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Crazy Call Letters and Their Odd Attachments

January 26, 2023

As kids growing up in downstate Illinois, we listened to WLS. Frankly, that Top 40 AM radio station was the only one we could get during the day (yes, I’m that old) with the music we were interested in listening to – as in, sorry, not country. But I only found out this year why the call letters for WLS were W-L-S. Originally owned by Sears, the call was to mark Sears as the “World’s Largest Store.” And then I got curious…

Many station call letters were chosen at a time when all ratings were done in diaries, our resident expert Steve Allan tells me. That methodology requires recall, so the more memorable the calls, the more likely someone would be to write them down in the diary. That doesn’t matter in PPM markets anymore. Most stations now only use their calls in the mandatory legal ID at or near the top of every hour. We know them by their slogans.

Back in diary days, these symbols were a commodity, Steve added. To suit your purpose, you could buy the desired call letters from another radio station and hitch your wagon to them. So often the calls were based on the station’s brand. For example, in a case like WDRV, they changed ‘the station formerly known as WNIB’ to “The Drive” and then hunted around to find the calls to match.

Though many stations still find the call letters useful in supporting their brand, the switch to PPM leaving the calls as vestigial remnants of a bygone era seems to have created some – shall we say – odd and unusual juxtapositions of calls and formats that I, at least, find amusing.

When I see KILT, I am expecting bagpipes, not country tunes. WPAT isn’t Celtic, it’s Spanish contemporary, as is KLOL, which I had hoped would be a comedy station. KJZZ is news/talk, not jazz – really?! No polkas from WOJO (remember Barney Miller?) but regional Mexican is its fare. Are WINS or WWIN sports stations? Nope. News and urban AC, respectively.

Then there are the stations that seem to have perfect call letters for their format. KMVP, KFAN and KTCK-A (TiCKet) are all sports stations, naturally. WAXQ is classic rock, harkening back to when LPs or “vinyl” used to be called “wax.” Public Radio stations are WHYY (cuz … why not?), WLRN, and WISE. But news/talk format answers important questions – WHO-AM (‘who am’ I?), KHOW-AM (‘how am’ u …uh, it doesn’t always fit) – and helps us to stay in the KNOW. But WHAT-AM is Spanish tropical format and WHEN-AM is urban AC. Side note: There once was a WHER in Memphis, but it’s more of a W-HER than a “where.” In 1955, it was an experiment in all-women’s programming by Sam Phillips of Sun Records, lasting until 1973. See? Maybe you WLeaRNed something there (hee hee).

And there seems to be a lot of kissing. WKIS, WKSC, KIIS, KHKS, and, yes, KISS all use “kiss” in their slogans. What a loving bunch radio people are!

Geography naturally plays a big part in call letters. It wouldn’t be hard to guess where these stations are located: WNYC, WLAX, WWDC, WBOS, WDET. And then there are the dozens, if not scores, of stations named after towns, universities, and even school team names. LA’s KOST could be because the city is on the coast, but it also might refer to the cost of living there. You can probably figure out where WASH is, but the politics in that district could use a WASH!

“Cute” is what I would call some call letters. WTOP, KBOO, WPOW are darling. KING is a station known as Classical KING. That rules! KRNB plays – you don’t even have to guess – R&B, of course.

But I still am searching for polka. Oddly enough, in the Chicago market where WOJO resides, is WVIV. It’s Spanish contemporary format now, but in 1960, it was WAJP (the initials of owner Alfred J. Pohlers – using initials of the owner’s name happened a LOT!) and it did have POLKA!

If you are sick of these puns, you probably want me to KOGO – ’K! Oh! Go! … Get it?

-Eileen Dust, QC Specialist (with considerable thanks to Steve Allan)