WEEU: A Brief History
by Charles J. Adams III
WEEU is the oldest continually operating radio station with its original call letters in Reading, and the only locally-owned and operated radio station in the city. And, in 2012, WEEU is celebrating its 80th anniversary.
But to understand the WEEU of the 21st century, one should look back to the early years of the 20th century and the very beginnings of broadcasting in Reading.
The station’s evolution becomes even more fascinating when the exploits, adventures, and experiments of a band of Reading schoolboys as early as 1912 are examined.
The earliest history of radio in Reading is a bit murky. In the years between 1912 and 1922, many amateur radio enthusiasts were trying their hand at broadcasting and receiving radio signals, and just who was doing what, where, and when was not formally recorded.
But, although others could lay claim to being the “first” to broadcast as amateur or “ham” radio operators in Reading, a fair argument for that claim could be won by Horace Good and Harold Schearer, who both experimented with “wireless” or “radiotelegraphy” equipment in 1912.
It can be noted, however, that the first real amateur radio license in Reading was issued to Horace Good and Harold O. Landis on December 9, 1913. That date could be considered the “birth” of broadcasting in the city, although it was far from the kind of broadcasting we know today.
If that is the date, and if Good and Landis are the forefathers of modern broadcasting, then any historical marker at the site of the first broadcasting operation… “ham,” at least…in Reading should be mounted outside what was then and remains today a simple row house at 341 N. Front Street.
The first “programming” to go over the amateur airwaves was a violin solo by Harold Landis. Harold was known better by his nickname, “Eggie.” Hmm… “Eggie” at the “ham” radio. Ham and Eggie? But I digress.
One must remember that these earliest tinkerings with radio were done not by professional engineers and broadcasters, but by high school boys building their own equipment and following their own instincts.
After years of development and work, Landis and Good made a great leap forward when, in June of 1922, they turned on the transmitter of station W3LP, the granddaddy of all commercial radio in Reading. The “studio” was still, in fact, Landis’ living room at 341 Front Street, but in short order, all of that would change.
The boys had caught radio fever, and as commercial stations were springing up across the country, they were ready to light up the “ON THE AIR” sign in Reading.
In 1923, Clifford Chafey and Raymond Gaul bought into the radio project, and with Landis and Good applied for and were granted a “License for a Land Radio Station” by the Federal Radio Commission, the predecessor of the Federal Communications Commission. The first broadcasts were sent from the Avenue Radio & Electric Shop at 460 Schuylkill Avenue.
The call letters of this first commercial radio station in Reading were WRAW, and the histories of that station and WEEU were inextricably entwined for several years.
WEEU was actually formed as the result of frustration on the part of the owners of WRAW. Its owners, Reading Broadcasting Co., had repeatedly sought permission from the FRC to increase the station’s power and lengthen its broadcast day. The requests were denied by the commission.
So, in early 1931, George Gaul, Cliff Chafey, Harry Craumer, and Harold Landis applied for a license for a second radio station which would have more power and reach. The FRC approved that request in July, 1931, and the call letters WEEU were assigned to the new station.
The call letters have no significance. The FRC granted the license at the same time it issued licenses to two other stations. In that sequential naming block, a town in Vermont got WDEV, a town in New Hampshire got WFEA, and Reading got WEEU.
The corporation that would run the new station would be the Berks Broadcasting Company.
WEEU formally observed its 75th birthday on January 1, 2007. However, that is only the official, legal anniversary date…harkening back to the station’s first true broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1932. The station actually made its first broadcast in the wee, small hours of December 24, 1931.
The very first actual broadcast was a test of the equipment a week and a day before. At 44 minutes after one o’clock on that Christmas Eve morning, the transmitter was turned on and plate voltages, crystal temperatures, antenna currents, and the frequency were all checked. From 4:30 to 5 o’clock that morning, the station went “on the air”-sort of. The technical term was “Carrier modulated by audio oscillator.” In other words, an electronic tone was sent out on the airwaves.
More testing on the 29th and 30th of December followed, and on December 31, 1931, actual programming was fed through the air signal, again as a test.
The very first “show” on WEEU was an organ performance by Bob Henke at 2:10 in the morning. It was within the timeframe, midnight to 5 a.m., when testing of radio signals could be done.
Henke was followed by singer David Ballock, musician Walley Spotts, singer Harry Cantor, hoedowns with the Arkansas Travelers, and piano selections by Stan Kreider. According to the program log, that first, unannounced-to-the-public and thus unofficial “broadcast day” lasted fewer than two hours, ending at 4 a.m.
The best was yet to come, and it came on New Year’s Day, 1932.
The program listing in the Reading Eagle on January 1 of that year indicated that WEEU opened with a dedication service at 10 a.m. The Philco Orchestra was featured at 10:30, followed by the Criterion Male Quartet.
A “string ensemble” continued the entertainment, followed by songs from Orsola Pucciarelli, Clarence Ruth, and accompanist Erma Kramer. That first day on the air concluded at 3 p.m. after music by a dance orchestra.
From that day on, WEEU grew as a broadcast medium and as a business.
That business, then, was the Reading Broadcasting Company. The station’s transmitter building was located between Paper Mill and Van Reed roads on what was then called Broadcast Road. Next to the building were two 200-foot towers that supported a 500-foot antenna that was strung between them.
Broadcast studios were located in the Pomeroy’s department store building on the southeast corner of 5th and Penn Street, and the station was licensed by the FRC to operate from sunrise to sunset at 1,000 watts of power on the 830 kilocycle frequency.
In the beginning, and for many years, WEEU could broadcast only in daylight hours because the FRC/FCC feared that any nighttime broadcasting on 830 AM in Reading, Pennsylvania could interfere with the signal of radio station KOA in Denver, Colorado!
For the first three months of its existence, WEEU shared all studio and office facilities with WRAW.
On April 24, 1932, the two stations moved into larger quarters above the St. Lawrence Dairy (later Crystal) Restaurant in the Sharp Building at 533 Penn Street. Although the stations shared certain spaces, they were operated as two separate corporate entities.
Noted local musician and entertainer Paul Breedy served as program director for both stations, and network programming was provided by the two-pronged National Broadcasting Company (NBC). WEEU received its “Red” network shows and WRAW picked up the “Blue” network programs. Later, NBC was “broken up” by the federal regulators and the “Blue” network became ABC.
WEEU moved up the radio dial a bit on March 29, 1941, when it switched to 850 on the AM band. It remained there until another “Big Switch” just before the turn of the 20th century.
In 1944, the local partnership that owned WEEU sold the station to Philadelphia and New York investors Joseph Nassau, Milton Hinline, and George Feinberg. They in turn sold it to the Reading Eagle Company on December 1, 1946 for a reported $250,000. Two years later, the corporation was renamed Hawley Broadcasting Co.
The development of WEEU and associated broadcasting ventures was unprecedented under its new (and present) owners.
In October, 1947, the federal authorities finally allowed WEEU to broadcast around-the-clock. After necessary equipment was obtained and installed, the station went “night and day” for the first time on September 15, 1949.
Meanwhile, on November 16, 1947, an entirely new radio station on an entirely new radio band went on the air as WEEU-FM (92.9 on the FM dial) began broadcasting.
Unfortunately, FM radio was in its infancy, and few people had FM receivers. WEEU-FM shut down on November 28, 1952.
By that time, WEEU had moved into new facilities at 433 Penn Street, and it was from there that the company tried its hand at yet another new form of communications called television.
WEEU-TV was lit up on April 15, 1953 on the UHF channel 33. Its broadcasting tower atop Mount Penn became a local curiosity. But again, there were not enough consumers with UHF sets out there, and the TV venture was abandoned on June 30, 1955.
Firmly and successfully entrenched in AM radio, the company went back to what it did best and on October 22, 1957 renamed itself WEEU Broadcasting Co.
The next landmark year for WEEU was 1969, when it moved into its present building at 34 N. 4th Street.
The building was erected as part of the sweeping “Court Street Redevelopment Project” that yielded a new fire station, parking lot, apartments, offices, and a wider Court Street. Part of that project was what was first called the “Pagarice Building.” What is now the WEEU Building was formerly occupied by Travelers Insurance and GMAC. The building was totally remodeled inside and out to accommodate the radio offices and studios.
As the 20th century ebbed, WEEU was poised for even more growth.
In 1999, the station and its loyal listeners made “The Big Switch” from 850AM on dial, where it had been for 58 years, “back” to 830AM, where it all started.
Perhaps even more significant was the major boost in power from 1,000 to 20,000 watts. With that, WEEU became one of the most powerful AM radio stations in Pennsylvania.
What’s more, that power was to be sent out of a new cluster of transmitter towers along Interstate 78 near Shartlesville.
The relocation of the towers allowed the station’s owners to sell the former transmitter site at Paper Mill and Broadcasting roads. That, in turn, resulted in the development of a major retail and restaurant “power center” known as Broadcasting Square.
That center, and Broadcasting Road that abuts it, are legacies of the area’s history with WEEU.
And, embedded in the logo of that shopping center, on signs at its entrance, is the image of an old-school radio guy at the microphone.
Look closely-could it be “Eggie” at his “ham?” It makes one wonder!