Quincy's Excellent Radio Adventure

by Donna Halper

When most people think of Quincy radio, they think of WJDA, which went on the air in September of 1947. However, Quincy had one other radio station, many years before WJDA. Most people to whom I tell this are surprised: Quincy's first station can be traced back to the mid 1920s.

Until 1926, the closest the residents of Quincy, Massachusetts, got to an actual radio station was one time in late 1923 when the Edison mobile station WTAT was scheduled for a visit. Back then, mobile stations (also called “portables”) were a wonderful idea: they did live broadcasts in towns where there was no local station. It must have been exciting for the many spectators who came out to marvel at the new technology: suddenly, they could watch a radio show taking place, rather than just sitting at home and trying to tune in far away stations.

While radio was a sensation to its growing legion of fans (called “radio bugs” in those days), Quincy's newspapers were not so enthusiastic; if you had opened either paper in 1926, you would have seen a very small radio section. Usually, the programming schedules of only three large Boston stations were listed: WNAC, WEEI, and WBZ. Although there were other stations on the air all over Massachusetts, the Quincy papers, like many suburban journals, seemed content to leave most of the in-depth radio coverage to the Boston Globe, the Boston Evening Transcript, and the Boston Post. (Until 1925, in fact, neither the Quincy Patriot & Daily Ledger nor the Quincy Telegram consistently listed the schedules or any news about Boston radio, even though Quincy residents were listening to these stations, and Quincy musicians were performing on them.) When a new theater opened in Quincy, that was a big story, and it received extensive coverage, but radio was still regarded as competition for newspapers, so radio's achievements were often down-played. Advertisements for radio shops, however, were welcomed, and as more stores began to sell radio equipment, the impact of radio became harder to ignore.

Sporadically in early 1925 and again during part of 1926, the Patriot-Ledger ran a short column by a local radio engineer, Sam Curtis. Mr. Curtis, who would later do his own program on WEEI, was known as the “Radio Doctor” because of his skill in repairing radio sets. While his column was usually technical in nature, every now and then he would comment about radio reception and critique the Boston stations. (One of his more memorable columns tried to explain why WGI couldn't be heard clearly in Quincy, a distance of only ten miles.) But when Sam Curtis left print journalism, his column was not replaced. Thus, it is not surprising that there was only a small article announcing the day in early November 1926 when Quincy's first radio station went on the air. The headline read “NEW QUINCY RADIO STATION TO BROADCAST”, followed by a rather brief two paragraphs about an event the locals must certainly have been more excited about than the low-key news article indicated. (The article even got the name of one of the station's owners wrong.) The new station was to be called WRES, since it had been established at the Wollaston Radio Electric Shop.

In those days, it was common for hobbyists and fans to gather at radio shops to buy parts for their radio sets, read the latest radio magazines, or just talk about radio. The radio shop in the Wollaston section of Quincy was owned by Harry L. Sawyer, who was an inventor in his own right: he had already outfitted his Chevrolet Coupe with a car radio, which was not an easy task in those days. While car radios existed in 1926–1927, they frequently took up a lot of space, were awkward, and required various tubes, wires, and antennae to work properly. A story in the Patriot-Ledger about Mr. Sawyer's car noted that it was thought to be “the only Chevrolet with an 8-tube super-heterodyne set installed in it”; that car radio was quite a conversation-piece in Quincy.

Neither Harry Leonard Sawyer nor his colleague and partner Mark MacAdam were novices in the field of radio. Mr. MacAdam was a well-known amateur radio operator (his call sign was W1-ZK) who became Chief Radio Operator, in charge of all radio communications, at Quincy's Fore River Shipyard in the mid-1920s; he was in radio communication with Commander Donald MacMillan during the latter's famous Arctic expedition, and it was MacAdam who relayed daily news reports to the media. In addition to installing and repairing ship radios, he became a sergeant in the National Guard, and built up their radio section. He would later take on the duties of radio engineering for the State Police. It is thus no surprise that he helped Harry Sawyer in building WRES. Mark MacAdam served as WRES' chief operator, and even did much of the announcing in its first months on the air, according to a full-page story in the Boston Sunday Globe. (It is interesting that the Boston papers gave WRES more publicity when it went on the air than the Quincy papers did.)

Harry Sawyer also had a long career with radio. In addition to owning the Wollaston Radio Electric Shop, he had spent many years in the army; it was in the Signal Corps that he became interested in radio. He too was an experienced ham radio operator (call sign W1-IS), and at WRES he served as the Station Manager, also doing some announcing. The Boston Globe story (in early December of 1926) related how Harry Sawyer, Mark MacAdam, and another local radio enthusiast/engineer, George W. Callbeck, built every piece of equipment that WRES needed to transmit.

WRES's first regular broadcast, on 17 November 1926, after several nights of testing, lasted from 8 PM till well past 11 PM; it contained some interesting—and for Quincy, unique—elements. While we in our over-mediated age of 55 cable channels and 40 radio stations take such things for granted, hearing a politician live on the radio was still a fairly new phenomenon in 1926. Recently, the governor (following the example of the president himself) had begun to make speeches via radio, reaching millions of potential voters. But the Boston stations didn't cover Quincy politics or Quincy news very often. Thus, it was quite significant when Quincy residents who tuned to WRES that Wednesday evening heard some of their own local politicians—such as John D. Mackay, who was running for mayor, and Edwin A. Poland, candidate for councillor at large. Both delivered 10-minute addresses and asked the audience to vote for them. This was the first time any local candidates had taken to the airwaves to make their case, and both Quincy newspapers found it a fascinating development. Radio would now be an important aspect of campaigning; from that day forward, every time a candidate or elected official spoke on WRES, it was treated as a news story, sometimes even occupying the front page.

But there were not just political speeches on the new WRES; there was a long and varied program of music by local singers and musicians. This too must have been amazing and gratifying for Quincy residents—the city had often showcased local talent at its theaters, but even the best performers were limited to an occasional appearance on the Boston stations. Now, Quincy finally had a station of its own. WRES operated at 295 meters, or 1380 on the AM band, and it had the equivalent of about 50 watts. It broadcast twice a week, on Monday and Thursday nights. At times, WRES had some technical problems, but it seems to have been very well-received by the community. There was little difficulty in finding performers: in fact, some artists began to develop quite a following each time they came back for another show. Most of the performers had ‘day jobs’; then as now, many people wanted to be musicians, but there were few full-time positions available. So it was no surprise that WRES regulars such as Joseph Resnick, whose skill as a violinist earned him considerable praise and several favorable newspaper reviews, ran a tire dealership when he wasn't performing on WRES. Other performers worked as teachers or engineers, and there were a few child stars (the youngest of whom was eight years old).

Like most small stations in the 20s, WRES was always looking for aspiring new performers, and the station often held an “amateur night” (also called “opportunity night”, since it was an opportunity for local musicians to get an on-air try-out). WRES couldn't pay its talent—winners of these talent shows got asked back to perform again, and sometimes won a small prize, but there was no huge sum of cash—the incentive was the chance to break into radio, and back then, that was evidently enough for a number of local hopefuls to give it their best effort. (Fans voted by sending letters or telegrams to the station.) But even with a willing group of amateurs, sometimes booking talent could be a problem—and not just for small stations like WRES. If a guest failed to show up, stations usually played phonograph records (although technical quality still wasn't the best), or they had a back-up band ready to perform during an unexpected lull. When networks such as NBC and CBS appeared, their programming solved the local station manager's problem. Networks provided a reliable way to fill up a station's schedule, and they offered big name talent. There is no evidence that WRES ever had access to network programming, however. Despite not having money to pay and not having network programming to fall back on, it is rather amazing that WRES seemed to find enough local talent to fill most of each scheduled evening on the air.

While WRES did not have national sponsors (the networks were able to pay the big name groups thanks to sponsorships; a group would then take on the name of its sponsor, such as the A&P Gypsies or the Lucky Strike Orchestra), the station did make use of what today would be called “info-mercials”. Some station programs were really extended talks by advertisers—a local beauty salon, the Granite Beauty Parlor, sponsored a show called “Beauty Talks”, for example; and William D. Michael, a Doctor of Optometry, gave a series of talks entitled “On Eyes”. If you had read the programming schedules in radio's early years, you would frequently have seen “informational talks” listed. Before the networks came along, when time needed to be filled and there were no good musicians available, station managers turned to advertisers, who were very willing to go on the air and discuss their products, under the guise of educating the audience. Although most of these talks would undoubtedly bore us today, in a world where radio was still new, guests were often thought of as “experts”, so some listeners may have even found a fifteen minute info-mercial informative. (And they did generate some much-needed revenue...)

Probably the biggest and best commercial tie-in for WRES occurred during an event called the “Trading Post”, an exposition of local merchants which was held during the first week of April 1927. Organized by the Quincy Chamber of Commerce, the event attracted large crowds to the Quincy Armory; people saw displays and booths from a large and varied number of local businesses, many of which held contests, gave away samples, or offered demonstrations of their products. In the middle of all the food and fun, thanks to Mark MacAdam, there was WRES. Because an Army radio display was part of the Trading Post (and he was in charge of constructing it), MacAdam had a good excuse for showing all interested visitors how radio worked. To illustrate radio's excitement, he devised a link from his booth at the Armory to the studios of WRES, enabling WRES to do perhaps its first remote broadcast. The station even went on the air on a Tuesday evening (not one of its regularly scheduled nights) to give reports about the Trading Post and encourage listeners to go see it for themselves. Harry Sawyer and George Callbeck did most of the announcing, and several musical groups who had often been heard on WRES performed live from the Armory; included among the talent was the previously mentioned Joe Resnick, called by the Ledger's reporter “one of Quincy's best-known violinists”. Articles written about these broadcasts indicated that most people in Quincy were familiar with WRES, and were very proud of their local station.

Throughout the first six months of 1927, WRES kept the same regular schedule that it had followed since going on the air in late 1926—usually Monday and Thursday evenings, although the programming ended earlier some nights than others. (In those days, small stations were seldom on the air every night.) Despite the limited schedule, WRES had become a place for Quincy's best and brightest talent to gain exposure, where local clergy or civic groups or business-people could speak to friends and neighbors. I cannot claim that all the broadcasts were excellent—in early radio, dependent as it was on volunteers, the talent level varied. But in a time when many local (and even a few Boston) radio stations had quickly come and gone, WRES was still on the air doing what a community station should do. As with many small, local stations, I do not get the impression that anyone made much money (including the owners), but a number of people seemed to have a lot of fun, and a few local celebrities were created in the process.

So what happened to WRES, and other small, local stations like it? To answer that question, we have to look at the Radio Act of 1927. The Radio Act was a far-reaching piece of legislation intended to end the confusion that occurred with radio's unexpected, and until then fairly unregulated growth. The newly created Federal Radio Commission (forerunner of today's Federal Communications Commission, which was not established until 1934) began assigning stations to new frequencies and giving them different powers. It also began trying to solve the problem of overcrowding on the broadcast band. This meant deleting some stations which had not made good use of their license: the FRC established standards that required stations to operate in the public interest; stations could certainly make a profit and sell advertising, but they could not keep their licenses if they offered no meaningful service to their community.

At first, the FRC did not dramatically reduce the number of stations—this number had grown so large that stations sharing the same frequency had to go off the air for an entire evening to give other stations a turn: these so-called “silent nights” had led to resentment and anger, and the FRC was determined to find a better way to allocate radio frequencies. But in 1927, unless a station had committed some egregious error, the majority of stations got their licenses renewed. This, to the great delight of the management team, included WRES. The FRC announcement was carried by the Patriot-Ledger on the 26th of April 1927. It also announced further good news: WRES was one of the stations receiving an increase in power, from its previous anemic 50 watts (some small, local stations had as few as 10 watts) to a more respectable 100 watts. In that story, the Ledger noted that WRES had been heard as far away as Milwaukee: on a “silent night”, with few other stations in the way, anything was possible in those days. The reporter noted that the station had installed another phone line because it was getting so many requests.

Things seemed positive for WRES and its future. In fact, it was decided to up-grade the facility, in order to eliminate some persistent technical problems. WRES went off the air for part of the summer of 1927; it returned with a new frequency and with some new equipment in early September, and continued to broadcast. But the FRC was suddenly about to change all that. First, the “portables” were taken off the air, by General Order #30. Mobile stations had amazed people when they first arrived on the scene in the early 1920's, but by 1928, most large and medium-sized cities either had their own station or were within driving distance of one, so the FRC ruling was not greeted with much of an outcry (except from the owners of the deleted stations). Next, however, the FRC decided to keep its promise about improving the over-crowded airwaves. It issued General Order #32, which told 162 stations to surrender their licenses.

While the order was not issued until the spring of 1928, there had already been rumors that major cuts were about to occur. Some stations immediately decided to fight the FRC's ruling. Two Boston stations slated for deletion hired attorneys (WMES, an educational station; and WLOE, whose city of license was Chelsea, three miles from Boston); WMES even embarked upon a media campaign, using newspaper ads to urge their fans to write to the FRC and protest. And then there was WRES, which, for some reason, had made it onto the list of doomed stations. Various documents from this time period are contradictory, and they shed little light on why stations were selected for deletion. Some stations on the list did seem to duplicate what other larger stations were doing, but some appeared to be performing a unique community service. The list seemed to have been compiled in a somewhat arbitrary manner, complicated by the FRC itself: after the order was made public, the 162 stations were offered a chance to come to Washington for a hearing—despite the fact that the FRC had no legal division yet, nor any established mechanism to hear cases! Also, the commissioner who was in charge of Zone 1 was supposed to pay a visit to each of the doomed stations to let them demonstrate their value and show why they should be allowed to remain on the air. Two commissioners, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Caldwell, got as far as New York City, but neither went any farther; the stations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were not given the opportunity to plead their cases after all.

When Harry Sawyer died in a nursing home in 1967, his obituary didn't even mentioned his past involvement with WRES. In fact, when doing my research, I was surprised at how few people recalled the station, even though it was a first. So it may continue to be another of life's mysteries why nobody from WRES attended those 1928 hearings in Washington. WLOE's owner (William S. Pote) did, and he was able to save his license. (On the other hand, showing up was no guarantee—several other owners who attended lost their license anyway.... At least they tried.) Yet none of the people who had worked so hard to make WRES a reality went to Washington. Perhaps by this time, revenues were down or the new equipment hadn't performed well enough. Perhaps Harry Sawyer believed that the FRC had no authority to take his license anyway (which he implied in a Patriot-Ledger interview on 7 June 1928). Or perhaps local legal advice led him to believe that his station was too small to win a fight with the big Washington bureaucrats. Whatever the reason, WRES was one of only 36 stations that made no formal effort to save its license. And so it was on August 1, 1928 that the story of WRES came to a rather quiet end—the Quincy Patriot-Ledger never mentioned it, and while Harry Sawyer resumed advertising his Wollaston Radio Electric Shop (and Mark MacAdam and George Callbeck returned to their other jobs), the existence of WRES seems to have been all but forgotten. Even during several lengthy newspaper interviews with Mark MacAdam in subsequent years, no mention of his work with WRES appeared. (I also found no evidence that there had been some falling out of the owners—in fact, both Harry Sawyer and Mark MacAdam remained active in amateur radio, and both belonged to the South Shore Ham Radio Club for a number of years after the demise of WRES.)

Today, the former location of WRES (335A Newport Avenue) is just another boarded-up building, with no sign to indicate what it used to be. And so, after General Order 32, life simply went on. The FRC limited Massachusetts to only 12 stations for a while, and in other states, many smaller stations did in fact lose their licenses for what still seem like arbitrary reasons. Meanwhile, in large cities like Boston, network-affiliated stations grew more and more powerful. The rough edges of early radio were gone, replaced by big names and consistently smooth performances. It was a world in which small stations like WRES evidently couldn't compete. As for Quincy, it would have to be content with WNAC moving its transmitter to Squantum in 1929; after that, WNAC did some shows that made use of Quincy talent, such as a weekly program called the Quincy Hour. On that show, events going on in the area were highlighted and Quincy merchants came on to talk about their stores. But a once a week show was not the same as having a local station.

Radio's early years were often creative and innovative, filled with risk-takers who saw radio as a wide open playing field. The competition was fierce, and not everyone played fair (hence the need for the FRC). Some new managers had no idea how to run a station, and in some cities, local stations were dismal failures. But given the fact that WRES lasted from November of 1926 through early 1928 and did serve its community in many ways, I can't say that the station failed. True, it didn't survive (nor did it put up much of a fight); but WRES showed that a suburban community could have its own station and not live vicariously through the Boston stations. Many local artists who were heard first on WRES advanced to the major Boston stations, proving that Quincy deserved to be taken seriously as a source of talent. (Several even ended up in New York working for the networks.) And while Harry Sawyer's days as a station owner were comparatively brief, his contribution should not be overlooked. So, here's to Harry Sawyer, Mark MacAdam, and all the other entrepreneurs, volunteers and “radio bugs” who took a dream and turned it into a local radio station. It is such dedication and spirit that made early radio exciting. Few of us today think about the adventure radio broadcasting was back then, and how much we owe to those pioneers who brought local radio to life in the 1920's.

Donna L. Halper is a media historian, author of five books and many articles. She is an assistant professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass., and received her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.

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