Column: Solving the mystery of WCAL

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 13, 2001

Several times during the past year or so I’ve had the opportunity to visit with several senior citizens who can remember when a radio station up in Northfield was once very popular in this area.

Friday, April 13, 2001

Several times during the past year or so I’ve had the opportunity to visit with several senior citizens who can remember when a radio station up in Northfield was once very popular in this area. That popularity was based on two facts. First, this station was the radio voice of St. Olaf College. Second, WCAL was one of

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the last places where area Scandinavian-Americans could listen to Lutheran religious services in the languages they grew up with and were once used in their churches.

These folks may have searched in vain for about 10 years at 770 on the crowded AM dial for WCAL and finally given up. Yet, this station is still broadcasting and can be received in this area on the FM dial at 89.3. And this is just one of several changes which have taken place for this pioneer radio station which has been on the air for about eight decades.

WCAL is one of Minnesota’s oldest radio stations and one the oldest educational/ religious broadcasters in the nation. It’s also one the oldest stations in the nation which has retained its original call letters.

A history I received from WCAL says the station actually started on Nov. 23, 1918, when several students and their professor in a physics class broadcast a coded message from the campus to a home in Northfield. These students kept experimenting and added voice transmissions to their radio broadcasts. What resulted was WCAL which was officially licensed by the U.S. government on May 6, 1922.

In those early days WCAL was on the air for just a few hours daily. Its emphasis on educational and informational broadcasting, plus daily and Sunday worship services, gave the station a strong reception over a wide area of the Midwest.

One of the station’s earliest broadcasts in 1922 was the presentation of Shakespeare’s &uot;As You Like It,&uot; the first full-length play to ever be featured on radio.

WCAL became the first listener-supported radio station in the nation. This came about in 1924 when the studio was destroyed in a fire. A campaign started by the Northfield News helped to revive the station and keep it on the air.

However, the Northfield station with the slogan of &uot;the college on the hill&uot; wasn’t the first educational broadcaster in the state. That distinction goes to WLB in Minneapolis. A group of students at the University of Minnesota started experimenting with radio in 1912. What resulted was the official licensing of WLB on Jan. 18, 1922.

For nearly a half-century these two stations shared the same frequency on the radio dial. WCAL usually had the morning hours and WLB had the afternoon hours. This was an arrangement used by other radio stations in that era. In fact, for a few years there was even a third station sharing the frequency with WLB and WCAL, which was really unusual.

My research shows this third station was KFMX, the radio voice of Carleton College in Northfield, for a few years. Still another station which shared the frequency with the educational broadcasters was a commercial operation in Minneapolis with the call letters of WTCN.

The call letters of WLB may not be too familiar for today’s radio listeners. That’s because the radio voice of the University of Minnesota changed its designation to KUOM in 1946.

The frequency sharing between WCAL and KUOM ended in December 1991. KUOM took over the 770 spot on the dial. WCAL became a full time part of the FM dial at 89.3.

A history of Rice County provides this update for the pioneer Northfield radio station:

&uot;Programming today on WCAL-FM (89.3) covers a wide variety of tastes and interests for listeners throughout southern and central Minnesota. Classical music had always had the largest share of the WCAL schedule, but significant segments of broadcast time are provided for National Public Radio (NPR) and other public affairs programs. Campus events such as daily chapel services at 9:40 a.m., Sunday worship services at 11 a.m., convocations, concerts, and the annual Christmas festival (with the famous St. Olaf Choir) are broadcast live.&uot;

Feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.