The Why (and Where) of U.S. Radio's K and W Call Signs

The strange birth of America's two 'radio nations'

The natural state of any territory, it seems, is binary. The centre cannot hold. So it splits in two. France is Paris and la province. Russia is European and Asian. Belgium is Francophone and Dutch-speaking. In Italy, the North is distinct from and even opposed to the South. So too in England [1], while in Scotland it is the Highlands versus the Lowlands. America, for its part, can be described as a pincer-like dichotomy: a bi-coastal entity separated by the flyover states [2].

Of course, some cookies can crumble in more than one way. Not only is Germany still digesting its decades-long divide into capitalist West and communist East, but is also splits into gastronomically distinct northern and southern halves, along the so-called White Sausage Equator [3]. China is an industrious coastal zone with a western interior in catch-up mode. But it also speaks Mandarin in the North, and Cantonese in the South. 

The U.S. can be split in (at least) three different ways into dual geographies. There's that bi-coastal pincer movement, as per above. There's the historical division into North and South. Finally, there's the distinction of 'Back East' versus 'Out West'. An informal dividing line between the latter pair is the Mississippi, a waterway also used to demarcate the border of 10 states [4]

The river as whole also serves as a single divider, surprisingly enough in the realm of radio - a medium that, on the face of it, is not as bound by the strictures of territorial demarcation. West of the Mississippi, all radio stations have call signs beginning with K. East of the river, all call signs start with W [5]

The origin of the division goes back just over a century. In 1912, the U.S. federal government started licensing terrestrial radio stations, assigning the call letters W and K to stations in the east, respectively the west of the country. Those letters were the result of international agreements hammered out at International Radiotelegraphic Conferences at the beginning of the 20th century.  

Appendix 42 to the Radio Regulations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) [6] still lists all international call signs, as assigned at the 1912 London conference. For instance: 

  • Luxembourg radio stations will have call signs from LXA up to and including LXZ.
  • Egyptian radio has three different ranges of call signs at its disposal: 6AA to 6BZ, SSA to SSM, and SUA to SUZ. 
  • The U.S. has four: not just K and W (KAA to KZZ and WAA to WZZ, to be precise) but also half of A (AAA to ALZ) and all of N (NAA to NZZ).

It seems that the letters A and N apply only to military radio stations (A to Army and Air Force, N to Navy and Coast Guard) - and that they are the basis of the otherwise seemingly random choice for K and W.  The Morse Code for A is dot-dash (.-) and for N is dash-dot (-.). Add a dash to each, and you get W (dot-dash-dash, or .--) and K (dash-dot-dash, or -.-).

Incidentally, radio call signs are reversed out on the ocean. Ship radios on America's Pacific coast start with W, and with K on the Atlantic side [7]. It's unclear whether this practise, which precedes call signs for terrestrial radio, is the reverse by intention (i.e. to facilitate the distinction between radio stations on land and at sea) or, as some sources state, the result of miscommunication. In the latter scenario, the aim was to extend W call signs to radio stations on land in the west of the country, and K to terrestrial stations in the east - but the instructions got scrambled somewhere between the draft of the order and its implementation.

Quite early, the border between K Country and W Land had to be fixed geographically. But that dividing line lay further to the west than it does now: it followed the border between New Mexico in the west with Texas and Oklahoma in the east, then north along Colorado's eastern border with Kansas and Nebraska, Wyoming's eastern limits with Nebraska and South Dakota and finally Montana's with the Dakotas.

This was possibly done to continue distinguishing between ship radios in the Gulf of Mexico (which started with K) and land radios in Texas (which started with W when it was an 'eastern' radio state).  A decade into the first federal regulation of station call signs, the K/W line was moved to the Mississippi, turning Texas and 10 other 'eastern' (W) states into 'western' (K) ones [8].

After January 1923, new radio stations in the switchover states would be assigned a K call initial rather than a W one. But a grandfather clause provided that those radio stations in those states which already had a W call sign could keep it. This explains some of the anomalous call signs still in existence today, if not quite all of them.  There are currently 27 exceptions to the general K/W divide - 9 Ks in W Country, and 18 Ws in K Land. This map shows them all, and colour-codes [9] them into seven categories:

1. Blue: Remnants of the situation before January 1923 in the switchover zone. A grandfather clause allowed the circa 170 existing radio stations in the switchover zone to keep their pre-1923 W call sign. A total of 11 call sign 'fossils' remain: WBAP, WDAY, WEW, WHB, WJAG, WKY, WNAX, WOAI, WOC, WOI, WTAW. However, all newer stations were assigned K call signs.

2. Purple: Anomalous assignment, in 1920-'21, of KD call sign to stations across the country - both east and west of the Mississippi. Only remaining station: KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA.

3. Gray: Formerly 'portable' stations that got their call sign in one zone before taking root in the other one. Three extant examples, all having moved from W Country into K Land: WBBZ, WIBW, WMBH.

4. Dark Green: Regular radio stations that originated on the western (K) bank of the Mississippi before moving over to the eastern (W) bank: KOTC, KSGM.

5. Red: Exceptional grant of a request to deviate from the general rule. Two Ks in W Land (KFNS, KWAM) and four Ws in K Country (WDBQ, WHO, WMT, WSUI).

6. Light Green: government assigned call - KTGG (because someone mistook Michigan for Missouri).

7. Black: reason unknown - KFIZ, KQV, KYW.

Note that Louisiana and Minnesota are marked separately on the map: they are the only states bisected by the Mississippi, and call sign practice varies greatly as a result.

As noted by Thomas H. White, "[i]n 1987, the Federal Communications Commission noted that the current staff practice was to define the remainder of the [K/W] boundary [in Minnesota north of the Mississippi's source] as "a line from [its] headwaters to a point [at the Canadian border] just east of International Falls".


The general K/W map taken here from Media Heritage, a website 'Preserving Radio and Television History'. The map of the border switch to the Mississippi taken here from Grilling Addiction, '[y]our source for grilling tips, tricks, techniques and recipes all year round'. The overview of anomalous call signs taken here from Mr. White's United States Early Radio History, 'Articles and extracts about early radio and related technologies, concentrating on the United States in the period from 1897 to 1927'.

Strange Maps #602

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[1] See #193

[2] In the parlance of 2004, the United States of Canada vs. Jesusland (see #3). 

[3] It sounds juicier in German: Weisswurstäquator. See #569

[4] Neatly divided into 5 states east, and 5 states west of the river (respectively, north to south: Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi; and Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana). 

[5] This narrows down the location of Springfield, hometown of the Simpsons. Several episodes feature radio station K-Babble, call sign KBBL - placing the intentionally hard-to-pin-down city west of the Mississippi. 

[6] For an overview of all call signs, see this page on the ITU website

[7] On the Great Lakes, it's W. 

[8] Nine states entirely (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas), and the larger area of two states bisected by the Mississippi (Minnesota at its source, Louisiana at its mouth). 

[9] As used by Thomas H. White in his excellent, exhaustive overview of United States Early Radio History

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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