Why do U.S. radio call letters start with W in the east and K in the west (revisited)?

May 4, 2001

Dear Cecil:

On page 176 of Triumph of the Straight Dope, which by now all of us should have purchased, Eddie DiLao of Los Angeles asked, "Why do broadcasting call letters start with certain letters depending on what part of the world the station is in, e.g., K in the U.S. west of the Mississippi, W east of the Mississippi?" And you badly let him down with a poorly researched, often erroneous answer. For example, you state, "The starting letters of radio call signs were parceled out to the countries of the world by the Berlin International Radio Convention of 1912." In 1912 there may have been a few stragglers still in Berlin, left over from an international radio convention held there back in 1906. But the 1912 convention was held in London. [Long enumeration of other errors deleted.] I pray that the above errors I've documented are the result of a grotesque sequence of typographical errors. If not, then my faith in Unca Cece's omniscience has been badly shaken. For a detailed review of U.S. call-sign policy, please see www.ipass.net/~whitetho/recap.htm.

Your estimation of the situation is exactly correct, Thomas. It was weevils in the Linotype. The fact that Little Ed had his hand in probably also contributed to our deviation from machinelike precision. But don't be too hard on us. Stripped of its unfortunate encrustation of error, our answer boiled down to: Beats the hell out of us. Having reviewed your admirable compilation of facts about the early days of radio, we can now state with confidence that nobody else knows, either. The confusion, however, is not the fault of the historians, but of the history. I'll say only this: it's no surprise the federal government was involved.

In the 19th century, ships, telegraph stations, etc., adopted call signs to aid in signaling, a practice that continued when ships and the shore stations serving them began to use radio. At first users picked their own signs, but that led to duplication. In an effort to get organized, the 1906 Berlin International Wireless Telegraph Convention declared that all ship and shore stations should have unique call signs consisting of three letters. The U.S., no doubt bridling at the thought of being told what to do by a bunch of foreigners, declined to ratify the convention until 1912, with the result that we had stations with two- or even one-letter call signs, plus many duplicates.

Fed up with this, the head of the federal Bureau of Navigation, Eugene Tyler Chamberlain, decided that an 1884 statute empowered him to assign marine-radio call letters and he proceeded to do so. Ships on the Atlantic and gulf coasts were assigned calls beginning with K, and those on the Pacific coast and Great Lakes were assigned calls beginning with W. No one knows why these letters were chosen, although Thomas speculates somewhat wanly that perhaps W stood for west. A weakness of the scheme, Thomas points out, was the existence of the Panama Canal, which permitted ships in the Atlantic to sail into the Pacific and vice versa, thus making a mess of the whole system. Still, it was progress.

In 1912 Congress empowered the Bureau of Navigation to license land stations. Official documents issued in 1913 boldly declared the government's intention of following the maritime practice of assigning W calls to stations in the west and K calls to stations in the east. Unfortunately, the instructions seem to have gotten a little scrambled on the way down to the clerks at the front desk, who proceeded to do things the opposite way, assigning K calls to land stations in the west and W calls to stations in the east. (One supposes that the Great Lakes = W thing threw everybody off.) Evidently deciding to go with the flow, the brass stated in the next year's bulletin that the Pacific coast would get W for ships and K for land stations, the Atlantic and gulf coasts would get K for ships and W for land stations, and the Great Lakes would get W for everything.

But the clerks weren't done yet. In 1920, Thomas says, "perhaps caught up in a burst of egalitarianism," or else laboring under a misapprehension as to where the applicants were, they began assigning calls starting with KD to everybody, including the now famous KDKA in Pittsburgh. This lasted only a few months before the old W/K policy was resumed. What happened is not known, but one suspects a memo stating in essence, all right, you morons, enough is enough.

There's more--really, I could go on like this for hours. According to Thomas, the original K/W divide was not the Mississippi River, as at present, but state boundaries starting with the Texas/New Mexico line and working north. (The thinking evidently was that Texas should get W calls because it was a gulf state.) The Mississippi was established as the divide in 1923. Not to excuse Little Ed, but you can't blame him for getting confused.

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