WOK was the first radio station in Arkansas, started in 1922 by Harvey C. Couch Sr., founder of Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L). Meant to service the Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) area, it was one of the early leaders in the field of mass media.
In 1921, Couch visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the radio station KDKA, which is generally considered the creator of the modern form of broadcasting (and is also famous for announcing the results of the 1920 presidential election). On this trip, he met Lee de Forest, who invented the “radio-telephone”; Couch bought equipment and decided to set up a radio station in his home state, “to advertise Arkansas and, incidentally, [AP&L].” He believed this new means of communication offered great benefits to his company and his state, and AP&L had been planning to set up a radio system so that the plants around the state would have an easy means of communication.
In February 1922, two 100-foot wooden poles were erected at the company’s office on Main Street in Pine Bluff to hold the radio antenna. Ralph R. Pittman, the electrical superintendent of AP&L, supervised the installation. A week later, the U.S. Department of Commerce gave AP&L permission to operate with 500 watts of power. James Leland Longino, the company vice president, was given the honor of naming the new station. Deciding that the call letters should “stand for something,” he decided on “Workers of Kilowatts,” or WOK.
WOK went on air for the first time on the night of February 18, 1922. Pittman did the broadcasting, referring to his announcements as “bulletins.” Listeners were encouraged to call the office and remark on the quality of their reception. The signal was heard all over the United States—a man in Wisconsin sent a letter explaining that he had received a “clear and distinct” signal.
Immediately, AP&L started promoting WOK. On the Monday following the debut broadcast, dealers advertised the station at an electric show near the company’s office alongside other appliances that were guaranteed to “lift burdens.” New equipment began to arrive, and broadcasting continued. During the first week, a musical performance by Kueck’s Orchestra of Pine Bluff went on the air, as well as an instrumental program that was aired for an event taking place at the Pine Bluff Country Club. A Metropolitan Opera soprano named Lenora Sparks sang several songs, greatly increasing the popularity of WOK’s programming.
By March 1922, Al G. Whidden, the publicity director for AP&L, was WOK’s regular announcer. Broadcasts were made Tuesdays and Fridays from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., and they included news bulletins, monologues, and musical talent from the Pine Bluff area. A sermon by Dr. H. B. Trimble of Lakeside Methodist Church, the first radio sermon in Arkansas, was also aired. Couch, still excited about the blessings of the “wireless telephone,” extolled WOK (and radio in general) for “bringing all parts of the country in close touch.” He promoted WOK all over Arkansas, including in many hotels (which began putting radios in their lobbies), the Arkansas State Fair, and even in prisons.
Because AP&L paid for the station, WOK had no commercials. Although this worked well for keeping listeners, it became a financial drain on the company and also took up a lot of the employees’ time. With only a few radio frequencies available, there were complaints of WOK interfering with other stations. In June 1923, broadcasting was ceased, with the promise that it would begin again in the fall. Although the station’s license was renewed in September of that year for another three months, WOK was silent.
With the end of WOK, Couch decided to move the radio equipment to Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia (Clark County), where it was run by students. Broadcasting began there in February 1924. In June 1924, WOK, the first radio station of its kind in the Mid-South, was shut down permanently.
For additional information:
Deane, Ernie. “Pine Bluff Radio Station WOK, First in State.” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly 10, no. 4 (1982): 10–14.
Poindexter, Ray. Arkansas Airwaves. North Little Rock, AR: 1974.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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