720kHz, 750kHz, 980kHz, 1480kHz
Chicago had a face, it would be that of its flamboyant Mayor
William Hale Thompson…better known as “Big Bill”.
His political rise began as an Alderman at the turn of
the century making a name for himself as a reformer.
In 1915 he was elected mayor and re-elected in
1919. The man was larger in life in many ways…size-wise
and in ambition.
|William Hale "Big
Bill" Thompson...founded WHT and named it after
||Thompson claimed to be a populist; defeating a
splintered Democratic party and soon amassed a powerful
political machine of his own.
He was a strong opponent of the U.S. entry into World War
I, a very vocal supporter of Germany (earning him the nickname
“Kaiser Bill”) and igniting a long-running battle with the
King Of England.
Ever the promoter, Thompson was fascinated
with the wireless and it’s ability to attract people...a
captive audience and a politicians dream.
Shortly after KYW became the city’s first commercial
radio station in November, 1921, Thompson had the city apply for
its own license, WBU, that operated for a short time in 1922.
Thompson officiated over the station’s inaugural
broadcast and would be heard regularly on radio for years
While being elected as a reformer, Thompson
turned to the business community to feed his machine and looked
the other way to the rising crime that soon would give Chicago
an international reputation it still can’t shake.
Thompson had bigger ambitions than just being Mayor of
Chicago, he wanted to be President.
To fund his political war chest, he would shake shake
down city drivers and inspectors for $3 a month…the modern age
of machine politics had begun.
The Thompson machine hit a bump in 1923 when
his popularity had waned in the aftermath of the Race Riots of
1919 and he chose not to run for re-election.
William Dever, Thompson's political nemesis won.
Thompson was out of City Hall, but he wasn’t out of the
limelight. He now
claimed he was off on a “scientific mission” to the South
Sea’s (he never got beyond New Orleans), Big Bill was planning
his political comeback, and radio would play a role.
|In Spring, 1925, Thompson, along with business
partners, Carter Blatchford and Matthew Bliesius created WHT
Radio…named after Thompson.
A studio complex, including a large theater organ were
built in Wrigley Building and the new station signed on 1260 kHz
with 1,500 watts…plenty to be heard at that time.
Once again, like WBU,
Thompson would host the station’s opening as well as
featuring an invocation from Paul Rader, the famed preacher of
the Chicago Tabernacle. Thompson asked him to provide 14 hours
of programming on Sunday for the new station.
Rader gladly took on the challenge, hooking up telephone
lines to his North Clark Street church where his Sunday services
and sermons were broadcast via WHT.
In 1926, Rader would get his own station…WJBT that
would outlast WHT and form a partnership with WBBM, enabling
Rader’s programs to be heard in Chicago for the next decade.
|Big Bill voting early and
often...a Chicago tradition.
|The new Wrigley building,
built by Thompson's friend and partner, William Wrigley.
WHT built studios, including a theater organ. Later the
facilities would be used by WBBM and WIND.
||Music was an important part of the new station;
featuring organ concerts from the Wrigley Building.
Program Director, Pat Barnes, became a radio favorite
with his “Pick-Ups”…short poems and essays.
Thompson appeared regularly, still hoping to become not
only a local political power, but a national one as well…he
built WHT to reach far and wide.
By 1927, William Dever had fallen out of
aggressive enforcement of prohibition as well as the hated “Sunday
Law” that restricted hours of clubs and restaurants led to his
fall from grace. Thompson played the populist card again;
appealing to labor while taking money from both big business and
Al Capone’s syndicate. He
won re-election, signaling the start of one of Chicago’s
wildest and most violent periods.
In 1928, Thompson’s political allies won
victories in what was known as the “Pineapple Primary” due
to the bombing of opponent’s offices.
A year later, the nation was shocked with the St.
Valentine’s Day massacre. Chicago’s image of a lawless town was international and
Thompson would end up sparing with the King of England;
threatening to punch him in the nose.
Thompson’s return to power would be
beneficial for WHT Radio as well.
In 1926, it began operating from a state-of-the-art
3,500-watt transmitter located on Waukegan and Telegraph Roads
in north suburban Bannockburn. A year later, as the radio dial got noisier, the output was
increased to 5,000 watts. The
frequency was shifted to 720 kHz, but the station had to share
time with WCRW and WIBO.
|In Fall, 1927, WHT and WIBO would trade
frequencies with the Chicago Tribune’s WGN and WLIB…moving
to 980 kHz. Thompson’s
station would survive the dial re-organization of Order 40 in
November, 1928, but was forced move to the far end of the dial,
1480 kHz, and share time with Zenith’s WJAZ, WIBO and WORD, a
station owned by the People’s Pulpit Association.
WIBO soon moved to 570 kHz and later up to 560; WHT tried
to make do on their new assignment.
The rise in crime along with the first waves
of the Depression began to take a toll on both Thompson and WHT
Radio. In early
1929, the radio station was sold to a Chicago advertising
executive…the restrictive time and poor dial position had
drastically reduced WHT’s hours and audience.
Over the years Thompson had made enemies with the Chicago
papers; especially the Tribune who owned WGN/WLIB and the Daily
News and their WMAQ. By
Spring, 1929, WHT had become WSOA featuring syndicated programs.
A year later the station was sold to the People's Pulpit
Association; owners of WORD.
The Jehovah Witness station would re-brand itself as WCHI
before going silent in 1932.
The battle between Thompson and the Tribune
raged in 1930 when Thompson tried to defeat Ruth Hannah
McCormick’s Senate bid. McCormick
was the aunt of Chicago Tribune publisher, Colonel Robert
McCormick…who used both his paper and WGN Radio to attack
Thompson…a fight would carry over to the 1931 Mayoral
running a spirited, and racist, campaign, Thompson was soundly
beaten by Anton Cermak. Big
Bill would try to run again in 1939, but his days of being the
boss were over. Thompson
died in 1944, leaving behind a larger-than-life legacy as well
as a strong box filled with $1.5 million in cash.
The last legacy was the WHT Tower in Deerfield that
became a local landmark for years after the station went off the
|Evangelist Paul Rader...he
officiated over the opening of WBU in 1922 and WHT in
1925. He also provided Sunday programming on WHT, later
getting his own station: WJBT.