WFBR: World's First Broadcasting Network
By Joshua Gamma, Museum Curator, Maryland Museum of Military History
If you are a Marylander of a certain age, you probably listened to Baltimore radio station WFBR at some point growing up, but you may not know that citizen soldiers in the Maryland National Guard (and one famous Coast Guardsmen) facilitated the early breakthroughs that gave WFBR the reputation as “Maryland’s Pioneer Broadcast Station.”
This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the first radio broadcast of a public address by a U.S. president. From the unveiling of a Francis Scott Key monument at Fort McHenry on 14 June 1922, President Warren Harding spoke to hundreds of thousands of radio listeners within a 600-mile radius.
One of the first radio stations in Maryland, WEAR, aired the event using brand new remote technology that allowed them to broadcast for the first time outside of a studio setting. The program concluded with live jazz and popular music performed by an orchestra and vocal selections performed by local opera singers. Many Baltimore residents listened through loudspeakers in Druid Hill Park.
At the time of the Fort McHenry broadcast, WEAR had only been on the air six days. According to an official station history they were “the first radio station to go on-the-air in Maryland, although… not the first to be granted a license for broadcasting in this state.” Managing editor of the Baltimore American newspaper, James Morrow, conceived of the station, envisioning it as an extension of the media company.
From the 18th floor of the Munsey Building in downtown Baltimore, WEAR’s inaugural broadcast featured live musicians and Baltimore Mayor William F. Broening, as well as an announcement that the station would begin transmitting programs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through Sunday nights starting at 7:00 PM.
It is unclear from contemporary documents when and how World War One veteran and Maryland National Guardsman Stewart Kennard became involved with the station, but he was crucial to the success of the historic broadcast from Fort McHenry. As well as acting as announcer and control man for the event, he also helped develop the first-of-its-kind remote control technology with the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company.
In a 1980 Baltimore Sun story about the history of radio in the city, early radio singer Ben Evans recalls, “if one person could be called the pioneer of Baltimore radio it would certainly have to be the late Stewart Kennard.”
Later in 1922, Kennard collaborated with members of the Maryland National Guard Field Officers Association to purchase WEAR from the Baltimore American. In 1924, they relocated the station to the Fifth Regiment Armory, rechristening it WFBR (aka the World’s First Broadcasting Regiment). Evans remembers visiting WFBR at the armory, “(WFBR) was the first radio station I had ever visited. A mike was standing in the center of the room. People who visited the studio sat in chairs along the walls. The singer stood at a carbon mike….” “Stewart was the announcer and control man, in fact he ran the whole works.”
While WFBR was at the armory, “Krafty Kennard” spearheaded other radio firsts—including the first broadcasts from a moving train and an airplane in flight. In order to broadcast a 1925 Loyal Order of the Moose parade, he developed a vivid descriptive radio oratory style—a style that would later be known as “word picture” and would become commonplace in the medium over the following decades.
He used this same style for the first broadcasts of Orioles baseball games—originally a delayed play-by-play description based on Western Union telegrams and then remotely broadcasting directly from Oriole Park. The station also remotely broadcast multiple weekly religious services.
By 1927, radio had become big business, and the Maryland National Guard Field Officers Association sold WFBR to a new media company called Baltimore Radio Show, Inc. WFBR left the Fifth Regiment Armory and moved to 7 Saint Paul Street. Baltimore Radio Show, Inc., would own the station until 1988.
Perhaps not-so-coincidently, Kennard also left the Maryland National Guard in 1927 and continued to work at WFBR as the Director of Special Events until his retirement in 1953. Despite the station switching back to civilian commercial control, the Maryland National Guard maintained a program on WFBR into the 1940s.
Sometime in the late-1920s, a young Arthur “Reds” Godfrey began to hang out around the station with his banjo. By one account, he showed up after betting his U.S. Coast Guard shipmates at Curtis Bay that he could do better than a singer they heard on an amateur night program. Following a successful audition for Kennard, he began doing regular features as an announcer and as the “Warbling Banjoist.” He worked at WFBR until 1931 when he was offered more money by a D.C. station. He would go on to fame and fortune in radio and television with “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.”
In 1928, Mayor Broening began casual regular broadcasts that WFBR would later proudly claim as inspiration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.” The station became an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Corporation’s “Red Network” in 1931, opening WFBR up to a larger national audience and bringing NBC programming to Baltimore airwaves.
In 1939 WFBR opened the state-of-the-art, art deco Radio Centre building at 10 North Avenue (now the MICA/Johns Hopkins Film Centre), featuring lounges, offices, 5 studios, and a large theater where the general public could see live radio programs being broadcast.
The following decades saw network affiliation and format changes, but through it all, WFBR managed to stay relatively independent and locally produced. The rise of television in the 1950s led to downsizing, including the end of live programming featuring full orchestras and in-studio audiences. As formats shifted, management declined to ride the rock and roll wave.
In 1957, general manager Bob Jones wrote in the station newsletter, “It is possible that our policy of refusal to play rock and roll music may have cost us a rating point here and there. If that’s the price we must pay in exchange for the knowledge that WFBR won’t contribute to the dirty hysteria… then I’m willing to pay it.” Despite this early reluctance, in the early 1960s the station switched to a Top 40 format in addition to their news, talk, and sports programming.
In the 1970s, WFBR featured many popular on-air personalities, including proto-shock jock Johnny Walker, and 1979 saw WFBR once again become the radio flagship station for the Baltimore Orioles. Musically, they took on an Adult Contemporary “Magic Music” format in 1982 and in 1988 moved to a pre-British Invasion American Oldies format.
The sale of WFBR in 1988 led to a mass exodus of on-air talent, low ratings, and by 1990, a change in call letters, officially ending WFBR. A station using the call letters WFBR emerged in 2004 in Glen Burnie, but the station has no direct connection to the WFBR of 1924-1990.
Stay tuned for more to be featured in an exhibit on the history of the World’s First Broadcasting Regiment in the Maryland Museum of Military History.