1179. From The ZehnKatzen Notebooks–TV Station Call Signs, or the letters we call our TV stations.
We know that all the broadcast stations in Oregon begin with K; in fact, it's a truism that broadcasters west of the Mississippi start with K whilst those east start with W; and some stations have three-letter calls (KEX, KGW, KXL) though others four (KOIN, KATU, KPOJ). Strangely, however, there's a KDKA in Pittsburgh-hundreds of miles west of the Mississippi. Ever wonder why?
I did, found out, filed away the info, and then forgot it. Now, in collecting TV Station logos, I found I wanted to know again and now, thanks to Google, the answers are but a few minutes away, perforce, the following, capped with a few words on corporate style (the CBS Mandate).
The following is a thumbnail of what I found out. A web-bibliography follows.
The Story of the Ks and the Ws
A long time ago there were only a handful of stations broacasting anything, of course. They began to multiply, and it was decided by the international broadcasting community that a indentification standard would be A Good Thing Indeed.
Prior to 1912, a station could call itself anything it wanted. After this, however, the precursor of the International Telecommunications Union established a system that would evolve into the familiar K/W dichotomy that we know today.
The original plan for USA was to simply allocate A, N, K, and W. The US lobbied for A and N for Army and Navy, and the reasons K and W were chosen for civilan broacasting are unclear and are usually characterized as arbitrary and reason-less, but one of the sources I read pointed out that K and W are easily obtained by adding a dash to the Morse Code symbol for A:
- Morse "A" is • –
- To get "K", put a dash in front of the "A" ( – • – )
- To get "W", put a dash in back of the "A" ( • – – )
We're not sure either, because the actual reason does not seem to be recorded, but this seems to have the right ring to it.
Once established and agreed upon, the appropriate authority started meteing out the calls. When first established, though, there was no requirement that a W or K be anywhere in relation to anything. A W could be in the west, and a K could be in the east.
As a matter of fact, that's what happened. One of the pioneer broadcasters, the legendary KDKA, was established and still broadcasts from Pittsburgh, PA; KYW is a station in Philadelpha, and WOAI broadcasts from San Antonio, TX.
As broadcasting spread west, however, it was deemed that a further territorial division would be Another Very Good Thing. Sometime between 1912 and 1920, the first dividing line was established, but due to the relative scarcity of broadcast outlets in the west, a line based on the New Mexico-Texas border would be appropriate. Existing K stations in the east were grandfathered, and that's why you have K stations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Soon enough, as broadcasting realy took off, it was decided that a line that far west was optimistic, so in January 1923, that demarcation was shifted to the Mighty Mississppi. W stations that existed before that shift had thier calls grandfathered, which is why you find W stations in San Antonio and Waco and Oklahoma City, amongst other places.
The map, hotlinked from one of my sources, tells the story.
One current exception happens in states like Minnesota and Louisana, where the Miss cuts through, they are allowed to mix it up. Both K and W calls exist in the NOLA, Twin Cities and Duluth markets regardless of thier relative positions to the Mississppi thalweg, and are not considered anomalies But all new stations outside those grey areas must adhere to the K/West, W/East rationale.
The Drawing of the Three ... Letters
Another mystery is why some stations have three letter calls while most of them seem to have four.
This can also be explained by expediency of the then-exploding broadcasting market. Originally three letters were thought to be sufficient; originally, the letters were randomly assigned.
By 1922, though, the applications began to flood in and the demand exceeded the supply of three-letter calls, and the answer to The Times-Picayune's application for the New Orleans market were the four-letter string WAAB (the station today is known as WJBO in Baton Rouge).
This would also explain why the three-letter stations in any market seem to be the ones that go back the farthest, that have the most "history"; they simply have been around, first in radio form then video form, longest of all. Portland's KPTV (1952) may have been the first Portland television station; to radio KGW (1922), and KEX (1926) it, as a broadcast outlet of any stripe, was a johnny-come-lately.
I Have a Mandate
The other thing we noticed in our looking around was that some stations had a common treatment to thier logos. This is more than a coincidence.
Even today, in this age of media consolidation, not every station has a non-network owner. Some networks themselves own and operate stations; these are the "O&O's", the network Owned-and-Operateds. Stations like WCBS in New York, KCBS in LA, and WBBM in Chicago all happen to be CBS O&O's.
In the interests of consistent branding, CBS Corporation (then known as Viacom) established what's now called the CBS Mandate. This mandate simply said that the station's call sign would be deprecated except when the FCC requires it to be announced in favor of the network name (CBS) followed the the channel number followed by the city, where appropriate to prevent ID confusion. Thus, WBBM typically identifies as "CBS 2" (as do the other stations; as it happens, they're all on channel 2). The CBS station in Philadelphia (coincidentally, KYW) identifies as "CBS3"
Visually, the mandate ordains a limited color palette (blue white and yellow) and the presentation of the CBS eye and name in an equal point size as the channel digit.
Not all O&O's obey the Mandate; there seems to be no penalty for not hewing to it. But many do, and that's the reason why some TV Station logos seem to have the common look that they do (NBC has no mandate of which we are aware but some stations seem to echo the theme)
Reading For Further Illumination
- Where did the "W" and "K" letters Come From? at OldRadio.com
- North America section of the Wikipedia entry for Call Sign
- Wikipedia entry on the CBS Mandate governing graphic presentation of O&O Station IDs
- Short Call Signs and K and W section of the Wikipedia entry for North American Call Sign
- Mystique of the Three-Letter Callsigns at EarlyRadioHistory.us (which is where I also nicked the map–kudos to them)