to stations with call letters starting with “W”. The “K” stations were exotic to be listened to until the location was identified. Even more exotic were the Canadian stations. And super exotic would have been the “X” stations in Mexico. I never did hear one of those – at least not while living on the east coast. I did try in vain to find one some late nights – especially one Mexican station which was reputed to be the most powerful broadcasting station in the world at that time.

I can’t remember ever hearing a station west of Kansas or Nebraska. I suspect Bob’s listening from the upper mid west included more western stations, though by all accounts his listening was directed south and east to Chicago, and further south all the way down the Mississippi – to Memphis, Nashville, Little Rock, Shreveport and on down to New Orleans. That’s where we would have joined some nights in listening to some of the same stations, on late summer nights still too hot for sleeping, or cold winter nights when listening under the covers provided additional warming as well as listening and late night travel.

But my main listening was west and north. Already being in the south made western and northern locations seem all the more foreign sounding and interesting to my ears. I did listen to the Louisiana Hay Ride, Grand Ole Opry, National Barn Dance, and similar shows, but mainly as a diversion – passing through to other places – chasing the latest rock and roll or some other interest – including late night ball games from St Louis or Chicago. Or even more peculiar a hockey game from Canada broadcast in French.

The Original Mono Recordings

The Original Mono Recordings by Bob Dylan
This new audio CD is the ultimate for Dylan fans. Use our Amazon store link to find your favourite Dylan music and books as well as thousands of CD’s and books about the whole world of roots music and the sounds of the Fifties.

WREN Topeka KS told a New Zealand listener in 1958 ‘At night, WREN uses an array of four self-supporting towers which beams our pattern to the west’ – one of main reasons why listeners further east had difficulty hearing many western radio stations.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

Local stations weren’t as homogenised as they are in the States today. You could hear The Weavers, Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, The Kingston Trio, Bill Haley, and Elvis and Buddy Holly – even in small towns – mixed in with the live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera concerts from New York every Saturday afternoon and mixed in with songs heard once or twice from small record labels and mixed in with lots of very bland stuff. But local stations were generally limited in time of operation and did not have the less mainstream blues or bluegrass and were behind in the new rock and roll releases. (Fortunately the religious stations weren’t as widespread then as now, and were more day time only or religious on Sunday only.)

Small and mid-sized towns often broadcast from buildings such as this one used by WVJS Owensboro KY in 1950.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

As the night came falling from the sky the smaller generally low powered local stations closed down one by one and listening got better and better. Summer time listening was not as good as winter and oft times summer listening was interfered with by thunderstorms somewhere in the listening world. Cold winter nights started early and resulted in late night crystal clear reception – from places you never heard in summer.

The station engineer of KLRS Mountain Grove MS gave this description of local winter weather in a letter from 1955 ‘It was cold here on December 9. It snowed. Iced the roads. Was ice all over and I drove 140 miles on ice that morning. Had good luck and stayed on the road”.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.
Originally, WSB Atlanta GA used the promotional slogan ‘Covering Dixie Like the Dew’ and this logo example is from 1959.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Local stations could be 500 or fewer watts in power and would share many of the same frequencies, so interference between stations was rife during early evenings. As the local stations closed down from early evenings onwards the clear channel stations came into prominence. [The clear channel stations have absolutely nothing except name to do with the current Clear Channel Communications corporate domination of the American airwaves.]

The clear channel stations then were AM stations on frequencies where only one (or sometimes one east coast, one west coast) station existed. These were generally high powered stations – up to 50,000 watts in those days, and with good atmospheric conditions could easily be heard for a thousand or more miles, crossing the Appalachians to give access to the Mississippi from south to north. Those clear channel stations provided the best listening – non clear channel stations suffered by having annoying interference with fading and switching from one station to another.

Jean Shepherd 1921-1999 one of the most popular announcers of the Fifties was heard up and down the eastern seaboard over powerful WOR New York City.
Source: wikipedia.

Clear channel stations included WSN and WLAC (Nashville), WOR, WABC and WCBS (New York), WGN and WLS (Chicago), WSB (Atlanta), WBZ (Boston), KMOX (St Louis), KWKH (Shreveport) and so forth across fifty or more clear channel frequencies – offering a great variety in night time destinations.

Wheeling, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Nashville were visited in some of my western and southern travelling to get a taste of country and hillbilly. More northerly destinations included mid fifties rock and roll from Philadelphia, further north was WKBW in Buffalo – which hosted the “Hound” – after 11 p.m. – good raucous rock and roll.

And then back through New York City itself – especially on Sunday nights listening to Jean Shepherd on WOR – a mixture of low key music and humour and then on up to Boston – for more listening. Little could I then imagine that I would spend five later years immersed in that city.

And where did the travels end?

Mixing records and radio was Neil Zachmeyer of WRAM Monmouth IL as he explained in 1959 “I’m on the air from 5.29 to 6.20am each day Monday through Saturday with the only country music show on the station.

As for the Western accent, most folks around here call it Hillbilly, a slang for Country Western music lovers which is my love, and I also own a music and record store and while I have all types of music, I specialize in Country Western”.

Harry Smith said “Any kind of popular trend is infinitely more wholesome than listening to old records and trying to institute changes. It’s more important that people know that some kind of pleasure can be derived from things that are around them… I don’t think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records – it’s better to switch on the radio.”

Bob Dylan was 8 years old when John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen’ made it to #1 on the R&B charts in 1949.
Source: wikipedia.

Well – he said that, and meant some of it. You do have to revisit the roots and old records helped there – but switching on the radio was a way to both escape and to tune into popular music as it evolved – and for sure it was evolving in the Fifties. Bob certainly fiddled with old records, but he found his beginnings and his directions from the radio. And his beginnings included not only the popular trends into the newer rock and roll, but also the American roots from which he started and has returned to continually during his first forty five years of song writing and performing. He started, and continues, with blues wrapped around his head.

The roots were everywhere in the Fifties. Small towns then were not isolated – at least not when connected via the airwaves. Nor were they as homogenised as now. Regional music had the opportunity to become networked as national music…. old music had a place to linger and be appreciated… and new music also had a place to develop and be appreciated… and when the teenagers left home and migrated to Minneapolis, or Chicago, or Denver, or San Francisco, or Boston or New York City some of them had something in common….

WPGC Washington DC promoted its musical roots with this logo artwork in 1957.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.
Hank Williams was one of the most influential performers who moved across several musical genres and decades including the Fifties.
Source: wikipedia.

And this played no small part of the growth and spread of American roots music. Bits of folk, bluegrass, hillbilly, country, western and various blues all migrated from their regions to the bigger cities. And the newer rock and roll also migrated and mutated. This mixture of old and new helped retain elements that make real American music vital, even though it is more hidden now with the dross music that dominates much of the corporate music sources.

So the Fifties were indeed the time to switch on the radio in the US, undercover by chance or choice – and lasting in influence – the music has not faded, even though American radio is now past its prime. Radio was just one step in the music’s evolution – but an integral step as the Fifties turned into the Sixties.

And the onward journey that Dylan and others began with their radios under the covers has continued through all these years.

The nights of travel have not ended.

American radio manufacturer Admiral produced a range of transistor radio sets such as this one typical of what listeners heard ‘Undercover Radio’ on during the decade.
© National Geographic Magazine 1959, Radio Heritage Foundation Collection.

This new audio CD is the ultimate for Dylan fans. Use our Amazon store link to find your favourite Dylan music and books as well as thousands of CD’s and books about the whole world of roots music and the sounds of the Fifties.

Bill Hester was born in Fredericksburg VA and grew up there during the Fifties when it was a small self-contained southern town and not a suburb of northern VA as it is now.

In 1960, Bill migrated to the Boston area for five years of university, then to Palo Alto CA and on to Seattle WA to work for Boeing.

In 1972, his westward migration continued when along with Marilyn he moved to New Zealand for a working holiday. Now retired, they live in Wellington, New Zealand.

Whilst Bob Dylan and Bill Hester listened to radio from the mid-west and eastern USA, Keith Robinson was hearing the same stations, the same announcers and the same music thousands of miles away in New Zealand.

The Original Mono Recordings

The Original Mono Recordings by Bob Dylan
This new audio CD is the ultimate for Dylan fans. Use our Amazon store link to find your favourite Dylan music and books as well as thousands of CD’s and books about the whole world of roots music and the sounds of the Fifties.

WPRW broadcast from Manassas VA in 1958, less than an hour by road from Fredericksburg.
© Keith Robinson Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.
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