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Why Do Some Radio Stations Begin With ‘K’ and Others With ‘W’?

Reader Nate asks, “Why do TV and Radio stations on the east have W and on the west have K?”

© Genevieve Naylor/CORBIS

Because the government says so.

In the days of the telegraph, operators started the practice of using short letter sequences as identifiers, referring to them as call letters or call signs. Early radio operators continued the practice, but without a central authority assigning call letters, radio operators often chose letters already in use, leading to confusion.

To alleviate the problem, the Bureau of Navigation (part of the Department of Commerce), began assigning three-letter call signs to American ships in the early 1910s. Ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico got a K prefix and in the Pacific and the Great Lakes got a W. The precise reasons for choosing these two letters, if there were any, are unknown. Bureaucracy works in mysterious ways. At the 1912 London International Radiotelegraphic Convention, ranges of letters were assigned to each of the participating nations and the U.S. was told to keep using the W and most of the K range.

When the federal government began licensing commercial radio stations later that year, it had planned to assign call letters to the land-based stations in the same way. Somehow, things got flipped during implementation, though, and Eastern stations got W call signs and the Western ones got Ks. Where exactly does the Bureau of Navigation draw the line between East and West? For a while it ran north from the Texas-New Mexico border, but shifted in 1923 to follow the Mississippi River.

“Now hold on,” you might say. “I live in [your state here], which should use call signs with a [K or W], but one of my local stations uses a [the other letter]. What sorcery is this?”

Yeah, the rules have never really been followed to a T. There are plenty of call sign anomalies. When the dividing line switched, some stations were made to change their call signs, while others weren’t. For about a year in the 1920s, the Bureau of Navigation that decided that all new stations were going to get a K call sign no matter where they were located. Still other exceptions were made by special request, station relocations, ownership changes, and even human error. (In the federal government? Shocking, I know.)

The K station furthest east is Philadelphia’s KYW-1060, which is still on air, and the W station furthest west was Fairbanks’ WLAY, which operated in the early 1920s.

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January 6th, 2012

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Stranger to the World

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