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Washington, DC - Baltimore Area Radio History
by Alex Cosper

see also American Radio History

The nation's capital is one of America's ten most populated radio markets. The city is built on political legends and monuments. Over the years WTOP (1500 AM) and other news stations have played a huge role in delivering the news from the federal government. In early 2006 the Washington Post announced that it would launch its own news radio station on WTOP in March, through an agreement with owner Bonneville Communications. The Post previously owned WTOP. In 1949 owner CBS sold a partial interest to the Post, who bought the station completely five years later. The format went all news in 1969, then the Post sold WTOP in 1978. Bonneville purchased the station in 1997. (source: Yahoo/AP 1/4/06)

One of the most legendary stations in Washington, DC and Baltimore history has been WHFS, which mirrored the development of rock radio from the sixties through the 2000s. It first signed on in the early sixties playing classical music and was the first stereo FM signal in the market. By the time Jake Einstein took control of the station in the late sixties it had become one of the nation's first progressive rock stations. Over the years it continued to evolve and became a leading alternative station of the national scene in the early to mid-nineties. It also was the station that helped escalate the alternative format with huge festivals such as the 'HFStival.

In 2001 WHFS faced a new competitor when WWDC (101.1) flipped from its longtime rock position to alternative, although by that point the formats were very similar. Later in the decade DC 101 flipped back to rock and WHFS flipped to Spanish, while keeping its alternative identity alive online. In the eighties DC 101 got a boost from Howard Stern, who went on to New York radio and then national syndication.

The nation's capital has played into radio history on many occasions. Early wireless transmissions in the area were used by the U.S. Navy and the Post Office. According to the Dave Hughes website, which offers a much deeper look at the area's radio history, the first commercial stations in the market shared the 833 AM frequency in 1921. Those early stations were WJH, WDW, WPM, WIL, WEAS, WHAQ, WIAY, WDM, WMU and WQAW. Today the oldest call letters still alive in the market are WWRC, WOL, WMAL and WTOP.

Stations began to spread across the AM dial in 1923. At that time WRC broadcast on 640 AM. WMAL debuted in 1925 on 1410, but eventually moved to 630. By the early fifties after many frequency and ownership changes, the Washington DC-Baltimore area radio dial looked like this:

Washington-Baltimore AM Radio Stations (early 50s)

550 WSVA Harrisonburg, VA
600 WCAO Baltimore
630 WMAL Washington, DC
730 WPIK Alexandria, VA
930 WFMD Frederick, MD
980 WRC Washington, DC
1090 WBAL Baltimore
1230 WITH Baltimore
1260 WOL Washington, DC
1300 WFBR Baltimore
1340 WINX Washington, DC
1400 WCBM Baltimore
1450 WWDC Washington, DC
1500 WTOP Washington, DC

Washington-Baltimore FM Radio Stations (early 50s)

92.5 WRFL Winchester, VA
93.1 WCBM Baltimore
93.9 WRC Washington, DC
94.7 WMCP Baltimore
95.9 WOOK Siver Spring, MD
96.3 WTOP Washington, DC
96.7 WBUZ Bradhury Heights, MD
97.1 WASH Washington, DC
97.9 WMAR Baltimore
98.7 WOL Washington, DC
99.1 WNAV Annapolis
99.5 WCFM Washington, DC
100.3 WHMB Washington, DC
100.7 WSVA Harrisonburg, VA
101.1 WWDC Washington, DC
101.5 WFMD Frederick, MD
101.9 WFBR Baltimore
102.3 WGAY Silver Spring, MD
102.7 WCAO Baltimore
103.1 WBCC Bethesda, MD
103.5 WQQW Washington, DC
104.3 WITH Baltimore
104.7 WJEJ Hagerstown, MD
105.1 WARL Arlington, VA
105.9 WHIP Silver Spring, MD
107.3 WMAL Washington, DC

One of the leading stations through the decades has been WPGC. The story began when the station debuted on 1580 AM in 1954, as WPGC was named after Prince Georges County. The station started with block programming, as a quarter of the time the programming was country music. Later in the year, Harry Hayman sold WPGC to Maxwell Evans Richmond for $10,000. The following year the new owner was granted permission by the FCC to raise power from one thousand to ten thousand watts.

In 1956 WPGC purchased - also for $10,000 - WRNC (96.7 FM) from Chesapeake Broadcasting, who had launched the station in early 1948 as WBUZ. The FM was used to continue WPGC's programming after the AM signed off at night. In 1958 WRNC became WPGC-FM. After a brief period of going dark, the FM returned to simulcasting the AM, which flipped to top 40/rock and roll in 1960. Throughout the sixties it was one of the top stations in town.

The FM began evolving into its own identity in 1969 when it raised power to 50,000 watts and began broadcasting 24 hours per day. An underground show called "Magic Carpet Ride" had been successful as a Friday night specialty show since its launch the previous year. The FM gradually began incorporating more rock music into the program. In 1970 it was one of the first seven stations in the country to carry Casey Kasem's American Top 40.

WPGC AM and FM's competitors in the sixties were WEEL (1310) out of Fairfax, VA and WOHN (1440), serving Herndon, VA. WEEL lasted as a top 40 station through the 1981 before returning to country for a few years. Then the station flipped to news then religious and then Korean programming. WOHN shifted between country and top 40 until going dark in 1983. During its top 40 phase, Steve Kingston worked at the station, later moving on to WPGC and the New York radio as a nationally acclaimed programmer. Scott Shannon, who programmed WPGC in the early eighties, went on to gaining national notoriety as a New York programmer.

In 1974 the Max Richmond Estate sold the WPGC combo for $5.8 million to First Media Corporation. Five years later the combo faced new top 40 competition from ABC's WRQX, calling itself Q107. Other top 40s in the market had been WMAL and WMOD until going country as WMZQ in 1977. WKYS began playing disco in 1975. WPGC beat WMAL in the Arbitron (12+) ratings for the first time in 1979. After Steve Kingston's departure as PD in 1982, WPGC moved toward an adult contemporary sound, only to fall behind Q107.

During this era the market saw many changes as WASH briefly switched from adult contemporary to top 40/contemporary hits. In 1984 WPGC-FM became WCLY, calling itself "Classy 95." Rock station WAVA then tried to go after Q107 as a top 40 hits station. First Media sold the WPGC combo for $177 million in 1987 to Cook Inlet. The new owner revived the FM by bringing back the WPGC call letters and changing the format to urban contemporary and then contemporary hits. The also changed the AM's format to business talk in 1988. The combo was sold to Infinity in 1994 for $60 million. In 1996 the AM became "Gospel 1580."

By the end of the eighties WPGC-FM had emerged as the market's top station. Other leading stations at the time included Greater Media's beautiful music station WGAY (99.5), Viacom's country stration WMZQ (1390 AM and 98.7 FM), Cap Cities/ABC's adult contemporary station WMAL (630), Albimar's urban contemporary station WKYS (93.9), Emmis' contemporary hits station WAVA (105.1), ABC rival Q107 and Outlet's news leader WTOP (1500). Outlet also owned adult contemporary WASH (97.1). Rock stations that did well in their target demographics included Capitol's WWDC (101.1) and Legacy's classic rocker WCXR (105.9). In the nineties WARW (94.7) would also emerge as a classic rock station.

By the late nineties WKYS (93.9), owned by Radio One, had taken the market ratings crown with its urban format. Other top stations of the period included WHUR (96.3, urban AC, Howard), WPGC (95.5, CHR, CBS Radio), WMZQ (98.7, country, Chancellor), WBIG (100.3, oldies, Chancellor), WASH (97.1, AC, Chancellor), WWVZ/WWZZ (103.9/104.1, CHR, Bonneville), WGMS (103.5, classical, Bonneville).

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