1922: WWL and the arrival of New Orleans’ radio days
On March 31, 1922, Father Edward Cummings — then the president of Loyola University — made an appeal as part of a fundraising drive for a new university building. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been noteworthy. But in this case, Cummings’ appeal — which was accompanied by a live performance by another priest of a few tunes on an upright piano — was carried live over the air from Marquette Hall on a then-new invention: radio. Broadcast on the frequency 833.3-AM and using the now-familiar call letters WWL, it is recognized as the first radio broadcast in the city’s history — and, indeed, in the South. A new era of communication had arrived.
WWL has since moved to 870 on the AM dial. In addition, it can be heard at 105.3 FM and streamed online via the WWL website. Ninety-five years after that initial broadcast — which was carried on a puny 10-watt signal — WWL now broadcasts as a clear channel station on a mammoth 50,000-watt transmitter. During the day, it can be heard throughout much of the Gulf South. At night, when interfering stations must power down, it can be heard in as many as 40 U.S. states. It is one of New Orleans’ premier talk-radio stations and has for more than 20 years been the radio home of the New Orleans Saints.
- WWL wasn’t started as a commercial station. It was more of an experiment, started as interest in wireless communication picked up nationally. During World War I, before going on the air, the school trained wireless operators for the military. It wasn’t until 1929 that the station hired talent, sold advertising and began regular programming.
- While WWL was still figuring out the possibilities of the medium, WSMB went on the air in 1925 as the city’s first commercial radio station, featuring on-air hosts and regular programming. It was a joint venture of the Saenger Theatre (thus the “S” in the call letters) and the Maison Blanche department store (the “MB”).
A common misconception is that WWL’s call letters stand for “World Wide Loyola.” According to Dominic Massa’s book “New Orleans Radio,” the call letters were randomly assigned to the university, having originally been assigned to the steamer San Jose, which forfeited them after running aground in California in 1921.
- WWL was soon joined by a number of other stations in New Orleans, including The Times-Picayune’s WWAB, which began broadcasting within a week of WWL’s first broadcast and received its license 17 days after WWL, followed within a month by Tulane University’s WAAC and the New Orleans States-owned WCAG.
- In 1932, WWL studios were moved to the Roosevelt Hotel. From there, the station for decades broadcast a popular daily news and entertainment program known as “The Dawnbusters.” The show featured a wide-ranging cast of talent, including Henry Dupre, who would transition decades later to TV; Pinky Vidacovich, known for his Cajun imitations; and, for a time, jazz trumpeter Al Hirt.
- WWL also broadcast live in the evenings from the Blue Room supper club in the Roosevelt, which was known as one of the swankier of the city’s nighttime hot spots, in programs beamed across much of the country.
- Loyola University sold WWL radio in 1989. It is now owned by the Pennsylvania-based Entercom.
Mass communication has repeatedly undergone massive change over the past century, but among its few constants in New Orleans has been WWL radio. While TV and the internet have eaten into radio’s audience in recent decades, anyone who doubts the medium’s importance needs only flash back to 2005, when WWL radio proved to be a crucial source of information during and after Hurricane Katrina, a period in which it allowed its signal to be simulcast on several unaffiliated stations in the spirit of informing the public. But that’s only one example of its cultural impact on the city. For 95 years, WWL radio has been in New Orleans’ ear, and for 95 years New Orleans has been listening.