A Trip Down Memory Lane, Pt. 5: KYW 1600-AM

By John C. Alsedek:

As I've talked about previously, my first experiences with radio were as a kid, when I'd sneak a little transistor radio into bed and listen through an earphone while I was supposed to be sleeping. My go-to show was the great CBS Radio Mystery Theater, but when that wasn't on, I'd scan the dial for other hidden gems. The radio of the 1970s wasn't anything like the crisp digital FM that's prevalent today. No, AM was still king then—all static and mysterious stations from all over the East Coast that would fade in and out depending on the atmospheric conditions. Other than the local Harrisburg stations, there were a few that stood out in terms of signal strength; the one I can recall receiving most clearly was KYW, 1060 AM Philadelphia. At the time, I didn't give it a whole lot of attention, as its content seemed to be more news-oriented than would be of interest to your typical 8-year-old. Little did I know what a place in radio history KYW held. . . .


Before I get into that history, a little basic info. KYW Newsradio 1060 is a commercial AM radio station currently owned by Entercom, with studios in Center City Philly and its transmitter and tower not at the famous Roxborough Tower Farm but instead a few miles north at Lafayette Hill (KYW-TV, its former sister television station, broadcasts from Roxborough). KYW 1060 is a 50,000 watt Class A "clear channel" station ("clear channel" meaning that it receives the highest level of protection from interference from other stations, particularly during nighttime hours when the skywave effect causes signals to travel vast distances). KYW can be heard across a good chunk of the East Coast and Eastern Canada, and could travel much further if it didn't restrict its signal traveling northeast to avoid overlapping WEPN 1050 in NYC and southwest to avoid overlapping XEEP 1060 in Mexico City.


KYW was first licensed on November 15th, 1921, by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, one of three additional radio stations Westinghouse set up to capitalize on the success of trailblazing KDKA, which had begun operation one year earlier from Westinghouse's plant in Pittsburgh, PA. However, KYW wasn't in Philadelphia at this point—it was one thousand miles away in Chicago, Illinois. KYW's initial broadcasts consisted entirely of performances by the Chicago Opera Company; for the first few months, KYW was essentially based at the opera house, as it didn't have a studio of its own. However, that situation was remedied in the spring of 1922, as KYW moved into its new home in the Commonwealth Edison Building (its transmitter was atop the nearby Congress Hotel) and began producing additional content.


KYW and the other Westinghouse-owned stations operated more or less independently for the next five years. But in 1927, Westinghouse affiliated its stations with the NBC Blue Network, which originated from WJZ in New York City. The arrangement was a natural progression: Westinghouse had been one of the founders of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), NBC's original parent company, back in 1923. But the relationship between Westinghouse and NBC would be one that took a very odd turn a few decades later.


Before then, though, KYW would find itself on the move due to a pair of government decisions. In 1928, the Federal Regulatory Commission (FRC) issued General Order 40, a massive reassignment of radio station frequencies that moved KYW to 1020 kHz (kilohertz). However, that conflicted with the provisions of the Davis Amendment, which had divided the U.S. into five radio regions; Chicago-based KYW was broadcasting in Region 4, but 1020kHz was reserved specifically for Region 2 (Mid-Atlantic states). Westinghouse fought what it considered a completely arbitrary governmental decision. But eventually a compromise was found: KYW would keep 1020kHz, but would move to Philadelphia. Ironically, KYW's assigned frequency—the very reason for its forced move to Philly—would end up being changed just seven years later.


KYW did its very first broadcast from Philly on December 3rd, 1934, becoming the new NBC Blue Network affiliate in the city. But their affiliation changed in 1942 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) forced RCA to divest itself of one of its two radio networks; NBC Blue became ABC, while KYW and the other Westinghouse stations moved over to NBC Red (later just NBC). The Westinghouse-NBC arrangement continued on cordially enough until 1955, when KYW found itself on the move again . . . sort of.


In June 1955, Westinghouse and NBC agreed to a deal that would transfer ownership of KYW and WPTZ Channel 3 (both Philadelphia-area Westinghouse properties) to NBC in exchange for a trio of stations (AM, FM, TV) in Cleveland. NBC changed its new station's call letters from KYW to WRCV, while Westinghouse changed its new Cleveland AM station's call letters to KYW. So all was well, right?


Ummm . . . wrong. The ink on the trade agreement was barely dry when Westinghouse lodged complaints with the FCC and the Department of Justice, stating that it had been all but forced to make the trade by NBC, which threatened to pull its programming from Westinghouse-owned TV stations. After eight years of investigations and legal battles, the trade was reversed and KYW returned to the Philadelphia airwaves. Not surprisingly, this also saw the end of KYW’s affiliation with NBC Radio; as part of a coordinated plan by Westinghouse, KYW and its other radio stations switched to an all-news format. And it’s been an all-news station ever since.


That’s not to say KYW 1600 hasn’t undergone any changes since ‘65. In 1972, it moved to new studios in Independence Mall East, in Center City Philly. In 1995, Westinghouse purchased CBS, which made KYW sister stations with long-time rival WCAU (now WPHT). In 2007 and again in 2014, KYW moved, eventually ending up alongside KYW-TV at 1555 Hamilton Street, still in Center City. And then the most recent change: in November 2017, CBS Radio merged with Entercom, the successor to Infinity Broadcasting Corporation.


Remember how I talked about the NBC Blue Network earlier? Well, next time we’ll be leaving the "Down Memory Lane" track and instead we’ll be diving into the history of one of its most memorable programs: Inner Sanctum. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

​Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.