WDOD AM, Gone But Not Forgotten

  • Tuesday, April 9, 2024
  • Earl Freudenberg
WDOD studio in 1965
WDOD studio in 1965

April 13, 1925, holds a special place in my memory because it was the beginning of the “Golden Age of Radio in the Tennessee Valley.” Two young friends from Ohio, who lived across the street from each other while growing up, came to the Scenic City in the early 1920s and started Chattanooga’s first radio station, WDOD AM.

Earl Winger and Normal Thomas pooled their money and opened a hand built crystal radio shop at 615 Market St. Mr. Winger said, “We needed a radio station for customers to listen to so we decided to file for a license from the Commerce Department. The government granted us a license for a 50 watt station that covered the city.”

Mr. Winger, sometimes known as the father of Chattanooga radio, said in the beginning the station broadcast three days a week. He remembered running a long microphone cable from a small studio in the Interstate Building on McCallie Avenue to the pulpit of the nearby First Presbyterian Church at 504 McCallie Ave. Mr. Winger said that was the station’s first radio program and at one time the 11:00 Sunday morning worship service was the longest running radio broadcast in the United States.

After several facility changes, Mr. Winger and Mr. Thomas rented a few rooms on the 10th floor of the Hotel Patten and opened a studio. Mr. Winger said, “We were known as the attic radio station.” WDOD’s two towers were visible from atop the hotel and remained operational until the early 40’s when the transmitter and towers were moved to 18 acres on the Tennessee River near Baylor School.

Mr. Winger said he went to New York City in the early 40’s and was very impressed with the CBS radio studios. He came back to Chattanooga and decided to move WDOD to a modern facility in the Hamilton National Bank Building at 7th and Market Streets. Mr. Winger said they had plenty of room with three large studios and a control room. It was located on what was known as the bank building’s mezzanine between the ground and first floor of the city’s skyscraper.

Mr. Winger said, “We had our own floor; when you got on the elevator and pressed “M,” the door opened and took you directly into our radio station.”

WDOD is full of broadcasting history. The WDOD radio playhouse was known all over the United States. CBS did a daily broadcast in the 40’s from the old Capital Theater on Market Street. Early performers included George Gobel, Archie Campbell, Swanee River Boys and Homer and Jethro.

Radio was changing and the station was sold to Interstate Insurance Company in 1957. The new owner moved WDOD from downtown to a former restaurant site at 428 McCallie Ave. WDOD would remain there until Bahakel Communications purchased the station in 1962 and moved the entire operation to the transmitter site on the river next to Baylor. When Bahakel Communications acquired WDEF radio in the late 90s, the company purchased the old Chattanooga Hardware building at 2615 S. Broad Street. They relocated both WDOD and WDEF to that site. WDOD’s transmitter would remain operational on the banks of the beautiful Tennessee River until it went dark in 2011 and the license turned back to the FCC.

WDOD AM had three owners, Mr. Winger and Mr. Thomas, Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Company and Bahakel Communications. Although the station changed owners, the original call letters were kept the entire time it was on the air; WDOD stood for “Wonderful Dynamo of Dixie.”

S. Parks Hall was the station’s chief engineer beginning in 1967 and Mr. Hall remained at the station for several decades. In 2017, Mr. Hall and his son Sam pinned “The Jewel that was ours: WDOD AM 1310 KHz.” It’s by far the most comprehensive narration of the radio station, that for 86 years provided a growing city with information and entertainment The story can be found on the world wide web.

WDOD AM was only 5,000 watts but because of the night sky wave the station would often get mail from locations miles and miles away. On June 10, 1985 the station received a post card from a listener in Stockholm, Sweden. The listener wrote, “You must got a loose wire or something for we have your program across the ocean.”

FCC records show WDOD as Tennessee’s second radio station going on the air after WNOX AM in Knoxville and a few months before Nashville’s 50,000 watt powerhouse WSM AM.

Mr. Winger and Mr. Thomas were unsuccessful when they applied to the FCC for a television license in the 50’s. The Federal Communications Commission did approve an FM license for WDOD (Interstate Insurance) in 1960. The 100,000 watt WDOD FM remains on the air today at 96.5 on the dial.

In the Halls' article they wrote, “One might logically ask, well, yes, WDOD was Chattanooga’s first radio station but why the fuss? For one of many reasons, it’s gone. Where it once stood there is no clue to the presence of the white art deco building built in 1942 with its proud WDOD call letters on a vertical brick column.”

Mr. Hall said, “The WDOD call letters live on as WDOD FM, 96.5, but gone is WDOD AM that first existed at 1280 on the dial and later changed to the 1310 frequency.”

This writer would only hope that a historical marker would someday be located near the property to remember “WDOD, the Jewel that was once ours.” Perhaps that marker could be erected next year when the station would have marked their 100th birthday.

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Heyearl1971@epbfi.com

* * *

From Alan Winger, Earl’s son,

“Dad learned morris code in 1916 as a radio man in WW1. His interest in electronics continued to grow after the service when he started the radio shop....and you know the rest of the story. My brother, Earl Jr  was a station engineer. My brother Charley and i continued with interest, building Hwathkit radios. I went further and have been a HAM operator, AD4HE, for more than 30 years. I believe you and I met at UTC, when they honored my Dad. Thank you again for keeping those memories alive. I spread your article to great-grandchildren spread about.”

From Tonya Hobbs,   “Reading this article by Earl Freudenberg in the Chattanoogan brought back a lot of good memories. I am forever grateful that they moved WDOD to the Hamilton National Bank Building because my dad, Ray Hobbs was an announcer for WDOD, met my mother who was working at the Hamilton National Bank and the rest as they say is history. Thanks Earl for the walk down memory lane.”

WDOD Hotel Patten in the 1930’s
WDOD Hotel Patten in the 1930’s
Memories
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