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Station History

This document includes the story of the first radio football play-by-play broadcast as well as the early history of WTAW, one of the first radio stations in the United States. If you have any further information about the early days of WTAW, please email it to us. We would love to collect your stories for future use on our page.

First Play-by-Play Radio Broadcast
of a College Football Game
by Charles R. Schultz

All football games between Texas A&M University and the University of Texas are special to the students and graduates of both institutions, but the 1921 contest bears special historical significance in spite of the fact that it ended in a scoreless tie. The play-by-play live radio broadcast of this contest planned and carried out by students at the two institutions was a first for a college football game. Technology of the time did not permit broadcasting voice. Rather a special set of abbreviations had to be devised to enable an operator to send out descriptions of the action using standard International Morse Code signals. What actually started out as somewhat of a prank by a few Aggies became an historic event in the history of radio as well as of Texas A&M and the University of Texas.

This live radio broadcast of a college football game in 1921 was probably a natural progression from what a few Electrical Engineering students at Texas A&M had accomplished in 1920. David J. Finn seems to have been the chief, and possibly the only, instigator of the efforts in 1920, although he did have some assistance from other students. Finn made arrangements with A&M officials to use the Stock Judging Pavilion on campus for his productions. Prior to the A&M-Southern Methodist game at Fair Park in Dallas on October 9, 1920, Finn arranged for a telephone hookup between the stadium and the Pavilion on the A&M campus and installed a large amplifier in the Pavilion so that those in attendance there could hear the live reports from the game. Aggie students Othman C. Thompson and Arthur C. Keith described the action in Dallas and Finn received those reports in College Station and relayed them to the audience. A miniature football field was set up at the Pavilion. Each play was illustrated on this field as the reports came from Dallas. The Aggie Band was also present. Admission for the event was 35 cents.

A few weeks later, Finn made somewhat different arrangements for the A&M-Oklahoma State University game in Stillwater. Once again Finn made arrangements to use the Pavilion. This time however, he arranged with a ham operator in Blackwell, Oklahoma (call letters 5ZZ) to send wireless reports to the A&M Station (call letters 5YA). William A. Tolson and Joe Woods were to receive those reports in the Electrical Engineering Building and Aubrey S. Legg was to carry or send them on to the Pavilion where an eager group of Aggie supporters awaited reports on the progress of the game in Stillwater. The Aggie Band was scheduled to be present in the Pavilion "to enliven things up to a higher pitch and make the scene more realistic". Fortunately, promoter Finn arranged for a backup telephone line from Stillwater in the event bad weather made wireless messages impossible. On game day the A&M station was unable to "raise" the station in Blackwell. A&M alumnus "Bean (William B.?) Harkrider supplied the telephone reports of the game. In the Pavilion, William F. Adams received the reports and Aubrey Legg called out the plays. Admission to this event was 50 cents. Nothing is said in the reports of this event about a special code or set of abbreviations for the transmission. Thus it was not likely intended to be a true play-by-play account but probably similar to the frequent summaries sent by the Associated Press to newspapers. Being an astute business man, Finn provided complimentary tickets to A&M administrators, including President William B. Bizzell and Engineering Dean John C. Nagle for the two events. Finn paid at least $150 for the use of the telephone line during the Oklahoma State game .

This practice of reporting football games on the A&M campus was continued in 1921. Arrangements were made for continuous reports from the sidelines during the A&M-SMU game in Dallas and were sent by telephone to the Stock Judging Pavilion. The miniature football field was once again put in place to illustrate the plays as "Hike" McConnel announced them in the Pavilion. Admission to this event was 35 cents. The names of those who made these arrangements are not known, but David J. Finn was not responsible as he graduated in 1921.

Thus the stage was set and most procedures already worked out to broadcast the 1921 Turkey Day contest between Texas A&M and the University of Texas on Kyle Field. Through daily contact with other stations around the state of Texas an possibly elsewhere, the Aggies working at the A&M station 5XB agreed to report the final score of the A&M-UT game throughout the southwest as soon as the game ended. From that beginning, and possibly with recollections of David J. Finn's plans for the Oklahoma State game in 1920, the idea of a live play-by-play of the game in which the conference championship would be decided seems to have evolved almost logically. Plans for that broadcast were announced publicly on November 19th. Four days later, the Bryan Daily Eagle carried a brief front page story about the broadcast. This story was based upon a University of Texas news release in which UT fans were notified that they could receive the broadcast at the UT station 5XU.

William A. "Doc" Tolson of Sherwood, Texas was the principal instigator of this project, but he was ably assisted by Harry M. Saunders, Harley C. Dillingham, and possibly others. Tolson later gave considerable credit to Dr. Frank C. Bolton, head of the Electrical Engineering Department and later President of Texas A&M, and to B. Lewis Wilson, who was in charge of electrical maintenance in the Electrical Engineering Laboratories.

Tolson first enrolled at Texas A&M in 1917(10). He interrupted his education briefly in 1918 to become an instructor in "Radio Buzzer practice." As such he earned $75.00 each month instead of the $30.00 paid to privates in the U.S. Army . As soon after the end of World War I as such stations could be established, Tolson was involved in establishing station 5YA as an education station on the A&M campus. The call letters were soon changed to 5XB indicating a change to an experimental station. It was operating under the latter call letters in November 1921. This station became WTAW in 1922.

With an existing ham station already on campus, an active and enthusiastic group of amateur radio operators who had regularly been making contact with stations on both coasts of the United States and from Chicago in the North and Mexico in the South, and with considerable interest in Texas A&M football, perhaps it was inevitable that this group of Aggies should decide to broadcast the game to Austin and also to any operator who chose to listen in on the broadcast.

This practice of reporting football games on the A&M campus was continued in 1921. Arrangements were made for continuous reports from the sidelines during the A&M -SMU game in Dallas and were sent by telephone to the Stock Judging Pavilion. The miniature football field was once again put in place to illustrate the plays as "Hike" McConnel announced them in the Pavilion. Admission to this event was 35 cents. The names of those who made these arrangements are not known, but David J. Finn was not responsible as he graduated in 1921.

Tolson later remembered that in order to fill the requests, his group cranked the mimeograph until their arms ached and licked so many stamps and envelopes they could taste the glue for days. Thus, what started out to be a simple broadcast from College Station direct to Austin turned out to be heard in many areas of the state of Texas.

In order to assure as much as possible that there would be no interruptions in the sending of the play-by-play account of the game, Tolson's group reportedly installed three sets of equipment. Two sets were hooked up to the A&M power plant. The third was ready to operate on batteries in the event a problem developed at the power plant.

During a trial run of the broadcast some days prior to the Turkey Day game, they discovered a snag. The operator in the Kyle Field press box could not hear what he was sending because the transmitter was hundreds of feet away. He had no "feel" of his key. Consequently his sending was not good. At this point, Ralph E. Smith, son of Mechanical Engineering Professor H.E. Smith and an avid ham, offered a solution. The Smith home on the A&M campus was quite near Kyle Field. Young Smith suggested they run a twisted pair from his receiver to the press box and give the operator a pair of ear phones so he could hear what he was sending. This solved the problem, and all was set for a smooth, virtually faultless broadcast of the game.

At station 5XU on the University of Texas campus in Austin, there was also an active group consisting of George E. Endress, W. Eugene Gray, J. Gordon Gray, Charles C. Clark, Frank Rives, Reed Granberry, Werener Dorberger, and Franklin K. Matejka. The Gray brothers, Clark, and Endress manned the transmitter and receiver positions. They copied the messages received from the Kyle Field press box and occasionally communicated back to Harry M Saunders there. They then passed the slips of paper on which the messages were written to Matejka. He relayed the decoded messages over a horn speaker through an open window to the crowd of UT students gathered outside. These play-by-play descriptions were reported seconds after the conclusion of each play. A listener in Austin noted that the broadcast "was just like seeing the game, and lots more comfortable." Station 5XU at the University of Texas had been constructed in 1921 in a World War I temporary building on 24th Street west of University Avenue.

The broadcast from Kyle Field was also received and announced publicly in Waco by William P. Clark, a ham who operated amateur radio station 5FM/5AZF. Clark persuaded the editor of one of the Waco newspapers to allow him to put his radio receiver in the editor's office. The editor was initially quite skeptical, but by half-time he was convinced it had been a good move. His paper's play-by-play account was so far ahead of the Associated Press reports received by the other Waco paper that he put a loud speaker in his car and drove to the rival's establishment and announced that his paper was giving out play-by-play reports as they happened. The crowd then rushed to the other newspaper.

The Houston Radio Club also received the play-by-play messages and relayed the information to the Houston Post. Actual receiving was done on the station of Louis Peine.

Another ham operator, Cecil F. Butcher (call letters 5AL) in Greenville, Texas, recorded in his radio log for Thursday, November 24, 1921, that he copied a play-by-play report from station 5XB of the Texas A&M football game. He noted the station came in fine with no fading. He also noted that he received 5XU at the University of Texas very loud.

That Tolson and his cohorts succeeded in their efforts is conclusively reported in the Austin paper thusly:

The A&M wireless service proved its speed Thursday in reporting details of the big contest. Hardly had the play been completed until the world outside of Kyle Field knew what had happened.

By the time the 1922 football season arrived, A&M's radio station WTAW apparently was capable of receiving voice transmissions so Aggies could gather on the lawn outside the Electrical Engineering building and hear the play-by-play reports over a loudspeaker. Anyone else with appropriate equipment could also hear the game. The station also regularly carried concerts and other programs. It was not until early 1923, however, that WTAW was able to originate programs and send them over the air.

Very little is known about most of the Aggies responsible for these early radio developments at Texas A&M, but enough is known about a few of them to be able to report that they made good use of their education and experience at Texas A&M. David J. Finn and William A. Tolson became research engineers for RCA. H.C. Dillingham served many years in the Electrical Engineering Faculty at Texas A&M. Harry M. Saunders became a vice president for Western Union. Tolson worked on the development of radio, television, and radar and received numerous patents (23).

A&M's scoreless tie with the University of Texas in this game gave the Aggies the Conference Championship. Because of this they went on to play Centre College in January 1922 for the Southern Championship. It was in this game that the 12th man tradition of Texas A&M was established when, because of several Aggie injuries in the first half, Coach Dana X. Bible called reserve player E. King Gill out of the stands to suit up for the second half. Although Gill did not play, his willingness to do so became a symbol of the A&M student body to stand during future football and basketball games.

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The Early History of WTAW

The earliest mention of on-campus radio seems to be an article in the Bryan Daily Eagle newspaper on March 30, 1911.

The article, "Wireless Station at A.& M. College", reports that a Mr. J.B. Dickinson, the manager of the Texas Fiscal Agency at San Antonio, had informed F.C. Bolton, a Texas A&M engineering professor, that a "wireless system was expected to reach the college in a few days."

The wireless was to be installed by a F.E. Duchareme.

The wireless had two purposes. It was to link Texas A&M with the University of Texas and it was to instruct the students at both schools in the electrical engineering departments in radio transmissions.

"I had in mind to place the institution in wireless communication with a number of cities in the state," Dickinson said. "The company has now decided to erect a station in Austin in close proximity to the state university in order to connect the two greatest schools in the South by wireless."

The wireless required $200,000 capital stock. At the time it was erected, there were 1,520 such stations world-wide. The wireless was to begin sending messages as soon as it was installed.

The next mention of the wireless came in another article in the Bryan Daily Eagle, this one on May 17, 1911.

Titled, "The Wireless Station at A.& M. College", the article said Dickinson hoped to have the installation of the tower completed that same day with the electricity being turned on at 5 p.m.

The tower, which stood 180 feet high, was called by Dickinson "the greatest and most complete wireless station possessed by any institution of learning in the world."

Dickinson's primary objective in building both the Texas A&M and the University of Texas wireless facilities was to train future employees in the wireless industry. "He is confident that he will have employment for all thus taught and trained for years to come," the article says. "He recognizes the fact the development of his system of wireless telegraphy will require the services of hundreds of young men and his primary objective is to secure these by having them educated and trained for this special work at A&M College and the University of Texas."

The next mention of on-campus radio concerned the transmitting of the Texas-Texas A&M football game on Thanksgiving.

Bolton used some spare parts, including an "overgrown motor" owned by professor W.G. James to build the transmitter that would broadcast the game. He first secured a license to broadcast the contest on call letters "5YA", the "Y" denoting an educational station. The call letters were later changed to "5XB", the "X" signifying an experimental broadcast.

Matejka says the station had been operating as a "typical ham relay station" for some time before the broadcast of the game. Originally, his idea was to provide just the final score to other ham relays in the Southwest. There was such a demand for more than just the final score, that Matejka's idea blossomed into sending a play-by-play account of the game via Morse Code.

Harry Saunders, then a student, got together with one of Aggie football coach D.X. Bible's assistant coaches and designed a set of abbreviations that would fit every possible football situation and the list was sent to every station that would broadcast the contest. Evidently, there were typically just a few radios in each town and the Morse Code would be decoded and then announced over a public address system where football fans would be gathered. The game was broadcast over a number of ham relay stations in the state. Those included "5NI" in Greenville, "5RS" in Caldwell and "5JA/5ZAG" and "5QY" in Austin.

Matejka indicates the ham radio broadcast was under the direction of the Physics Department and George Endress, the radio director.

The game marked a turning point for on-campus radio, both nationally and at Texas A&M. It was the first game broadcast in the country and indicated that "5XB" was about to become something bigger than a ham radio relay station.

"Just as the entire field of radio broadcasting grew and new developments brought about a higher quality of reception, so did "5YA", which later became known throughout central Texas as WTAW, "The Voice of Aggieland."

The station officially made the switch from "5YA" to WTAW on October 7, 1922. Incidentally, WTAW is one of the few stations west of the Mississippi River with a "W" as the first letter of its call letters. The Federal Communications Commission passed a resolution in 1934 saying stations in the West had to use the letter "K" while stations in the East used the letter "W".

In 1922, the station accepted its first advertisement from A.D. Waldrop, an owner of a clothing store in Bryan.

The next mention of WTAW comes from a rough draft of an article prepared for the Texas A&M student newspaper, The Battalion, which was dated October 6, 1942. The article was entitled, "WTAW Despite Humble Start Now Plays Important Part In Southwest Radio" and was written by Tom Journeay, a student-announcer at the station.

The article says WTAW was housed in the Electrical Engineering Building from 1922 to 1927, when it was moved to the YMCA Building. The radio station was to move into new studios in the Systems Administration Building shortly after the article was written.

WTAW was managed by three different departments and by a number of different administrators during its life on campus. From 1922 to 1926 it was under the direction of the Electrical Engineering Department and its department head, F.C. Bolton. From 1926-39, the station was a part of the Agricultural Extension service. Directing that service in that time period were Charles Alvord (1925-27), Oscar B. Morton (1927-35) and H. H. Williamson (1935-39). WTAW finished up as a part of the Public Information Department, Beginning in 1939 and ending with the sale of the station in 1957. Public information directors during that time span were G. Byron Winstead (1939-49) and Henderson Shuffler (1949-62).

The station apparently began with a signal strength of 250 watts, which was raised to 500 watts in 1925.

From Journeay and other sources we can get an indication of what kinds of programming WTAW carried in the 1930s and 1940s. Journeay says the station went on the air regularly twice a week to broadcast athletic events and chapel services, beginning in 1925. Mrs. F.L. Thomas had a "Children's Reading Hour" every Saturday during most of the 1930s, where she read nursery rhymes and children's books.

By 1942, WTAW operated regularly from 11:25 a.m. to noon every weekday. On Friday, it was on the air from 4:30 to 5 p.m. It was specifically prohibited from operating beyond 5 p.m. on weekdays, so as to keep the Aggies' minds on their studies. On Sunday, the station aired from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, several other programs were aired for various networks. At 6 a.m. the "Texas Farm and Home" program was originated at WTAW and then transmitted to a three-station "Texas Quality Network." WTAW also originated for that network a "Texas School of the Air" every afternoon at 1:15. The station produced at 30-minute variety show which originated at Guion Hall, an auditorium near present-day Rudder Tower which has since been torn down. That variety show went to the 16-station Texas State Network every Thursday night.

According to Dick Gottlieb, a student who worked at WTAW in the 1940s the station also transmitted a variety show from Shiloh's, a nightclub near the campus.

Some of the personalities at WTAW in the 1940s included Harry Dillingham, the station engineer and students Bob Loofburrow and Hardy Curry, each of whom assisted with engineering duties. Conrad Berring was the new editor, Journeay was the announcer and the rest of the programming staff included Dick Brolin and Gottlieb.

John Rosser was the station manager at the time of Journeay's paper. Other station managers included Ted Hills, who's credited with upgrading the station's overall quality, and Wally Pierre, Frank Sosolik, Elsie (Patranella) Sauer and Dick Webb. Exact dates and orders of succession are not known.

The station discovered and helped promote a number of regionally prominent broadcasters. These include former WTAW program director John Scoggins, Charlie Harrison (KTRK TV in Houston), Bill Zak (KTRH radio in Houston) and Craig La Taste, an engineer at Liberty Broadcasting Systems in Dallas. Others at the station included "Pinky" Downs and R.B. Hickerson, who broadcast farm programs.

A few changes occurred in 1946. WTAW joined up with the ABC broadcasting network in that year. The University also began KAMT, a short-lived FM station in 1946, according to Roger Watkins. Watkins says he recalls KAMT's surviving only a few years.

In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, WTAW experienced its greatest popularity and its greatest controversies.

Gottlieb says the station changed from a non-profit operation financed by the University, to a commercial, self-supporting station in the late 1940s. The Bryan Daily Eagle and a number of citizens vigorously fought the switch.

In 1951, Webb was forced to resign because of an unspecified scandal. He was given 24 hours to leave the campus and was replaced by Sauer.

The station did have some success at the time. English professor Harry Kidd helped produce a series of broadcasts in 1952 on "The Story of Texas A&M", which detailed the University's triumphs in science, industry and academics.

However, it was a gigantic non-academic success that may have helped lead to the eventual sale of WTAW. A.J. Wynn was one of the most popular country and western disc jockeys in the country between 1954-56 and he had the most popular show on WTAW.

But Wynn was accused of being a non-intellectual. Wynn reportedly had poor grammar and the show appealed to farmers, not academicians.

"Some professors and church-goers tried to get my show off the air, they say it degraded the college," said Wynn. "All I know is the station was in the red when I got there and in the black when I left."

Wynn's guests included Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Hank Williams.

"He was a nice person and a lot of people who are uneducated are very nice," Sauer said, "but the programs were selling in part because they were illiterate. The station wasn't being used for its original purpose and that was to give farm information. That bothered Mr. Shuffler. He didn't want the responsibility for the station and he didn't want to mess with it anymore."

Sauer also indicated the station was in a quandary. It had to be self-sustaining, but it couldn't be self-supporting without country music.

Two other factors compounded matters. There were rumors the station was about to be taxed. "The reasons given at the time for selling the station was that Texas A&M lawyers feared a new federal tax regulation would cause the state to pay taxes on the station."

The station was also thought to be disruptive in the community. Some were saying it varied its signal strength and knocked out local television reception. Others thought it sometimes carried onto the public address system at prominent events at the University, embarrassing high-ranking Texas A&M officials.

In any event, the station was put up for sale by Texas A&M on May 19, 1957. The terms specified it was to move out of its campus studio within 90 days of the purchase. The purchaser could lease the transmitter on campus near Hensel Park for up to five years.

The station was sold to Hardy Harvey and R.E. Glasgow of Waco on June 20, 1957. It was sold to Radio Bryan Inc. in 1961 and to Sonance Communications, the current owners, in 1987.

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