Thursday, December 5, 2019

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Cape Cod's First Radio Station

     In 1903 the first transatlantic wireless communication took place in Wellfleet thanks to the invention of Guglielmo Marconi. It was the beginning of radio. 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast. However it did not take place on Cape Cod but from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There have been many legendary radio stations on Cape Cod. 106 WCOD is still going strong since debuting in 1967, others like 99.9 WQRC and 107.5 WFCC have been supplying music to various audiences for decades. In 2019 there are an estimated 15,330 radio stations in the United States. Did you know that Cape Cod’s first radio station came in with a bang, make a quick splash, and left with barely a whimper?

     On November 2, 1920 Pittsburgh radio station KDKA aired the first commercial broadcast. The station had chosen election day in America so listeners could hear the results of the race between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox which Harding won. The broadcast was a huge success. Within four years there were 600 commercial radio stations in the country including WNAC in Boston, the future WRKO, and WEEI. These stations, and infrequently WEAF out of New York, could be tuned in to on Cape Cod.

     News programming and musical shows were the norm with special guest performers. To offset the costs of paying the performers plus improving the radio station equipment stations turned to advertisers. The very first radio advertisement, a fifteen-minute real estate ad about apartments in Jackson Heights, aired on WEAF New York on August 22, 1922. Radio became big business with advertising and networks developing and sharing programming among affiliates.

     The rising popularity and profitability of radio led to Cape Codders longing for their own local station. Boston and New York stations were accessible to varying degrees however lacked the local feel and coverage. In July 1926 their wish came true. A station was created in Osterville through the efforts of James Henderson, the president of the firm of Henderson & Ross. It was a 200 watt station located at the Seapuit Golf Course, one of the first built in America, along South County Road. The station, which would operate on the 250 meter band, was to be known by the call letters WJBX, however it debuted with the letters WSGC possibly as a nod to Seapuit Golf Course.

     The job of running the new radio station fell to William Harrison who had been working as a broadcaster for WEEI in Boston. The hype for the opening night of Saturday July 24th was palpable in all of the local newspapers. Harrison stated the station’s signal was strong enough to be heard throughout Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts. An additional promotion was begun by James Henderson, it was a cash prize of $25 for the telephone call received at the station from the furthest away by midnight of the first day on the air. All other telephone callers would receive complimentary copies of Cape Cod Magazine (the original version which was in print from 1915-1927)

Aerial view of Seapuit Golf Course from 1892, courtesy of Marstons Mills Historical Society

     Opening night of the new WSGC began at 7:30pm with a half-hour performance from Joe Rines and his Sunkist Garden Orioles orchestra. Sunkist Garden was briefly the name given to the Mill Hill Pavilion located where DiParma Restaurant currently stands in West Yarmouth. The music was followed by a brief introductory discussion by founder James Henderson. He then threw it to a discussion featuring Massachusetts Amateur golf champion Freddy Wright and golf course architect Donald Ross among others. It was fitting for the station’s headquarters. From 9-11pm there was a collection of dance music featuring the likes of Jim Moynihan’s Orchestra, soprano singer Jean Hinkle, and pianist H.C. LeBrie. The night was deemed a success. More than 200 telephone calls were received by midnight with the furthest point heard from being Lexington, Massachusetts approximately seventy miles away.

     WSGC was to be on the air every evening except for Monday between 7:30-11pm typically following the same format of musical interludes and discussions of topics central to life of Cape Cod. The programming found an audience with letters coming in from as far away as Concord, New Hampshire by the middle of August. William Harrison continued to bring in big time local musicians like Chet Copp and the Eagleston Inn Orchestra out of Hyannis. On August 17, 1926 Harrison was contacted by the Department of Commerce from Washington D.C. informing him that the station’s call letters were originally supposed to be WJBX not WSGC and that the department was immediately changing them.

Program Listing for WSGC's Opening Night, courtesy of Boston Globe Archives

     The new WJBX continued on with its successful programming six nights a week throughout the remained of the summer. It was announced that as Labor Day passed the radio station would cease operating until the following spring. The final night of Sunday September 5th featured a worship service led by Reverend H.P. Almon Abbott and finally a short recital featuring Jean Hinkle. WJBX closed for the season at 11:30pm. On September 13, 1926 the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) created the first national radio network, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
William Harrison stated that due to the station’s success he was excited for the second season in 1927, promising new shows from outside the confines of the Seapuit Golf Course station. The likely relaunch was set for June 1927. Unfortunately the relaunch never came. It is unclear why but WSGC/WJBX ended up being nothing more than a flash in the pan, a test run for what would be coming in the decades that followed.

     James Henderson went back to focusing on his real estate while Harrison went back to Boston to continue his radio career. The Seapuit Golf Course slowly declined through the Great Depression before the entire property was purchased by Canadian ‘Aluminum King’ E.K. Davis. The golf course was abandoned after severe damage during a hurricane in 1944 and today there are very few, if any, reminders of the golf course left.

     Cape Cod would not see a new radio station until the formation of the Cape Cod Broadcasting Company in 1937. Two years later came a proposal by Joseph Goulding for a station on 8 ½ acres of land on South Sea Avenue in West Yarmouth in June 1939. He said the station would have the call letters WOCB for ‘Only Cape Broadcasting.’ A 195-foot tall radio tower was erected and the second-ever Cape Cod radio station went live on October 2, 1940. It ran out of money and folded in May 1943 before being brought back to life by new owners E. Anthony and Sons in May 1944.

A postcard for WOCB from the early 1950's, courtesy of American Radio

     In May 1948 WOCB became Cape Cod’s first FM station. It remained in business until Hurricane Bob felled the radio tower in August 1991 and the owners could not afford to rebuild. The station was purchased by automobile dealer Ernie Boch Sr. to become the flagship station for his Boch Broadcasting. Its call letters were changed to WXTK and the station is still on the air today.

     Despite being the first radio station on Cape Cod nary a word is spoken about WSGC. Perhaps because it only last two months. Perhaps because its home base the Seapuit Golf Course is long since gone WSGC lends itself to being a mere footnote in the long history of Cape Cod radio. However in the legacy of radio stations on Cape Cod there had to be a first and that one was WSGC in Osterville.

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Angelo's Supermarket                                   

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Living Store

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

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