On Sunday, February 20th, WGY will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Members of the East Greenbush Amateur Radio
Association will commemorate the historic radio milestone by running a Special Event station.
When the famed broadcasting facility first went on the air, it was announced that the “W” stood for Wireless, that the “G” represented the first letter of General Electric, which owned the station, and that the “Y” stood for the last letter in Schenectady, its city of license. Over the next century the station would become a leader in both programming and technical innovation.
Because of the potential difficulties of setting up a centrally located Special Event station during winter weather, and continued concerns about Covid, members of the club will participate by operating their own home equipment. A Special Event Q-S-L card from the club will be made available to confirmed contacts, and instructions will be posted on the club’s website for those who wish to receive one.
The Special Event call sign W7Y has been requested, with the number 7 representing G, the 7th letter of the alphabet.
Since this station is in This Week in Amateur Radios own back yard, we thought we would give you a little bit of its history.
WGY’s original licensee was General Electric, a company headquartered in Schenectady that had extensive experience in radio research and development. In 1903 Reginald Fessenden contracted with GE to help him design and produce a series of high-frequency alternator-transmitters. This project was ultimately assigned to Ernst F. W. Alexanderson, who in August 1906 delivered a unit which was successfully used by Fessenden to make radiotelephone demonstrations.
Alternator radio transmitters became obsolete by the mid-1920s due to advances in vacuum-tube technology, and another GE employee, Irving Langmuir, played an important role in this development. GE was a major manufacturer of radio vacuum tubes during World War I, and produced over 200,000 for the military during the conflict.Tubes of increasing power ratings were designed, and by the summer of 1922 Langmuir had introduced a 20 kilowatt transmitter tube.
WGY actually got its start in early 1915, when G-E was granted a Class 3-Experimental license with the call sign 2XI.
That license was canceled in 1917 as the United States entered World War I. 2XI was relicensed in 1920.
Starting on December 1st, 1921, the U-S Department of Commerce set aside two wavelengths for use by broadcasting stations: 360 meters, or 833 kilocycles for Class B stations that had quality equipment and programming, and 485 meters, or 619 kilocycles for market and weather reports. Locally, both WGY and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute station, WHAZ, were assigned to this new wavelength on a time sharing basis. In May 1923 additional broadcasting frequencies were announced, and the Schenectady – Troy region was given exclusive national use of 790 kilocycles. WGY and WHAZ were assigned to share this new allocation. On November 1, 1927, WHAZ moved to a new frequency, giving WGY full-time use.
WGY also used the first condenser microphone, developed by General Electric for radio studio applications, on February 7th, 1923.
On February 4, 1922, G-E received its first broadcasting license, for a new station located in Schenectady, which was authorized to transmit on the 360 meter entertainment wavelength, and was issued the call letters WGY.
The original transmitter produced an antenna power of 1,500 watts, which was three times the wattage of the standard high powered station at the time. Unusual for the period, the station’s studio and transmitter site were at separate locations. Broadcasts originated from a studio on the fourth floor of Building 36 at the General Electric Plant in Schenectady, which
was connected to a T top wire antenna located atop another GE building about one kilometer distant. The station was placed under the oversight of Martin P. Rice, who was the manager of the company’s publication bureau.
WGY’s debut broadcast started at 7:47 p.m. on February 20th, 1922, when Kolin Hager, or as he was known on the air, KH, signed on with the station’s call letters, and explaining what they stood for, even though in truth they had been randomly assigned by the Commerce Department.
The first broadcast, furnished by some of this city’s best talent, lasted about one hour. It consisted of live music and announcements of song titles and other information. The station’s second program took place two days later, and featured
a speech about George Washington, delivered by W. W. Tranch, Schenectady’s American Legion post commander, followed by a concert.
WGY was a pioneer in the use of remote broadcasts originating from locations outside of the main studio, carrying out the first one just days after it signed on. On February 23, 1922, the station ran a telephone line connection to the Union College gymnasium, where New York governor Nathan L. Miller and others gave speeches commemorating the 17th anniversary of the Rotary Club. This was followed by a short concert. Other early programming included coverage of the Yale-Harvard football game live from New Haven, Connecticut; the WGY String Orchestra live from the State Theater in Schenectady, and talks and presentations by various G-E innovators, explorers, and state and various local officials.
A few months after WGY began broadcasting, Edward H. Smith, director of a community theater group in Troy called the Masque, suggested to Kolin Hager that WGY carry weekly 40-minute long adaptations of plays. A troupe was formed known as the WGY Players, performing as radio’s first dramatic series.
On August 3rd, 1922 they presented Eugene Walter’s 1908 play The Wolf, the first of forty three dramatizations performed
during the 1922-1923 season. Smith also became a pioneer of radio drama sound effects during this first play when he slapped a couple of two by four boards together to simulate the slamming of a door. Meanwhile, the WGY Orchestra was used to
provide music between acts. Response was immediate, with the station reporting that the broadcast resulted in its receiving more than two thousand letters.
In 1923, Guglielmo Marconi, credited as the inventor of radio, paid a visit to Schenectady to see WGY’s transmitter and studios. In 1924, the transmitter site was moved to its current location in the Town of Rotterdam, then known as South Schenectady. This site was also home of G-E’s experimental shortwave radio stations W2XAF on 31.48 meters or
9.525 MegaHertz, and W2XAD on 19 meters or 15 MegaHertz. WGY’s power levels were steadily increased, first to
5,000 watts, then 10,000 watts and finally to 50,000 watts on July 18th, 1925.
By 1928, the WGY transmitter was capable of operating at 150,000 watts, and an application was made to increase to this power. However, this was three times the limit allowed by the Federal Radio Commission, and the application was denied.
Temporary broadcasts were carried out at the 100 kiloWatt power level on August 4th, 1927 and at 200 kiloWatts on
March 9th, 1930. From those broadcasts, the station received reception letters and telegrams from as far away as New Zealand. Plans were to make those power increases permanent, but were never carried out.
By 1935, the engineering staff of WGY began work to replace the T-top antenna system with a single vertical radiator tower.
At the time, the station was plagued with signal fading at a distance of 30 to 100 miles from the transmitter site due to
cancellation by out of phase co-channel signals from the same source. The ideas for this tower were formed from experiments at WJZ in New York. From this, a square, half-wavelength, on 790 kilocycles, 625 foot tower was constructed in 1938.
The half-wavelength design greatly reduced high angle radiation, thus solved the close in fading issues, and this antenna is still in use today.
In 1938 the station’s studios were moved from Building 36 into a brand new building on River Road, in downtown Schenectady. These studios were torn down in 1961 to make way for Interstate 890. At that time the studios were moved to 1400 Balltown Road in Niskayuna, New York, co-locating the station with the G-E owned and operated WRGB-TV.
On January 4, 1923, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company made the first network radio broadcast, using special telephone lines to relay a program from its New York City station, WEAF, now WFAN, to a Boston station. On June 3rd, 1923, WGY participated in AT&T’s second network test, which linked WEAF to WGY, to KDKA in Pittsburgh, and to KYW in Chicago. The Radio Corporation of America responded by developing a network operation centered on its New York City station, WJZ, now WABC, and in December 1923 made its first test network connection with a hookup to WGY. The WJZ network never advanced beyond a few affiliates, and struggled with the low fidelity of relying on Western Union telegraph lines to link stations.
In 1926, RCA bought out AT&T’s network operations, and WGY affiliated with the newly established WEAF based NBC Red Network. In the Albany market, WABY, now WAMC, affiliated with the NBC Blue Network, which later became ABC Radio, while WOKO, now WOPG, became a CBS affiliate. WGY remained with NBC Radio until it discontinued operations in 1989.
In 1941, the stations on 790 kilocycles, including WGY and KGO in San Francisco, were moved to 810 kilocycles to comply with the North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement.
In 1942, during World War II, a concrete wall was built around the base of the transmitter tower to prevent saboteurs from shooting out the base insulator on the tower and taking the station off the air.
As the Golden Age of Radio ended, WGY evolved into a full service, middle of the road format of popular music, news and talk. It was the flagship station of General Electric’s broadcasting group until 1983, when it was sold to Sky Communications and soon after to Empire Radio Partners.
General Electric’s Schenectady operations also pioneered television by putting WRGB-TV on the air, which signed on as W2XB in 1928. It also pioneered FM broadcasting in 1940 with radio station W2XOY, later WGFM, then WGY-FM, and today WRVE.
WRVE is credited as the first FM station to broadcast in stereo around the clock.
On September 20, 2010, WGY began simulcasting its programming on a 5,600 watt WHRL 103.1 FM. This gave listeners the choice to hear WGY programming on the AM dial or the FM band. Clear Channel changed the call sign on the FM to WGY-FM.