Radio in Ypsilanti

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Summer 2009,
Summer 2009
Original Images:



Author: James Mann

Radio, television and the Internet are taken for granted, as each has become part of our daily lives. Now it is hard to imagine a time when there was no news or music carried on the airwaves, when we could see programs on a screen, or send a message and view Web pages. Yet, just one hundred years ago, the ability to do this was just being developed. A handful of pioneers, working alone, made these modern wonders possible. In Ypsilanti the pioneers were a small group of young men who were known as the “Owl Club.”

The history of radio in Ypsilanti began with the clutter which Howard Chapin left in his mother’s living room as he experimented with wireless and telegraph. Later the experiments were carried out in a small wooden shack behind the house at 17 North Adams Street.

Beginning in 1906, Chapin, with Clifford Boatwright, Lee Augustus, Henry Gilmore, and later, Ernest Goodwin, worked on their hobby of wireless transmission. They were known as the “Owl Club” because the five would stay up all night to tinker and experiment with their hobby. Chapin carried out his first experiments with discarded dry cells saved for him by Professor Elmer A. Lyman, who was one of the few men in Ypsilanti to own an automobile at that time. Additional dry cells were provided by Ed Dolson, who operated a bicycle shop on Washington Street and also did automobile repair work. Chapin and Gilmore carried on the first wireless communication in Ypsilanti from their homes in 1906.

“Their feat was of great interest to Ypsilanti,” noted The Ypsilanti Daily Press of Saturday, October 13, 1934. “It was not long until their accomplishments advanced and communication was conducted with an amateur operator in Ann Arbor. The Augustus, Boatwright, and Goodwin boys became interested and, because wireless was in its experimental stage, the quintet were drawn together by a bond which attracted few others at that time.”

“Fascination with the work carried on by the Owl Club in the small Chapin garage attracted many Ypsilantians to the building at special occasions before radio became a household word. In 1924, election returns were received over the radio in the Chapin building and given to interested Ypsilanti voters, while on several other occasions it was filled with eager listeners. Wives of the men provided the spectators with lunches at times,” noted the account. In this small building behind the Chapin house, Ernest Goodwin built the transmitter that started radio station WJBK. The station began in 1924 above the Diamond Art jewelry store at 108 West Michigan Avenue, between Huron and Washington Streets. Goodwin received his first license to broadcast in 1925.

On November 11, 1928, Goodwin received permission from the radio commission to operate permanently with increased power and wavelength.

The first announcer for the station was Harold Augustus. At first, the station was only open for three hours, but Augustus was kept busy. “There were no disc jockeys at that time and all the entertainment on the station was live and donated. Putting a program together was somewhat ticklish because, being unpaid, the performers didn’t feel too obligated to show up at the proper time or, in some instances, to come at all. Then Augustus had to perform himself (off the cuff ), with impromptu commendations on whatever came to mind. He usually used the Ypsilanti Daily Press to provide a newscast,” reported The Ypsilanti Press on March 30, 1964.

“On one occasion the late James Hart, who was noted for the carrying power of his voice, stepped into the role of broadcaster and was to be introduced as a fisticuff artist, one Bo Montana,” noted the account. “’Bo!’ he bellowed, and then the magnificent presentation went ‘PFFT’!” “The announcer’s false teeth had flipped out.”

Kirk Knight began in 1928 a 47-year career in broadcasting at WJBK radio in Ypsilanti. It started with a game of tennis. He and a classmate at the Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan University, were playing singles, but their game was continually interrupted by the pair on the next court. Knight suggested they play doubles and got to talking to one of the other players, who was the chief engineer at WJBK. The man told Knight that an announcer at WJBK who had a stuttering problem, was not being paid and wanted some time off. He asked Knight if he would fill in for the announcer. Knight did, and was hired full-time when the announcer quit. “I remember we were on the top floor of the six-story Huron Hotel, Ypsilanti’s tallest building. We had 50 watts of power that carried us to the other side of Ann Arbor,” recalled Knight in 1973.

The broadcast tower was on the roof of the Huron Hotel, and sometimes became clogged during storms, and he and the engineer would flip a coin to see who would go up to the roof and rattle the tower to shake the ice off.

“There was a local bootlegger who liked Ted Lewis records,” recalled Knight. “Every time I played one, he sent a bottle of liquor to the studio, which I promptly hid. The records also were a cue to the bootleggers that he was home and open for business.”

Ernest Goodwin, who founded the station, was found dead in his garage at 803 Congress Street, on the morning of December 4, 1928. He had been at the station the night before when he assisted in the broadcasting of a program from the Normal College. Sometime after the broadcast he had gone home and set to work on his car in the garage. “Neighbors saw a light in the garage about 5 o’clock this morning but thought nothing of it as Mr. Goodwin was accustomed to work long hours during the night on his radio. However, attending physicians stated he had been dead but a short time when discovered, as the body was not rigid as it would have been had he been dead several hours. Mrs. Goodwin was too ill to be questioned as to whether he had been in the house during the night,” reported The Ypsilanti Daily Press of December 4, 1928.

The station was sold in 1930 to James Hopkins, who moved WJBK to Detroit. The surviving members of the Owl Club continued to tinker at their hobby in Howard Chapin’s garage for many years.

(James is a local historian who has authored a number of books on Ypsilanti history. He is a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)

Photo 1: Radio.

Photo 2: The site of Chapin’s garage at 17 N. Adams is now occupied by EMU’s College of Business.

Photo 3: Chapin and Gilmore carried on the first wireless communications in Ypsilanti from their homes in 1906.

Photo 4: 108 West Michigan was Ypsilanti’s narrowest store front, now a portion of the Ypsilanti Convention & Visitors’ Bureau.

Photo 5: Early radio announcers had to perform “off the cuff ” with impromptu conversation about whatever came to mind.

Photo 6: A radio announcer had to be a “Jack of all trades” and stayed on the air for hours at a time.

Photo 7: A cartoon by Herb Roth (1887-1953), popular satirist for the New York World in the 1920s jazz age.

Photo 8: There are still plenty of Antennae atop the former Huron Hotel.

Photo 9: A cartoon of the early radio period by F. G. Cooper, freelance designer and illustrator in New York City in 1904. Cooper also did spot drawings for the Life magazine editorial page which he dubbed “cartoonettes.”