This review of AMRAD's Medford Hillside station was written a number of years after the reviewed events took place. Also, it relies heavily on the memory of Eddie Dunham, and some of the details appear to be a little fuzzy. (For example, the tower collapse actually occurred in 1915). Still, it provides a rough overview about an innovative station which was largely overlooked at the time. AMRAD's initial broadcasts went out under an experimental authorization, assigned the callsign of 1XE. With the adoption of the December 1, 1921 regulations, which required that broadcast stations obtain Limited Commercial licences, AMRAD grudgingly complied, and on February 7, 1922 WGI was born. The station changed its call to WARC in 1925, then was deleted two years later, but in its final years it was rarely on the air.
Radio Digest, 1930 (?), page 44:
DAWN OF RADIO (AMRAD Extract)
Ever hear of Station WGI?
That station was owned by the American Radio and Research Corporation. This organization began broadcasting from its laboratories in Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, June 5, 1915. It has the distinction of being the first organization to devote its energies to Radio broadcasting and Radio reception exclusively.
How could it make Radio pay at that time, do I hear you ask? It didn't. And if you follow the little yarn I'm about to tell you will understand how this non-commercial organization was able to function. I am also of the opinion that the history of the American Radio and Research Corporation will hand you a genuine surprise when you learn the name of the gentleman responsible for financial backing necessary to carry on this great pioneer work.
On January 23rd, 1909, Jack Binns, wireless operator for the ill-fated "Republic," rammed by the "Florida" off Nantucket, demonstrated to the whole world the value of wireless when he stood by his instruments in the dark on a sinking ship to summon aid, which arrived in time to save all hands. Among those thrilled with the newspaper reports of the heroic deed was Harold Power, then a grammar school boy in a small New England town. Not only was he thrilled--he was interested in learning more about this strange method of communication, wireless. He read every technical book and magazine devoted to the subject which he could get his hands on. Then he made his own receiving-set. And, believe it or not, Harold became so enthused that he asked for and received permission to leave school somewhat earlier than the other pupils so that he could run home and get the navy yard time signals at noon!
By the time he finished school young Power, as result of his application to wireless operation was able to pass the rigid examination and get a berth as operator on a New York Boston passenger steamer. His next move was to "Corsair," the famous private yacht of James Pierpont Morgan.
While wireless operator on the "Corsair," Mr. Power, even yet hardly more than a lad, interested the financier in the possibilities, little recognized at the time, of Radio. The result of this interest on the part of his employer was the establishment of Station WGI and the forming of the American Radio and Research Corporation, financed by Mr. Morgan and managed by Mr. Power.
During the war amateur broadcasting stations (the only stations existing at that time other than governmental and privately owned wireless stations) were forced to discontinue operations. On October 1st, 1919, the amateur transmitting stations were permitted to take the air again and Station WGI took it with a vengeance. As distance was the rainbow being chased by both broadcaster and receiver in those days the powers that be at Medford Hills decided to broadcast from somewhere in the general direction of the moon.
Two hundred and ninety feet of the proposed three hundred and fifty foot tower mast had been erected when along came a windstorm and blew the none too sturdy sky-tickler down. Right across the Boston & Maine Railroad tracks with the Montreal Express less than a quarter of a mile away stepping along at a mile-a-minute clip.
Fortunately the engineer on the Express saw the mast come down and fifteen seconds later the well-shaken passengers, who left their seats when the engineer applied his brakes, looked out to see the cowcatcher nuzzling gently against a horizontal and thoroughly prostrated broadcasting mast.
In its trip to earth the tower had carried with it seventeen telegraph, telephone and electric light wires which happened to be in its path. Needless to say, the permanent mast which was then erected never broke itself or any altitude records. It was two hundred and fifty feet high. And I suspect every engineer on the Boston & Maine railroad used to take great delight in thumbing his nose at it every time he passed!
It was about this time that Eddie Dunham, now a program director with NBC, became affiliated with Station WGI. Eddie was assistant service manager, part time announcer, (broadcasting was not on a regularly scheduled basis), entertainer, story-teller, pianist and organist. All glory and honor to Eddie. His name goes down in history as being the first broadcaster to put on a commercial program. Once a week he read a story from The Youth's Companion, gave the magazine a bountifully worded boost and suggested that his girl and boy listeners induce their papas, their mammas or their guardians to subscribe to this periodical. For this half hour's work Eddie received a weekly check for five dollars from the publishers, which same he cashed and pocketed. I wonder if Mr. J. P. Morgan ever heard this story of the way in which his broadcasting station was used to promote the graft of one of his employees? What a racket!
When WGI went on the air with scheduled programs (two hours daily), May 20th, 1921, Eddie Dunham began scouring the countryside for local talent. I have a copy of one of the early weekly broadcasting schedules of that station. Many of the features listed have stood the test of time and today are found on the schedules of the majority of the stations on the air throughout the country. Here are some of the programs given at WGI eight and nine years ago: Daily news flashes, police reports for city of Boston, a Sunday Radio Church Service, weekly business review, weekly market report, an address on personal hygiene, a talk on women's fashions. Sounds quite up-to-date, doesn't it?
Friday night was amateur night at WGI. Eddie Dunham tells this one about a Friday night experience. "There was no such thing as a gain control in those days." (This instrument, a vital part of every transmitter today, enables the control operator to prevent an overloading of his delicate equipment. D.H.) "Tubes were always going bad. It was up to me to watch all the microphone performers closely and outguess their every move. If I suspected that a singer was about to open up and try to make the audience in Boston hear him or her without the use of our broadcasting transmitter I'd grab the party and push or pull said party away from the mike before the explosion.
"I distinctly remember one amateur night when we took the air without any spare tubes. I had been warned that the only one the station possessed was in the works. We went along alright until I put a somewhat mountainous soprano on the ether. Sometimes these heavyweights are light on their feet. But not this lady. Once she took her position in front of the mike the soles of her shoes might just as well have been nailed to the floor as far as I was concerned.
"She wouldn't be led, pushed or pulled in any direction. I'd had that kind to nurse through a program before and as the microphone was a stationary thing in those days there was just one of two things to do. Either go off the air or let singer continue while your announcer went into a huddle with himself and said a prayer.
"The operator shrugged his shoulders when I suggested throwing the switch that would permit the lady to warble to a dead mike. So we remained on the air and for some unknown reason the tube refused to let the lady get the best of it during the singing of her first number.
"She was booked for a short second selection but I had made my mind to call this off and introduce the next artist. I did introduce the next artist but that didn't do one bit of good. Friend soprano had been booked for two numbers and if I was determined that she shouldn't sing again she was slightly more determined that she would.
"It was her first appearance in a broadcasting studio and the thrill was just too much for her. She simply would not leave the mike until she had sung her sing as per previous arrangement. And the tube was forced to carry on. When she reached the final note of the second selection the lady inhaled deeply and cut loose with a forte. And what a forte! I can hear it yet whenever I have a nightmare.
"As I was making the introductory announcement for the next amateur artist I heard the voice of the operator behind me. 'Pardon me, madam' he was saying in his best Medford Hillside manner, 'but would you mind telling me what that last note you hit was?' The several ton of soprano on the hoof, much flattered, and expecting a compliment replied, 'High C'. The operator gave her a winning smile.
"'Thank you, madam,' he said and with a profound bow which would have done credit to Lord Chesterfield he proffered the lady a gift. 'Perhaps you would like to take this tube home as a souvenir of the evening. You finally succeeded in blowing it!' And she actually accepted the souvenir and took it home with her as a valued trophy."
Medford Hillside is the town in which Tufts College is located. About eight years ago Harry Lauder gave (which he was paid for!) a concert in Goddard Chapel, one of the college buildings. When Sir Harry arrived Mr. Dunham conceived the idea of broadcasting the concert and approached the Scotchman with this suggestion.
As Radio meant little or nothing to professional artists in those days Sir Harry gave Eddie permission to put his voice on the air. This permission was obtained exactly twenty-one minutes before the concert was to start. Goddard Chapel was nearly a half mile from the WGI studio but the necessary wire was stretched across the intervening landscape and the microphone set up on the rostrum in that same twenty-one minutes.
When I said "stretched across the landscape" I meant just that. The ground was covered with snow and on this snow the wire reposed for the entire distance. For one solid hour Sir Harry entertained the Radio listeners tuned in on WGI with songs and stories. Among other things he taught the college students present in Goddard Chapel to sing "Somebody's Waiting For Me." For this appearance on the air he received nothing. Less than eight years later he received $15,000 for a microphone appearance lasting about ten minutes!
WGI is no more. But the memory of its glorious work as one of the pioneer broadcasting stations is a monument to the men whose faith in a young industry helped make Radio what it is today.
For more information about AMRAD and 1XE/WGI, see Donna Halper's The Rise and Fall of WGI.