One of those mundane questions I’ve long wondered about, but never bothered to look up, is why virtually all the radio and television stations in the US start with either the letter W or K.

From Primer Magazine: “In 1912, several countries attended a conference centered on the subject of ‘International Radiotelegraphs.’ One of the biggest things to come out of this gathering was the assignment of certain letters to certain countries, to identify their radio signals – America was given W, K, N, and A (fun fact: Canada got ‘C’ and Mexico got ‘X’).”

But why those particular letters in the US has seemingly been lost. (A for America?)

“While N and A were chosen for American military radio stations, W and K were designated specifically for commercial use. Stations were allowed to choose the letters that followed the K or the W, and the combination was allowed to be three or four letters in length.”

Initially, the K stations were to the east and the W stations were to the west. Thus one can find early radio stations such as KDKA out of Pittsburgh, PA, established in 1920. By 1926, the Federal Communications Commission codified the idea of having four letters, but stations with three didn’t need to change.

From Early Radio History:

“The original K/W boundary ran north from the Texas-New Mexico border, so at first stations along the Gulf of Mexico and northward were assigned W calls. It was only in late January, 1923 that the K/W boundary was shifted east to the current boundary of the Mississippi River. With this change, K’s were assigned to most new stations west of the Mississippi; however, existing W stations located west of the Mississippi were allowed to keep their now non-standard calls.”

This page has more information on the topic than most mortals would want to know, such as the K/W exceptions and other trivia. For instance, some break the rules by owner requests -examples: WACO in Waco, Texas; WMT (Waterloo [Iowa] Morning Tribune). The page was compiled on 1 January 2017, so it’s quite recent.

For ABC Wednesday

14 Responses to “Why W and K for US radio and TV stations?”

  • Chuck Miller says:

    Sometimes the reason behind the choices of call letters is quite fascinating. I recall that there was a radio station in Georgia that had the call letters WAAW. The station’s owner? James Brown. Now the call letters make sense.

  • leslie says:

    Wow! I never knew this. Maybe the public broadcasting station out of Seattle is called KCTS because it is shown in western Canada! (a good station, by the way)

  • CGHill says:

    One of the weirdest Ws was WNAD in Norman, Oklahoma. It dates to before the Big Shift. When the University of Oklahoma decided to sell it, the buyer, one Larry Steckline, petitioned the FCC to grant him another W call, to commemorate himself and his mom. The FCC gave in. Steckline has long since sold out, but the WWLS call remains on a local FM. (The AM has changed to KWPN.)

    According to Wikipedia, KCTS is short for King [County] Community Television Service.

    And if you want some fun, come up to the Twin Cities. Minneapolis is to the west, St. Paul to the east; but the Mississippi bends rather sharply through the area, so Minneapolis stations are W and St. Paul are K.

  • I’ve wondered that sometimes too

    Have a ♥-warming ABC-Wednes-day / -week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (ABC-W-team)

  • Hazel says:

    Thanks for the research. I had a similar question but never got around to finding an answer. And to think that once upon a time I was a licensed radio broadcaster. Yep, sometimes one does surprise themselves. It’s D and X in my country.

  • Chris E says:

    I love these random topic posts. I always wondered why every station on my radio had a K in front of it, even ones that made no sense (e.g. KLOVE, which, written out, looks like you misspelt* a spice.)

    *I support all sorts of rulebreakers, including irregular verbs. 😀

  • Roger says:

    My brain is pretty random.

  • jesh stg says:

    Was i Holland in the hay days of the radio … so this is foreign to me. You have many interests, Roger:)

  • Hildred says:

    One of my small great grandsons has reached the “why” stage, – perhaps I could set him up to ask his Mommy….

  • Joy says:

    I love when a news event in the US means the local radio station I’ve never heard of comes on the line, the letters and numbers always seem quintessentially American.

  • Now I know why it was WKRP in Cincinnati!

  • LadyInRead says:

    that is so cool to know.. i wondered too but never got around to finding out, now i have some info to share..

  • Roger ~ thanks for info ~ always learn something new here ~ ^_^

    Happy Week Ahead to you,
    A ShutterBug Explores,
    aka (A Creative Harbor)

  • Margy says:

    Interesting information. I’ve listen a lot to radio over the years but never thought much about it. KRLA and KFWB were big when I was a teen. Now it’s CFPW (Coast FM) in Powell River. They play oldies now, and not the best ones, but it does have local news. I liked it better as an AM station (CHQB) that played country western, had a shop and swap show, interviews with locals and a lot of small town interest. – Margy

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