(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” - May 2014, No. 113)
Early Radio in Fort Wayne
“Wayne Offers Wonderful Opportunities” followed by “What God Loves.” Recognize those sets of words? That’s right…the first letter of each forms the call letters for W-O-W-O and W-G-L. The region’s early broadcast stations.
Kneale Ross, who for many years worked at W-O-W-O or more recognizably, “WOE-WOE,” radio, recalled how the station held a contest in 1941 inviting listeners to create a slogan using the station’s call letters. Sacks and sacks of mail were received and out of it all, came the award-winning phrase: Wayne Offers Wonderful Opportunities.” Since its beginnings in 1925, WO-WO has been an active promoter of Fort Wayne, and it continues as a legendary station in the world of radio.
WO-WO was also connected to the very beginnings of radio in Fort Wayne. Chester Keen built the earliest radio transmitter in the city in 1921 as a part of the showroom of the Lauer Auto Company; its call letters were WHBJ but these were soon changed to WCWK for Chester W. Keen and the operation was moved to a studio at 1729 South Lafayette Street. At the same time Frederick Zieg of the Main Auto Supply Company had a powerful transmitter built in a room over his store. He began operating in 1925 a station with the call letters WOWO using “W,” the designation for east of the Mississippi, and “O” because it was easy to say after the “W.” They liked “W and O” so much they simply repeated it for the four-letter call sign. By 1927, WO-WO became a pioneer first station when CBS organized the nation’s first radio network.
In 1928, Fred Zieg purchased the station owned by Keen, changed its call letters from WCWK to WGL, and put the two radio stations under one roof – at the Main Auto Supply. During these years the WO-WO–WGL combination achieved several notable national “firsts” in the radio business, from the first basketball game to be broadcast anywhere, to the first “man-on-the-street-type” broadcast from the lobby of the Indiana Theatre on Broadway.
During the mid-1930s, Zieg sold both his radio stations to the Westinghouse Company, which then became affiliated with the NBC network. As the WO-WO operation sought to dramatically increase its transmitting power in 1936, a new tower was envisioned north of Fort Wayne, at the Fortmeyer Corner. After a long struggle with the Civil Aeronautics Board since it would be close to Smith Field airport, and after the personal intervention of Governor Paul McNutt, the tower was completed as the tallest structure anywhere in the state. Later, the transmission tower was moved to a location south of Fort Wayne.
WGL radio was eventually sold to the Farnsworth Radio and Television Company of Fort Wayne in 1945, and in 1949 the station was purchased by the News Sentinel and became an ABC affiliate. The station was next owned by Summit City Radio Group and in 2014 Adams Radio Group announced the purchase of Summit City’ stations including WGL 1250-AM.
WO-WO continued its remarkable growth to become one of the nation’s most powerful radio stations. Reaching 50,000 watts in 1954, reception was recorded as far away as Alaska, France, and South America. The station developed a wide range of programs, from live broadcasts from area dance halls and local basketball coverage to the Hoosier Hop, which became a national phenomenon. WO-WO was also one of the first stations in the country to pioneer in FM radio. The station personalities such as Bob Sievers, Sam DeVincent, Jay Gould, Tommy Longsworth and Bob Chase, backed by writers like Carl Vandagrift, became national figures. Their programs, the “Little Red Barn,” the “AM Drive,” and the “Big Band Broadcasts” from Bledsoe’s Beach, Lake James, Tippecanoe Gardens, and Lake Manitou, were fed to all the major networks in the United States and Canada.
After many years with Westinghouse, WO-WO became a part of Federated Media and in 2016 owned by Pathfinder Communications Corporation found by tuning into its popular call letters News Talk 1190 AM and 107.5 FM. Those early broadcast pioneers were prophetic when they suggest that Fort Wayne indeed offers wonderful opportunities.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi and retired Essex Vice President, is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; a contributing writer for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast Mondays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 FM Fort Wayne and 95.7FM South Bend.