I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.
I’ve asked the following question for years, and never got a good answer: Why do stations east of the Mississippi generally start with W, and west of the Mississippi start with K? I’ve heard something about early transmitters from Westinghouse and Kaiser, but nothing definitive. Any ideas? Thanks.
The reason you haven’t been able to find a good, definitive answer is likely due to the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a good, definitive answer why certain stations were given call letters starting with K and others with W. Thomas H. White has written some wonderful articles for United States Early Radio History about the history of radio call letters. In “Mystique of the Three-Letter Callsigns” he notes that when the United States signed a 1912 radio regulatory act (I believe this was the Berlin International Radiotelegraph Conference) “call letter assignments became formalized under federal authority. Under international agreement unique initial letters were allotted among the various nations.”
He quotes from a 1914 government document (the full text of which is available here) describing the call letters available for stations in the United States and then writes the following:
Notice the policy was that calls for ocean-going ship stations started with a different letter than the land stations they communicated with: in the West ships received W– calls and land stations were assigned K–, while the reverse was true in the East, with K– ship calls and W– land calls. (NOTE: The assignment of W and K to the United States appears to have been completely arbitrary–the letters have no particular significance. N, however, had been commonly used by the U.S. Navy since November, 1909).
Later in the article, White explains that in 1923 the Mississippi River was chosen as the dividing line between newly licensed “W” stations and “K” stations, with existing stations allowed to keep their current call signs. Another article, “K/W Call Letters in the United States,” focuses on the various stations that don’t (or didn’t) fall into the K/W divide.
A December 1940 article in The New York Times discussing “a new system of call letters” adopted by the FCC explained that “under international agreement, the first call letters will be N for the use of the Navy and Coast Guard, K for stations west of the Mississippi and the Territories and W for stations east of the Mississippi” . Another article, this one published in December of 1946, wrote that “until the FCC came into existence in the 1934, there were only two restrictions on a station’s choice of call letters: they should not number more than than three or four, and the first letter was supposed to be W (for stations east of the Mississippi) or K (for stations west)” .
So, to sum up, nobody seems to know why the decision was made to assign the letters W and K to the United States. And there doesn’t seem to be any rationale behind giving stations in one part of the country “W” call letters and others “K” letters. But ever since 1923, when the Mississippi River was made the boundary, people have been wondering why. If there is a good, definitive answer, please let me know.