WHD at West Virginia University received the state’s first radio station license on March 16, 1922. The year before, KDKA of Pittsburgh, since 1920 the nation’s first commercially licensed station, had broadcast the first college football game on radio, featuring a contest between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh. The oldest extant West Virginia radio station is WSAZ (now WRVC) in Huntington, originally licensed in October 1924. Other long-time stations include WWVA of Wheeling, which began broadcasting in December 1926, and WCHS of Charleston, which went on the air as WOBU in September 1927.
WHIS of Bluefield in 1931 foreshadowed later media issues when it broadcast the murder trial of Minnie Stull, accused of scalding her three-year-old stepchild to death. It was the first such direct broadcast outside of Russia, according to the station. In an appeal of her conviction and death sentence, Stull claimed that the broadcast had made a ‘‘circus’’ out of her trial. In a retrial in Greenbrier County, she received a life sentence, and served 20 years.
Until the mid-1940s, the number of commercial radio stations in the state grew steadily, from four in 1925 to six in 1928, nine in 1939, and 13 by 1945. During this period, commercial radio was expanding rapidly across America. Advertising revenue supported growth, and public demand for music and entertainment spurred a major increase in the number of radio receivers.
In 1946, the West Virginia Broadcasters Association was organized with a dozen member radio stations. Howard Chernoff of WCHS was the first president. The WVBA was created to represent the interests of the statewide broadcasting industry. In 1939, the West Virginia Network had been formed by WCHS, WSAZ, WPAR in Parkersburg, and WBLK in Clarksburg to pool efforts and broadcast special events such as sports to stations around the state.
By 1947, there were 39 stations in the state, including 11 FM licensees. The first FM station in the state was WCFC of Beckley, which began regular programming on August 15, 1946. As of 1952, West Virginia had 57 radio station licensees. The network affiliations of stations on the air at that time included Mutual (eight), CBS (six), ABC (five), NBC (four), and Mutual and ABC (two). By 1956, the most competitive radio station markets were Charleston and Wheeling, with six stations each, Parkersburg with four, Clarksburg and Huntington with three stations each, and Beckley, Bluefield, Morgantown, Logan, Welch, and Fairmont with two stations each.
As television emerged in the 1950s as the dominant household medium, radio survived through change. Before television, West Virginia radio stations offered network and local programs including musical performances, variety shows, comedies, dramas, and special events. Now entertainment yielded further to recorded musical selections as the backbone of program content. Continued emphasis was put on news, something radio still delivered with more immediacy than television could. Audiences were retained as radio became something people could enjoy while doing something else, whether they were driving, performing household chores, or doing school homework. Radio also continued to specialize, offering music formats and program content tailored to distinct audience segments. Some stations played only country music, for example, while others found other specialties.
The first non-commercial radio station in West Virginia was WMUL-FM at Marshall University, which began broadcasting November 1, 1961, a year before Governor Barron created the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority. The legislature passed public broadcasting legislation in 1963, and Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967. Today a statewide public radio system serves West Virginia from Charleston. WVMR, a non-affiliated public AM station, broadcasts from Marlinton, and there are several college stations as well.
The West Virginia Broadcasters Association in 2004 had 131 radio station members facing the same economic pressure and future uncertainty as does the industry nationally. Corporate consolidation continues as companies such as Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting acquire local stations across the country. The convergence of media, particularly the rise of pure Internet stations, has led some analysts to predict a major restructuring of commercial radio. Cable music services are available in West Virginia, and satellite radio is also at hand, offering a signal whose strength does not vary from area to area as drivers travel the nation’s highways.
Still, commercial radio thrives in West Virginia as it does elsewhere, reflecting the habits of a loyal audience spanning more than three quarters of a century.
Written by Larry Sonis
Becker, Martha J. & Marilyn Fletcher. Broadcasting in West Virginia: A History. Charleston: West Virginia Broadcasters Association, 1989.