WGY, Schenectady’s hometown radio pioneer, turns 100

SCHENECTADY — It was a turbocharged era of technological innovation, and entertainment options seemed boundless.

With upgrades in audio technology, listeners had their pick of seemingly endless programs, many of them immersive offerings pushing the bounds of what was thought possible through pioneering sound effects. 

Competition for big names and advertising dollars was brutal and a constant churn of publicity and big stars was needed to boost ratings. 

This isn’t the modern day but rather the early 1920s, when radio emerged as the first broadcasting force

When listeners first heard voices crackle across the airwaves, it was almost impossible to overstate the significance.

“To hear somebody’s voice and how personal it is, I think it must have been incredible to experience this,” said Diane Donato, a news anchor at WGY 810 AM.

The station is marking its 100th anniversary this year, a milestone celebrated with a new exhibit of more than 50 historical photos at miSci | Museum of Innovation & Science in Schenectady that opened on Jan. 22.

For the past century, WGY has been at the vanguard of the radio industry, racking up an impressive number of firsts, from forerunners to remote broadcasting to the first to conduct a two-way transmission to England.

The station was also the first to broadcast the World Series in 1922 when the New York Giants defeated the New York Yankees. 

And on a more whimsical note, WGY introduced the concept of an international cat and dog fight: The dog and cat fight involved Skip, WGY's unofficial mascot in the 1930s. Skip was located in WGY's Schenectady studios and the cat in Australia. 

WGY's shortwave stations did fairly regular broadcasts and communications with Australia.

"Apparently Skip got excited one time when the mic was live and started barking, and that scared a cat in the Australia studio, which started yowling and hissing," Hunter said, "hence the first international dog and cat fight."

A new era is born

WGY launched in 1922, the brainchild of General Electric engineers. Until that point, news was disseminated through telegraphs and newspapers, hardly an immersive experience. 

In a way, the state’s first radio station got its start as a marketing arm of GE, the technology and manufacturing giant that dominated Schenectady. Walter Baker, a member of GE’s radio engineering department, initially floated the idea to his superior, who dismissed the technology as a passing fad.

“He thought it was a flash in the pan,” said Chris Hunter, vice president of collections and exhibits at MiSci. 

Baker went over his head to the public relations department, who agreed that a radio station could be a valuable vessel for self-promotion after commissioning a study on the company brand. 

Once WGY began broadcasting from the now-demolished Building No. 36 at GE headquarters at the foot of Erie Boulevard, company brass had a general idea of a potential audience: A survey of Albany, Schenectady and Troy revealed 50 percent of households already owned early pre-tube crystal radios. 

“There were people just waiting for content and they were the ones to provide it,” Hunter said. 

The early days of radio were marked by experimental programming, including radio dramas, which quickly stuck.

The programming was billed as a groundbreaking entertainment experience. Producers used a combination of voice, music and sound effects to stimulate the imagination.

The result, Hunter said, was a “theater of the mind” concept not entirely unlike contemporary podcasts, which attract listeners through increasingly sophisticated and sleek production techniques. 

The first radio drama was a three-act play, “The Wolf,” which landed in August 1922. After that came a series of 43 locally produced dramas, which typically ran in a serialized format once per week. 

By this time, WGY was gaining a toehold with audiences, and its coverage area stretched into northern and central New York, as well as Massachusetts and Vermont.

“It was very exciting, particularly for people in rural areas,” said Rick Kelly, co-author  with John Gabriel of “Capital Region Radio: 1920-2011.” “To hear another human voice flying through the air was really a revelation for people back in the 1920s.”

The powerful 50,000-watt station dominated the airwaves.

“At first, I think they were trying 200,000 watts, but it was blowing everything out,” said Jeff Wolf, news and program director at WGY.

Before federal regulations, anyone could purchase a transmitter and start broadcasting. Many did — including department stores and other businesses who invested in the technology for self-promotion. The result was often a cloud of noise that somewhat resembled today’s contemporary ubiquitous television commercials — or even spam.

The national mood was optimistic in the early 1920s. The nation was emerging from the dueling crises of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, which combined killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. 

Cities were becoming electrified — both literally and figuratively.

In 1910, just one in seven households had access to electricity, a number that swelled to over 85 percent a decade later.

“People had just gone through a world war and pandemic and were looking to have some fun,” Hunter said. “Radio came along at the perfect opportunity.”

It was a boom time for Schenectady and inventions were flying out of “The House of Magic,” GE’s research lab, at a rapid clip. 

The advances fundamentally changed how people lived, from refrigeration to radio tubes to the forerunner of the loudspeaker. 

Remote broadcasts emerged. At the time, announcers lugging their gear to baseball games or news events was a development that was downright magical for listeners.

“This opened the world for people in ways that didn’t exist before,” Donato said.

The audience grows

As the industry matured, the race was on for who could attract the best talent. WGY would wrangle in visiting vaudeville performers from Proctors theater and convince them to appear on air. 

Celebrities, too, took to the airwaves, including aviator Amelia Earhart and Harry Houdini, the magician who appeared on air in October 1926 just weeks before his death.

While the new technology resulted in competition, theaters also saw radio as a way to broaden their audience and played along.

Networks eventually emerged, including RCA, which launched NBC. WGY became its first affiliate in 1926, giving them top access to entertainers, including “Amos 'n' Andy” and Walter Damrosch, the longtime director of the New York Symphony Orchestra. 

WGY also duked it out with the Westinghouse Corp., which was also focused on conquering the radio market. 

“GE took the technology and made it into something bigger, figuring how to mass produce and back-engineer what Westinghouse had done and made it into a massively successful business,” Kelly said. 

Once producers pinpointed which programming struck a nerve with audiences, the quality improved and experimental concepts fell out of favor. Radio dramas continued into the 1950s before falling by the wayside due to another new medium: Television.

But in the 1930s, radio stations were not yet formatted, and each did a little of everything, from skits to live broadcasts and celebrity appearances. 

Not even the Great Depression could put a dent in the industry.

“The only thing that increased in sales during the Great Depression were radios and refrigerators,” Hunter said.

Through it all, WGY racked up firsts, including what could be considered the debut Amber Alert after kidnappers made off with the 6-year-old son of an RCA executive from their Schenectady home in 1928.

GE continued to own WGY into the 1930s, contracting management out to NBC before returning to local control by World War II, an era that saw President Franklin D. Roosevelt carried directly into living rooms via his “Fireside Chats,” a format he had fine-tuned during his single term as New York's governor in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Fun and innovation

The decade also saw new personalities arrive, announcers like Martha Brooks and Howard Tupper, who wowed listeners by broadcasting live from a bobsled.

GE liked coming up with stunts, Hunter said, including flying a dirigible above headquarters.

Brooks would often discuss and review consumer products on the air, a forerunner to the contemporary “unboxing” genre on social media in which people film themselves opening brand new items.

“Martha was doing a version of that in the 1940s and 50s,” Donato said. “It’s an incredible way to communicate when there were no options to hear about these things.”

The station also came up with its own product lines. Levi Wholesale Grocers had a special line and distribution for WGY Food Stores, including coffee, tea, oatmeal and spices. WGY also expanded its roster of shortwave stations across the globe, setting up shop in Latin America and South America. 

Portuguese-speaking announcers made Schenectady their home base and company maps depicted The Electric City as the center of the world.

By 1941, WGY estimated its audience at 1 million people.

During World War II, WGY served as a civic booster and a major community resource, taking on a public service role much like NPR today, Hunter said.

As war raged, WGY aired everything from patriotic broadcasts to public service announcements. It shared civil defense information and war bulletins featuring dispatches from the front and interviews with local soldiers. 

WGY continued to host a powerful signal and was the only station that could reach into rural areas, Kelly said, wiping out competitors. 

At first, radio’s relationships with newspapers was adversarial — newspapers even “strong-armed” The Associated Press to restrict stations' access to fresh content, resulting in WGY delivering days-old wire copy, Hunter said — but eventually learned how to work together, including having Times Union and Schenectady Daily Gazette reporters on-air to discuss their reporting.

The advent of television again instantly reordered the landscape.

At the beginning of World War II, there were just 300 television sets in the Capital Region, a number that remained unchanged throughout the war. The number grew to just under 2,000 in 1948. By 1954, there were 200,000.

“Just about every household that could afford a TV had a TV and that definitely played a major impact on the radio stations,” Hunter said.

Big personalities like Gracie Allen, Bob Hope and George Burns began to jump ship. 

Yet WGY rolled with the punches. Until this point, programming was required to be broadcast live due to the lack of long-term storage capacity. But the advent of magnetic tape made it easier for stations to record ahead of time, which both boosted the quality and shaved off costs. 

Live music became en vogue following World War II, including the birth of the disc jockey, rock and roll and Top 40. 

GE, however, remained conservative and stuck to classical, jazz and easy listening, perhaps due to their corporate ownership, Hunter said. 

Original dramatic programming began to fade away, while TV began sucking up advertising revenue, leading to the same contractions facing media outlets today, including staff layoffs and downsizing.

Talk and morning programs

The building’s longtime art deco-style studio in downtown Schenectady was demolished to make way for Interstate 890 in 1961, and the station moved out to the suburbs.

Yet the unique three-letter call sign remained: ‘W’ for “wireless,” ‘G’ for “General Electric” and ‘Y’ for “Schenectady.” 

The improvement of phone technology in the 1960s ushered in the era of talk radio and the concept of morning programming. 

Folks like Bill Edwardsen and Harry Downie became household names; Don Weeks, Chuck Custer, Kelly Lynch and Diane Donato all followed, each of them longtime radio personalities who served as community pillars and leaders.

Weeks, the longtime host of WGY morning news, was particularly special, Donato said.

“He touched this community in a way I don’t know how many other people have in modern times,” Donato said.

The station converted to an all-talk and news format in 1994. After a series of owners, it was sold to Clear Channel Communications in 1999, which became iHeartMedia in 2014. As with the newspaper industry, the station wasn't immune to layoffs amid a shifting media climate.

Contemporary listeners may be familiar with the WGY Mornings with Doug Goudie, as well as a regular lineup of nationally syndicated conservative talk shows like Glenn Beck, and until last year, the late Rush Limbaugh. 

A century later, WGY remains at the forefront in programming and continues to roll with new trends continuing to shape the industry.

“Radio has been an incredible companion as people live their lives,” Donato said, citing the intimacy that perhaps is absent in other forms of media. “We’re going through life together.”

WGY is planning a blend of original and vintage programming that will augment the miSci exhibit, including a special broadcast on Feb. 20. Former longtime weekend host Joe Gallagher will also return for a special hour. 

“The birth of radio was right here,” Wolf said. “It’s pretty neat.”

If you go: miSci Presents "WGY: Radio's Laboratory Celebrates Its Centennial." The exhibit runs until May 8. Visit www.misci.org for more information. 

Editor's note: Monday, Feb. 14 at 11:36 a.m.

An earlier version of this story scrambled the location of WGY’s canine mascot: The dog was in the Schenectady studio - not in Australia.

WGY kicked off its centennial year with a podcast series called "Wireless: 100 Years of WGY". It is hosted by WGY news anchor Mike Patrick and features interviews with familiar WGY voices with new episodes released weekly.

The station also has a commemorative website here

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The 100th anniversary of WGY will be observed by two local amateur radio clubs - the East Greenbush and the Schenectady Museum amateur radio associations - on Feb. 19 and 20 using a special event amateur station that will reach other "hams" all over the world.  The station will use the call sign W7Y, with the 7 representing "G" -- the 7th letter of the alphabet. Amateur radio operators - also known as "hams" - who contact the Special Event station will be able to request a reception report "QSL" card designed especially for the occasion.  WGY's legacy is also tied to shortwave broadcasting.  From the 1920s until the early 1960s, parent company General Electric operated two powerful shortwave stations from Schenectady - WGEO and WGEA.   Members of the public who would like to see the special event station in operation will also be able to visit the Schenectady Museum facility between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday.