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

  2. Some additional information:

    Rochester area native Frank Gannett began his career in 1906 as half owner of the Elmira Gazette after graduating from Cornell.

    Gannet built the first radio station in Rochester NY, WHQ, in March of 1922. It preceded WHAM (and WHEC). WHQ went off the air after a couple of months, reportedly because the steel frame of Gannett's Time-Union newspaper building absorbed too much signal. Instead of returning it to the air, some of its equipment may have been sold to Kodak's George Eastman. Eastman convinced Gannett to help him program and manage WHAM which the Dept. Of Commerce (predecessor to the FCC) granted him.

    Gannett had hired Rochester engineer Laurence Hickson to build WHQ. Hickson went on to build another radio station and then a third, WHEC which stood for Hickson Electric Company in 1925. Gannett bought WHEC-AM in 1932 and later built WHEC-FM and TV. The radio stations were sold by Gannett in 1971 and the TV station in 1979.

    Cornell University's physics dept. first built a radio station in 1912 with the call letters 8YC, later changed to 8XU. It was issued call letters of WEAI in 1922. Cornell leased the station to Gannett in 1932 and the call letters were changed to WESG.

    In 1939, the FCC authorized WENY with a transmitter location 1/2 mile east of the Elmira city line, off Milton St. while the studios continued to be located in the Mark Twain hotel. Gannett continued to operate both WESG and WENY.

    In 1940, the FCC ordered Cornell to manage the station itself since it was the license holder or relinquish the license. It's reported that within 12 hours of the deadline, Cornell started to again program WESG with borrowed staff and equipment.

    Cornell would change the call letters to WHCU for Home of Cornell University. Cornell sold the commercial AM & FM stations in 1985. Although Cornell applied for a TV station in 1947, it was never built.

    Gannet sold WENY in 1961.

  3. Do you know if there were ANY recordings of WESG musical broadcasts? And if so, do any still exist?

    1. I don't know if any of the WESG musical broadcasts were ever recorded. If they were, we certainly don't have any. Sorry.