Monday, December 19, 2016

WESG: Broadcasting Live from the Mark Twain Hotel

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how the internet is killing print media. It’s stealing readers, people whine. Why would anyone buy a newspaper when they can just read it all online? Interestingly enough, newspaper companies during the 1920 and 30s were facing a similar challenge from what was then a new technological threat: radio.

On November 2, 1920, KDKA out of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania became the first American radio station to cover the news when it announced the results of that year’s presidential election. The station was owned by Westinghouse, a radio manufacturer, and the broadcast was basically a publicity stunt to get people to buy their radios. It actually worked. In preparation for the broadcast, the Elmira Star-Gazette purchased both a radio and set of speakers so they could play the broadcast to the crowds. 

The novelty of radio news quickly wore off, however, as newspaper owners realized that people who got their news from the airwaves didn’t need to buy a paper. The Gannett Corporation, owner of the Elmira Star-Gazette, became one of the many newspapers to experiment with establishing their own local radio station. By the mid-1920s, it had purchased a minority interest in WHEC out of Rochester. The experiment turned out to be profitable, and, in 1932, the Gannett Corporation established a new station out of Elmira.

WESG, owned by the Elmira Star-Gazette, had its inaugural broadcast on October 2, 1932. The tiny studio was a two-room suite in the Mark Twain Hotel stuffed with sound equipment, a piano, and the station manager’s desk. They paid their rent by name-dropping the hotel in all their station breaks. The station didn’t have its own transmitter, but had an arrangement to lease bandwidth and broadcasting time from the Cornell University radio station. It operated daily from 2pm until sundown. 

The Mark Twain Hotel, ca. 1930s. WESG studios are in there somewhere.

WESG studio inside the Mark Twain Hotel, ca. 1933
The station was an immediate success. George McCann, reporter from the Star-Gazette, did a daily news show, but it was the entertainment that drew in listeners and advertising dollars. The station drew heavily on local talent and had a wide variety of programs. There were musical programs performed by local talent including pianist Loretta Ryan, vocal trio Ernie, Al & Nate, and the Charlie Cuthbert band. Mrs. Clifford Ford did dramatic readings, while local comedians told jokes. Station manager Dale Taylor cut a deal to borrow new records from local music stores in exchange for free advertising. 

Ernest Palmer, Albert Wright and Nathan Blanchard, a.k.a Ernie, Nate & Al
Although WESG reported on the news, it filled a completely different niche than the newspaper. By the mid-1930s, however, radio stations were banding together to form networks with shared national programing. This not only included music and radio dramas, but also national news. Newspapers around the country lobbied heavily for laws banning the reporting of national news over the radio. Their efforts failed and instead these radio networks established their own news gathering and reporting systems.  Despite the competition, newspapers continued to thrive, mostly by either focusing on local news or by providing additional context for national stories.

WESG, however, did not survive the decade. The Federal Communication Commission declined to renew authorization for its lease of the Cornell transmitter in 1939. By that time, the equipment was cheap enough that the station’s parent company could afford to buy their own.  The new transmitter went live on November 26, 1939 operating under the new call letters WENY.

1 comment:

  1. I'll bet I am far from the only person who knew nothing about this part of Elmira history. Thanks, Rachel!