Meaning of radio station call letters

Over at Orange Crate Art, Michael Leddy linked to a fun page of "Call Letter Origins" revealing the meaning behind the letters of many radio stations. Here are a few:
CILQ
Toronto, ON
CILQ='silk'
Note: was to be easy listening, silky smooth, now rock

HCJB(SW)
Quito, Ecuador
H)eralding C)hrist J)esus' B)lessings
Note: in Spanish - H)oy C)hristo J)esus B)endice

KAND
Corsicana, TX
Wolf Brand Canned (KAND='canned') Chili Company, wanted W)O)L)F) but FCC regulations prohibited
Call Letter Origins

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  1. My grandfather had a flour manufacturing plant back in the 30’s in Western Kentucky. He had a unique process for “bleaching” the flour- and his advertising boasted “the whitest flour in the world.” When he opened a radio station in that area- his call letters became WFIW (for obvious reasons).

  2. It’s not very exciting, but KRON = “Chron” for Chronicle, as it was founded by the de Young family who also published the Chronicle.

  3. In Chicago, we have WGN, owned by the Tribune. It stands for World’s Greatest Newspaper. WLS is World’s Largest Store, it was originally owned by Sears. WCFL was the voice of the Chicago Federation of Labor. It’s gone now, but it was the best am rock station in the 60’s.

  4. Wow, they even have WNTH, my old high school’s radio station (Stands for New Trier High, if anyone actually cares). That’s pretty impressive.

  5. So weird to see a family story validated in a Boing Boing post, although only ‘a relationship’ is mentioned.

    My grandfather bought WORL back in the 70’s, but was unable to use the original call letters (some other station took them). WROL was the second best option.

    Also, gotta love WATD – We’re At The Dump!

  6. They left off local favorites: KDVS (K-Davis) at UC Davis, and KYDS (El Camino High School’s radio station). Once I listened to the sounds of silence on KYDS. No static, but no music. I left it on the blank station for about 2 hours and finally an embarrassed DJ came on and said they did the entire show without turning on the power. Finally the principal called up to fill them in on that. I can’t make fun of it, because I’ve played almost an entire set without turning on my bass amp. At least alcohol was involved with my mistake.

  7. 2 things:

    WACO was ‘grandfathered’ in when the W/K east/west of the mississippi designators were instituted, and

    austin once had a station ‘KRMH’ (karma) whose late-night dj would occasionally ask, “it’s 3:00am. do you know where you are?”

  8. In New Iberia, La., we used to have an easy listening station with the call letters KDEA, which was sort of an abbreviation for Acadia. New Iberia is one of several parishes referred to as Acadiana.

  9. This is really my inner 13-year-old-boy talking, but searching for my hometown of LA’s radio stations brought KLIT to my attention, which was named for ‘LIT’e rock. I wonder if this has backfired yet.

  10. CIUT-FM at the University of Toronto. The UT should be obvious, the I is meaningless, it was the best choice that the regulators would allow when the station was licenced.

    I was the station manager at the time and had to officially make the call sign request.

    Philip
    Toronto

  11. I remember when my friend in Catholic School told me the secret of WJMJ — Jesus Mary Joseph. I think it took about 5 years for me to believe him.

  12. This is great. Thank you Ghost Dance for that great list of stations. I used to fall asleep with a transistor radio under my pillow listening to WLS and WOWO on AM. This led to interests in shortwave and ham radio that took me to an electronics career and amateur radio license. I will submit my favorite radio station of all time WNCW which stands for Western North Carolina Window on the world.

    Americana, blues ,jazz,rock, bluegrass, celtic, Zappa, Cajun,zydeco, Dead can Dance , Phish, Doc Watson, it’s all here. and streamed online…..

    I had XM for 9 months and had it turned off because it could not match the variety on this station.

    http://www.wncw.org/index.html

  13. First, this list includes television stations, like WWOM (Wonderful World of Movies). Second, it leaves out KSLU (Southeastern Louisiana University).

  14. Another note about WACO…
    When I was in college back in the late ’80s, WACO Radio was the only U.S. radio station to also be the town’s name.

    could be different now…. and the town still blows

  15. Trivia: stations west of the Mississippi start their callsign with K, those east use W (no idea why that is). My college station (KUOM) claimed to be the first licensed operators west of the Mississippi; they started broadcasting around 1915.

    Up until the 90s there was a cable FM station on campus too. Since they were on the East Bank (the Univ. of MN campus straddles the river) their callsign was WMMR. Though from this list, I just learned that there’s a WMMR in Philadelphia… wonder if it was contemporary with the one in MN.

  16. Here in Atlanta, GA we have News/Talk AM750, WSB. According to the list, WSB stands for “Welcome South, Brother.” I love it. XD

  17. If you look on the website’s main page, you can send them updates for missing stations. I gave him information on two stations and three call signs:

    WIDR – Kalamazoo MI – 89.1 FM – Western Inter-Dormitory Radio – it was transmitted through the steam-heat pipes on campus, tin foil hooked to your AM radio antenna.

    WMUK – Kalamazoo MI – 102.1 FM – Western Michigan University Kalamazoo. Originally called WMCR – Western Michigan College Radio.

  18. University of North Texas, abbreviated ‘UNT’, has its’ own radio station. The call letters are KNTU.

    Double You Kay Ar Pee in Cincinnatiiiii….

  19. KFRO, Longview, TX

    1978? soul and rhythm great church services on sunday. I don’t know what it is now, but it was SO hip in 78

    in 76-ish, it was standard am top-40

    I’d love to hear some of the old ‘shout-outs’ from back then

  20. In Philadelphia one of the most famouse rock radio stations in the 50’s and 60’s was WIBG. Joe Niagra and many DJ stars came from this station. It started out in the 20’s as a bible based radio station called I Believe In God (IBG). Ad the W in front and it’s WIBG (sometimes pronounced as Wibbage like cabbage.

  21. In austin the most notorious radio stations are KLBJ AM & KLBJ FM, started by Lyndon B. Johnson.

  22. Any idea what the sources are for this list? Some fascinating explanations, but a few of them seem like guesses.

  23. Neighbor, how long has it been since you had a big, thick, steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili? Well, that’s too long.

  24. “In the 19th century, ships, telegraph stations, etc., adopted call signs to aid in signaling, a practice that continued when ships and the shore stations serving them began to use radio. At first users picked their own signs, but that led to duplication. In an effort to get organized, the 1906 Berlin International Wireless Telegraph Convention declared that all ship and shore stations should have unique call signs consisting of three letters. The U.S., no doubt bridling at the thought of being told what to do by a bunch of foreigners, declined to ratify the convention until 1912, with the result that we had stations with two- or even one-letter call signs, plus many duplicates.

    Fed up with this, the head of the federal Bureau of Navigation, Eugene Tyler Chamberlain, decided that an 1884 statute empowered him to assign marine-radio call letters and he proceeded to do so. Ships on the Atlantic and gulf coasts were assigned calls beginning with K, and those on the Pacific coast and Great Lakes were assigned calls beginning with W. No one knows why these letters were chosen, although Thomas speculates somewhat wanly that perhaps W stood for west. A weakness of the scheme, Thomas points out, was the existence of the Panama Canal, which permitted ships in the Atlantic to sail into the Pacific and vice versa, thus making a mess of the whole system. Still, it was progress.

    In 1912 Congress empowered the Bureau of Navigation to license land stations. Official documents issued in 1913 boldly declared the government’s intention of following the maritime practice of assigning W calls to stations in the west and K calls to stations in the east. Unfortunately, the instructions seem to have gotten a little scrambled on the way down to the clerks at the front desk, who proceeded to do things the opposite way, assigning K calls to land stations in the west and W calls to stations in the east. (One supposes that the Great Lakes = W thing threw everybody off.) Evidently deciding to go with the flow, the brass stated in the next year’s bulletin that the Pacific coast would get W for ships and K for land stations, the Atlantic and gulf coasts would get K for ships and W for land stations, and the Great Lakes would get W for everything.

    But the clerks weren’t done yet. In 1920, Thomas says, “perhaps caught up in a burst of egalitarianism,” or else laboring under a misapprehension as to where the applicants were, they began assigning calls starting with KD to everybody, including the now famous KDKA in Pittsburgh. This lasted only a few months before the old W/K policy was resumed. What happened is not known, but one suspects a memo stating in essence, all right, you morons, enough is enough.

  25. I think I saw recently where a radio station in Cincinnati has taken on the call letters WKRP, from the 70’s tv show.

  26. they left out KQED! it’s the only local radio station i haven’t figured out the call
    KFOG, KOIT, KBAY, KAL, KRON – easy to figure out
    but KQED?

  27. Thanks Tak.. So it is as backward and arbitrary as it seems.

    Funny everyone else gets by without call signs.. or at least has the decency to not talk about them, ever.. :)

  28. I always thought the best name for a country radio station would be CFNG, because those are the chords thy usually play, and it sounds vulgar.. Cee Effin Gee.
    “I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those that do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means to put down.” –Bob Newhart
    “Isn’t country music supposed to have an O in it?” –Anonymous

  29. They list WLW’s call sign as standing for World’s Lowest Wages, which is funny, but only an in-joke by the employees. It’s thought that it actually stands for World’s Longest Wave, courtesy of station founder Powel Crosley. But it was the first radio station, so it might have just been random letters.

  30. #43 yes, most of the world don’t use them for public, broadcast stations.

    Every country has it’s allocation of call letters but outside of the Americas (and Australia I think) they are used only by amateur radio licensees and a few other non-broadcast uses. Even though there aren’t conventional callsigns, most countries still insist that the radio station name is mentioned regularly

    In the UK several stations at the start of commercial radio tried to emulate the US style of call signs. A station in the Midlands wanted to call itself WABC, standing for Wolverhampton and the Black Country but it was deemed too American, they managed to use it about 15 years later though. There was also a digital station in London called WLON

  31. ScaryUK,

    Yeah, call signs just seem like introducing yourself to people with your National Identity number instead of your name.

    That may have a singular benefit on a rare occasion (like, to the taxman), but your name (or an informal nickname, even) are clearly more useful and pertinent in a day-to-day capacity.

  32. One they left out is WEQX, based in Manchester, Vermont. They claim in their spots that they “broadcast from high atop Mt. Equinox,” a nearby mountain and landmark.

  33. From IL, c.1970:

    WJPF: W)illiamson J)ackson P)erry F)rankin- names of the four counties of target audience. Today this is a Limbaugh AM repeater station. Herrin IL.

    WEBQ: W)e E)ntertain B)eyond Q)uestion- AM, later FM. Harrisburg IL.

  34. WFTW Ft. Walton Beach, FL L F)t). W)alton Beach

    Shouldn’t that be in Crawford, TX? Oh Wait, GWB lives in Dallas now, down’t he? and the letters….Quite obvious isn’t it?

  35. I see WQED is listed, but not KQED. These are the dominant public stations in Pittsburgh, where I once lived, and San Francisco, where I live now. I’ve always wondered if the names were connected in some way…

  36. #40, WKRP is a new low-power television station. I live out in the ‘burbs and can’t get it, however.

  37. I went to a college called GVSU. And I was the president of our student run radio station for 2 years. Our call letters were WCKS. If you run GVSU WCKS all together, and then cut out the W, you get: GVSUCKS, or GV SUCKS.

    We thought it was so clever.

  38. A couple more from my former home town:

    CKUW – University of Winnipeg
    CJUM – University of Manitoba

    Also, they mention CKND. When it was stateside the call letters were KCND

  39. Not on the list, gone but not forgotten, WEBB in Baltimore, once owned by James Brown, making it the first black owned station in B-more. We Enjoy Being Black!

  40. WIOD is an A.M. radio station in Miami where Larry King (CNN) started his career.

    WIOD used to be located on one of those man-made islands that make up what is known today as Miami Beach and North Bay Village.

    WIOD = Wonderful Isle of Dreams (yeah, kinda fruity, but it was named during the old-timey days when it probably sounded cool).

  41. ha, what a fun post. Don’t forget KOME, whose slogan in the 80’s was “The wet spot on your dial”. One of their station IDs said: “Don’t touch that dial, it’s got KOME on it.” real klassy!!

    There’s also a great indie listener-supported community radio station based in Oakland, with the very unfortunate (but unforgettable) call letters of KPOO.

  42. They forgot Portland Oregon’s KBOO, named after a strain of pot called Berkley Boo, from around 1968.

  43. One mistake the list makes is that KSCR is currently the call letters for the University of Southern California’s student-run radio station.

    And I have two good friends who are on the staff of the University of Minnesota, Morris radio station (KUMM) (Slogan: the only station to put KUMM in your ear)

  44. In the olden days here in Australia radio stations had three character codes starting with a number for the state (the same as at the start of postal codes, 2 for New South Wales, 3 for Victoria, 6 for Western Australia etc.) and two seemingly random letters.

    When commercial AM stations in Perth started going across to FM in the early 90s the usual practice seemed to be to drop the number off the front and stick “FM” on the end. “6PM” became “PM FM”, “6KY” became “KY FM” (insert your own joke) and so on.

    These days they all have funky names like “Mix FM” and “Nova”, although 6IX still sticks with the old system (and the old AM band).

  45. One of the most powerful radio stations in the world was run by this “doctor” who used it to shill for his business sewing goat testes into men to revive their virility. Book is called “Charlatan.”

  46. WMPC, Lapeer MI….church-owned since sign on in the late 20’s/early 30’s. “Where Many Preach Christ.”

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