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Why Do Radio Stations Start with K or W?

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You know this station is on the West Coast.  Probably.

If you’ve ever crossed the United States, you might have noticed that the call letters of the radio and TV stations tend to start with W in the east and K in the west.  The reason for this actually predates any of the radio stations that have ever operated on land.  It started at sea.

In the 1880s, merchant ships were starting to use letter-coded signal flags to identify themselves.  Besides the ship’s national flag and other identifying flags, a series of four flags, each one representing a letter of the alphabet, would fly from the ship.  For example, the word “flag” would be written like this:

Navy signal flags: Foxtrot, Lima, Alfa, Golf

Those are the flags representing the letters F, L, A and G.  These letter flags were used to communicate with other ships in the time before radio.  The above wouldn’t have been any ship’s code, though, since the codes that ships used were assigned were always four letters long, repeated no letters, and included no vowels. Until 1901, countries could assign whatever four-letter codes they wanted to ships, but after that, the International Code established further rules.  All government and naval ships’ codes were to start with G; merchant ships’ codes would start with letters ranging from H to W.  

Meanwhile, American radio stations adopted a system of their own.  They would also have call letters—just two letters to identify each station.  There were no rules governing which letters a station could choose to use, like BZ in Boston, OR in New York, or OI in Des Moines.  Under this system, 676 call letter combinations were possible.  As radio grew more popular, it was obvious that before too long, we were going to run out of combinations; we were going to need more codes.

The Radio Act of 1912 settled this problem.  It was with this act that the United States started licensing radio stations, and it also standardized the call letters of American ships.  Ships stationed on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico would be given call letters starting with K, while those on the West Coast would get call letters starting with W.  To distinguish themselves from ships, commercial radio stations on the East Coast were given call letters starting with W, and commercial radio stations on the West Coast were given call letters starting with K.  The dividing line was right down the middle of the country, though in 1923 it was moved to the Mississippi River.  This was more a rule of thumb than a law; some early stations wound up with call letters that break the pattern, like KDKA out of Pittsburgh and WOI out of Des Moines.  There are other examples of this, but mostly, the call letters follow the pattern.  When the W and K pattern was codified, existing radio stations usually just tacked a letter on the front of their established call letters.  The pioneering two-letter stations of BZ, OI and OR became WBZ, WOI and WOR, for example, remaining at three letters as a nod to their legacies.  Some of these legacy call letters remain in use today.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) no longer issues any three-letter codes.

In 1913, an international convention divided up the alphabet for all future radio stations.  It allowed the United States to keep its system, mostly, and allowed for vowels (unlike ships).  America would be assigned W as well as most of the K range.  Call letters starting with KDA through KZZ were American; KAA through KCZ (as well as ranges starting with A and D) were reserved for Germany and its protectorates.  (The KAA through KCZ range was assigned to the United States in 1929.)  All new American codes for commercial stations issued contain four letters.  (The codes AA through AL as well as NA through NZ are assigned to the United States, as well, though these are not used for commercial stations currently.)  Countries are not required to follow the four-letter rule, however.  Mexico, for example, issues call letters with ranges of three to six characters long, sometimes including numbers.  Four-letter codes remain the most common around the world.


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