Thursday, July 2, 2020

Early Arkansas Radio

Daily Arkansas Gazette, March 6, 1922. Photo is
courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives.
By Brian Irby

Radio is such a commonplace in the lives of many Arkansans that it is difficult to consider that there was a time, barely 100 years ago, when there were no radio stations to provide listeners with the latest news and musical hits. Radio in Arkansas began as a practical way for a company to communicate with employees across the state. It soon developed into a means to inform and entertain the masses.

The story begins with Harvey Couch, the founder of the Arkansas Light and Power, later called Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L). One evening as he sat in his living room with his family enjoying a concert broadcast from KDKA, a radio station from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he heard several advertisements and messages from Pittsburg businesses at the end of the concert and got an idea. If he established a radio station in his hometown of Pine Bluff, he could use it as a means of communication for all the AL&P plants throughout the state and broadcast news and entertainment.

As of early 1922, other than a small number of broadcasts by amateur radio enthusiasts, no commercial radio stations were located in Arkansas, so most Arkansans who owned a radio tried to listen to stations like KDKA, broadcasting from hundreds of miles away. Coy Cantrell in Lead Hill, Arkansas, found a plethora of radio stations from across the country to listen to on his newly built radio receiver. On Sunday nights, he listened to sermons broadcast from KDKA. When he was interested in listening to the news or market reports, he tuned in to a station airing from Chicago.

Couch set out to give Arkansans their own radio station and to connect AL&P employees across the state. He purchased radio sets for all the plants and then built a broadcasting station in Pine Bluff next to the company headquarters. Couch hired Dr. Lee De Forest, who had been instrumental in the creation of Pittsburg’s KDKA and other early commercial radio stations, to build the station’s transmitter.

Couch then appointed Ralph Pittman to oversee the electrical aspects of the station. Pittman erected two 100-foot poles to serve as the station’s antennas and installed the rest of the equipment on the ground floor of the AL&P office.

After the technical aspects were in place for the station, Couch obtained a broadcasting license from the United States Department of Commerce. He appointed J.C. Longino, vice president of AL&P, to choose the call numbers for the new station. Longino chose WOK as the call letters, saying that WOK stood for “Workers of Kilowatts.”

On the eve of the first broadcast, W.D. Hearn of the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce remarked, “As this is the only big broadcasting station in the state, Pine Bluff will derive great advertising. It will be very helpful in our work of building a bigger Pine Bluff, as we can tell the country over our own wireless of Pine Bluff’s advantage and events.”

For the first broadcasts, Couch arranged for evening concerts from Pine Bluff’s Kueck’s Orchestra. He also arranged for the Pine Bluff Commercial and Pine Bluff Graphic to take turns reading five-minute snippets of news reports.

After the first broadcast, it became clear that it was not just Arkansas residents who were listening to the new station. C.L. Gerard of Columbus, Nebraska, wrote to WOK, “You come in better and stronger than 9XAB [another radio station] in Kansas City or KYW of Chicago.”

Listeners in Texas also wrote in to praise the broadcast quality. Roy Estes, who was a veteran being treated at a tuberculosis sanitarium in San Angelo, Texas, wrote, “Your radio programs are being greatly enjoyed by myself and other tubercular ex-service men on this sanitarium.”

Listeners in Cairo, Illinois, wrote urging the broadcaster in Pine Bluff to report on the river stages in the Cairo area, “[We are] only about 20 miles from the river, and we are very much interested in the stage at Cairo.”

One of the things that aided the rapid spread of radio was that hobbyists could get radio building plans by mail order. Soon, people across the country were building their own radios based on mail order plans. This widened the audience for WOK and other radio stations that began popping up around the country.

In November 1922, the station broadcast the first play-by-play of a football game over the radio. During the game, the radio announcer stood on the field and described the game as he saw it close-up. The first game was between Pine Bluff and Prescott. The broadcast was considered so successful that WOK decided to broadcast play-by-play for the remaining games in Pine Bluff’s season. The station reported baseball scores and other sports to its listeners as well, which meant baseball fans could get instantaneous results instead of having to wait until the next day.

Despite the popularity of sports, the mainstay for the radio station remained its broadcast concerts. These allowed local talent to gain exposure throughout the country. One fan wrote from Fredericktown, Missouri, to remark, “Some friends here who formerly lived in Pine Bluff are very anxious to hear the Pine Bluff talent in these concerts.”

Another novelty was broadcasting church services over the airwaves. On April 23, 1922, WOK transmitted a service from Pine Bluff First Baptist Church using microphones that WOK engineers installed in the church sanctuary.

Despite the popularity of the broadcasts, both the equipment and power required were expensive. In 1923, Couch announced that the station would close for the summer and reopen in the fall, but fall came and went without any new broadcasts. The stockholders of the AL&P decided that operating the radio station was a money drain – it did not seem to bring in any of the national attention or revenue to Arkansas that Couch had promised. By 1924 it was clear that the power company had no plans to reopen the station, and WOK became history. Other radio stations, inspired by WOK’s formula of news and entertainment, quickly filled the gap left by WOK’s absence. Soon a new media industry was born in Arkansas.

Although short lived, Pine Bluff’s WOK was a pioneering radio station that was listened to across the state and much of the country. WOK helped develop radio in Arkansas by inspiring the founding of other stations, creating their own programming. WOK may have had a short operating life, but it laid the foundations for the modern radio that Arkansans enjoy today.

For more information on Arkansas history, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or via  email. The Arkansas State Archives is open to the public in a limited capacity and by reservation. Some research services are available by calling the Arkansas State Archives or by visiting