It was early 1923, and hundreds of entrepreneurs who had been bitten by the radio bug were setting up their own radio stations. Many of these pioneers had begun in ham radio, and were accustomed to building and creating the equipment they used. Unlike the stations owned by major corporations such as newspapers or department stores, these one or two person stations were practical rather than fancy-- studios were on roof-tops, in offices, even in some living rooms (one owner set his up in the family bedroom, but forgot to inform his wife, who was quite surprised when she got home and found a radio program being broadcast...). Hours of these fledgeling stations were sporadic-- few of the entrepreneurs could afford to broadcast for more than a couple of days a week. But despite frequent technical problems that took stations off the air without warning or made them difficult to receive, the public was willing to be patient-- radio was new and exciting, and you never knew what you would hear on any given night.
Some cities did not even have a one-person station; for those places that still lacked a local broadcasting facility, one solution was a type of radio station called a "portable". This was a radio station installed in a vehicle-- often a truck; the owner would drive it to a town that had no radio station, first making arrangements with local merchants and city governments to appear at an event (a county fair, for example). To us in 1998, this doesn't sound very compelling, but in 1923 and 1924, the arrival of a portable radio station generated enormous publicity. The owner demonstrated the wonders of radio to people who had never seen a live broadcast, and everyone had a great time; some members of the audience even got on the air as performers, and local merchants sold lots of radio receivers.
In the late summer of 1923, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company in Boston decided to take advantage of the growing interest in radio and combine it with the increasing number of labour-saving devices and home appliances that used electricity. There were numerous electric shows, and the management at Edison felt they could get some good publicity by having a radio station installed at these shows. According to the company's monthly news magazine, "Edison Life" a number of engineers at the main office were ham radio fans, and several had even volunteered at WGI (greater Boston's first professional station) in 1921 and 1922. And so it was in September of 1923 that WTAT was built-- a fully operational 10 watt station, mounted in a small truck; it was assigned 244 meters (1229 kc), and immediately began appearing at electrical and broadcasting exhibitions in and around eastern Massachusetts. The mission of WTAT was described in the September 1923 edition of "Edison Life" to give entertainment, music, and short talks by prominent people on electrical subjects. Thus, for WTAT's first presentation at the Dedham (MA) Electrical Show, Edison employees sang and performed, news reports were read, and then Edison's Director of Advertising gave a talk about "Using Electricity in the Home".
The Boston newspapers found all of this quite interesting, and they were especially amused by the "Boston accent" of WTAT's chief announcer, Jack Caddigan (a long-time Edison employee with no radio background who was pressed into service to run WTAT). Caddigan became a local favourite, in fact, and when WTAT ultimately closed down, he still made occasional appearances on Edison's other station, WEEI. Meanwhile, the Edison engineers kept improving WTAT's equipment; power was boosted to 100 watts, and by 1926, the call letters were changed to a much more appropriate WATT. This roving ambassador continued to make the rounds at every show where Edison products might be sold; even though after September of 1924, Edison owned a permanent Boston radio station (WEEI), the company did not give up the license of WATT until the FRC cancelled all the portables in 1928.
Around the same time as WTAT emerged, two boyhood friends and school-mates from Providence RI, Harold Dewing and Charles Messter, were planning their own future in broadcasting. Dewing was into ham radio (1ATY) but while Messter enjoyed the amateur game, he decided to try his hand at putting a portable on the air. Given that he sold radio equipment for a living, this made perfect sense; many of the early stations were operated in stores where electronics or radio receivers were sold. What better way to demonstrate your product than by doing an actual broadcast for potential customers? This had generated lots of favourable publicity for Edison Electric Illuminating in Boston, and although Charles Messter didn't have the money that the electric company had, he was still able to build a serviceable little station.
WCBR went on the air with 5 watts at 246 meters (1220 kc), in March of 1924, but not long afterward, it was able to go to 50 watts. In an early 1925 article about him and his station, a reporter for the Providence Journal described WCBR this way "Mr. Messter's broadcasting equipment consists of a 50-watt standard Western Electric transmitter using 600 volts on the plate. He carries storage batteries and a charger so that he will not be caught without power. His three-wire outside antenna is 200 feet long and is usually erected on top of the building in which the outfit is being used... The entire outfit can be easily set up and taken down, and this makes practicable its shipment from place to place on short notice." (Providence Journal, 4 January 1925, p. E7)
WCBR spent much of its first year travelling all over New England. Messter was invited to appear in communities as far north as Portland, Maine, but most of his 1924 stops were in towns throughout Eastern Massachusetts. Since he had always loved the theatre, he especially liked to hook up his portable at vaudeville and movie houses. The delighted attendees not only got to see a movie and watch a stage show, but they also saw a radio broadcast. Messter was even able to persuade "big city" personalities to come out and appear at some of the theatres where he was broadcasting-- in those early days, nearly everyone in radio was eager for more publicity. When WCBR came to Lynn, MA (a city to the north of Boston), various radio singers from the Boston stations and several Boston announcers (including the popular "Big Brother" Bob Emery) appeared, as did the mayor of Lynn and assorted politicians. After driving his portable all over Massachusetts, Messter took his station back to Rhode Island, where he set it up at fairs, theatres, and amusement parks. When it broadcast from Rocky Point Amusement Park during the summer of 1926, WCBR had 100 watts and could be found at 210 meters (1430 kc). At some point later in 1926, Charles Messter returned to selling radio equipment (he also managed several small theatres); WCBR's appearances decreased as the novelty of portables wore off.
Meanwhile, Harold Dewing finally decided to try his hand at operating a portable, and after some delay, he put a station on the air with the call letters WCBS (don't forget, this is 1925-26, when there is no such thing yet as a radio network; those call letters were assigned to his portable by the Department of Commerce, and they were not the initials of anything). As his friend Charles Messter had done, Dewing travelled around Rhode Island, working at radio shows and local events. While he had a good time, WCBS unfortunately met with minimal success. By 1926, New England had lots of local radio stations and portables were not in as much demand; some of the permanent stations were even beginning to complain to the DOC that the portables caused interference. Rather than give up on running his station, however, Dewing decided to take it on the road to an area where portables could still command attention, far away from highly promoted stations like the Edison portable with its state of the art equipment that made his little portable look amateurish. He headed for the Midwest, where portables were still alive and well; long after most parts of the country had ceased to support them, Chicago still had as many as 6 portables, and this was true as late as the spring of 1927. [What was also true in 1927 was that the government, perhaps in response to the complaints that portables were interfering with the signals of the permanent stations, had assigned all the portables to one end of the dial-- 205.4 meters (1460 kc) to 201.6 meters (1490 kc) was now the home of what few portables still operated.]
Packing his station and everything else related to it into his car, Dewing first stopped in Danville, Illinois, where his station attracted the kind of attention that his friend Charles Messter's once did. Dewing liked how friendly the people were in Danville, but soon, he was driving (now in a truck) to Springfield, where a big radio show was taking place-- just the thing for a portable. He set up shop at the armory, and began broadcasting; his appearance went over quite well, and after appearing in several other Illinois cities (including Chicago, where he provided some publicity for some of the local politicians during an election), he decided to return to Springfield and set his station up there. It was a wise move-- by 1927, the DOC gave way to the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), and in 1928, the commission issued General Order 30, abolishing all the portables. Of course, those that wished to could apply for a license in a fixed location. Harold Dewing was by now perfectly happy in Springfield, and WCBS was no longer in the back of his truck-- it was operating from studios in the St. Nicholas Hotel. Best of all, it was even beginning to make some money. His friend Charles Messter decided to make the trip to the midwest too, and by the early 1930s, he and Dewing were co-owners of WCBS.
WCBS was a rare example of a station that made the transition from portable to permanent station. (For those who are curious about the call letters, in late August of 1946, permission was granted to change them to WCVS, so that the Columbia Broadcasting System could take the WCBS calls for their New York station.) Most of the portables, such as WATT simply shut down in 1928 -- since Edison was already operating WEEI, there was no need to maintain a portable anymore. Technology had improved, such that WEEI could, and did, do plenty of remote broadcasts. The gimmick of bringing a station into a town that didn't have access to radio was no longer very noteworthy. And while some of the rulings of the new FRC caused great debate, the ruling to eliminate portables caused little if any discussion or protest.
By the late 1920s, there were so many changes to the state of the industry that portables were rendered obsolete. In 1928, there were radios that didn't need storage batteries, two radio networks with stars who could be heard nationally, and that new innovation-- talking pictures soon, you would be able to see and hear your favourite singers performing their hits on the movie screen. Putting a radio station into a truck seemed like a quaint idea, a relic from the days of crystal sets and headphones. Today, few people other than broadcast historians are even aware that portables existed. But in radio's formative years, these stations performed a valuable service. (They also did some amazing things-- one west coast portable, KHAC, operated from an airplane; WTAT/WATT went out to sea on several occasions and broadcast from on board a ship.) For a few years in the early to mid-1920s, portables were an exciting innovation that people flocked to see, part of an era when people had not yet lost their sense of wonder, when it seemed that everyone had caught radio fever, and when listeners were eager to find out what radio would do next.
Donna says: "my thanks to the nice folks at the Lincoln Library in Springfield, IL for the story of WCBS/WCVS; also, special thanks to the staff in the microfilm room of the Boston Public Library for their on-going assistance with all of my research..."
Donna L. Halper is a radio consultant, an educator, and a broadcast historian. She is on the faculty at Emerson College and is one of the editors of the Boston Radio Archives. Ms Halper especially enjoys writing about the unsung heroes and heroines of early radio. She can be reached at email@example.com .