Milwaukee is on the Air! WAAK Was the City’s First Radio Station

Aug. 21, 2017
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gimbelstower
The Downtown Gimbels Building as it appeared with its radio broadcasting tower.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 26, 1922, the handful of radio owners in Milwaukee could have set their dials to 360 and heard the very first commercial radio broadcast in city history. “This is WAAK,” the maiden broadcast declared in scratchy tones, “Gimbel Brothers, Milwaukee.”

Commercial radio broadcasts in the U.S. were less than two years old when the Commerce Department granted the Gimbels Department Store chain two broadcast licenses – one for their store in Philadelphia and the other their Downtown Milwaukee location. It was a gimmicky move by the store, an attempt to boost radio set sales in cities where listeners could only catch the faintest signals from far-away stations in Chicago or New York. Milwaukee’s station was assigned the call letters WAAK and, after the construction of a pair of 40-foot signal towers atop the store’s roof and the conversion of a small third-floor corner of the store into a windowless broadcast studio, Milwaukee’s first radio station took to the airwaves.

WAAK’s 100-watt signal was not alone for very long. By the summer, two more Milwaukee stations were operational. But the sheer novelty of radio, as well as the radio rage that was sweeping up hobbyists across the nation, let plenty of room for competition in the Milwaukee market. WAAK made a splash early on by booking Lionel Barrymore – one of the most famous actors in the world – to appear on air while he was in Milwaukee for a stage show. Gimbels even set up speakers throughout Downtown so that people without sets could listen in. Gimbels also set up listening stations throughout their Downtown store so shoppers could sample the day’s broadcasts and get a taste of the biggest advance in communications since the motion picture.

A typical day’s programming for the station including traffic reports and detour information, news and baseball scores, and evening performances of live music, lectures, and dramatic readings. The shoestring budget of the station, however, sometimes reveled that the wonder of radio could also be wondrously deceptive. During one broadcast, supposedly of a live orchestral performance, the phonograph playing the “live music” suddenly stopped working. The show’s host quickly jumped on the mic and told Milwaukee, “My orchestra has just broken down, so you’ll have to stand by until repairs are made.”

In 1923, WAAK made local history in sports broadcasting when they brought the results of the American Bowling Congress national bowling tournament, which was being held in Milwaukee, to listeners in real-time. It was the earliest “live” broadcast of a sporting event in city history. A radio relay was set up to carry WAAK’s results to bowling alleys across the nation, where locals listened eagerly for news of how their hometown bowlers were faring in Milwaukee.

The early era of commercial radio was a time of innovation and improvisation and was fraught with station failures. Broadcasts were made only during certain hours and a small setback in staffing or funding could force a station to go silent for days or weeks at a time. In June 1923, federal radio inspectors found that WAAK was operating outside of its assigned frequency and ordered Gimbels to install wave-metering equipment to keep the signal honest. The station was shut down and, with the store unwilling to invest in their venture and three other Milwaukee stations driving the sale of radio sets, WAAK never went back on the air. 

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