Radio technology pioneer Franklin Doolittle created a Hartford-area radio station and developed audio technology that has become commonplace.

Innovative Endeavors in Radio Development

WDRC Founder Franklin Doolittle (right) demonstrates his binaural stethoscope to chief engineer Harry Broderick. (Photo courtesy WDRCOBG.com)

WDRC Founder Franklin Doolittle (right) demonstrates his binaural
stethoscope to chief engineer Harry Broderick. (Photo courtesy WDRCOBG.com)

Doolittle was born on June 16, 1893 in New Haven, where Lee DeForest (“the father of modern radio”) set up a wireless transmitter in 1905. When he was 12 years old, The New York Herald noted that Doolittle was one who had intense interest and experience in experimenting with radio technology.

In the early 1910s Doolittle worked as a radio operator on ships during school vacations until his graduation from Yale in 1915. He received a degree in electrical engineering from their Sheffield Scientific School, where he would teach from 1919 – 1925.

In 1919, he started the Franklin M. Doolittle Company (later Doolittle Radio Corporation), which manufactured radio receivers in New Haven. Doolittle was awarded a license in 1920 for his amateur radio station 1GAI. From 167 Willard Street, New Haven, he could broadcast with 1 kw of power over 200 meters. With this radio station, he broadcasted the Yale vs. Princeton football game on November 21, 1921—a little more than a year after the first commercial radio broadcast of KDKA of Pittsburgh.

On December 10, 1922, Doolittle began broadcasting Connecticut’s first commercial radio station, WPAJ, above his shop on Crown Street in New Haven. At the time, radio licenses were only good for three months, so Doolittle Radio Company reapplied every three months until August 1924 when the Federal Radio Commission began a three-month period where companies could apply for nonrenewable authorization.

With this new freedom, Doolittle began to experiment with two-channel broadcasting, enabling the station to be broadcast over two different bandwidths. This technique, known as binaural recording, is the forerunner to stereo broadcasting.

The idea was that there were two microphones at transmission, with one microphone broadcasting to one radio and the other to another radio. The multi-directional sound was meant to give listeners a clearer impression of the speaker’s voice, something taken for granted by listeners today with the use of stereo recording and broadcasting in which, often times, a singular input is reproduced over several speakers to create the “surround sound” feel.

Doolittle obtained several patents over the years as he fine-tuned the process, with his original 1921 patent application being sold to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). However, the cost of owning two radios made the experience too expensive for the average listener, and the commercial use of binaural recording was abandoned.

Establishing A Mainstay While Changing the Game

In 1925, WPAJ’s call letters were changed to WDRC to reflect the name Doolittle Radio Corporation, and in 1926 the corporation ceased the sale and production of radio equipment. In late 1930, WDRC moved from its location in New Haven to Hartford as it joined the CBS Radio Network, reportedly moving as CBS wanted a station to fill the gap between New York and Springfield.

By the late 1930s, radio technology was changing again. In 1936, Doolittle began to operate W1XSL, an experimental high-frequency AM station. That same year, the studios were moved to the top of 750 Main Street in Hartford, on the corner of Main Street and Central Row.

In January 1939, Columbia professor Edwin Armstrong completed his invention of frequency-modulated radio, and the day after it was announced Doolittle conducted tests of the new technology using W1XPW (which was renamed from W1XSL).

On May 13, 1939 W1XPW became the first commercial FM station in America. It soon began simulcasting WDRC-AM, and by September 1940 it was broadcasting a regular 12-hour programming schedule that was separate from WDRC, transmitting from Meriden Mountain in Meriden, CT.

Between 1939 and 1941, Doolittle had W1XPW included in groundbreaking relay test broadcasts, some of which ranged as far as Alpine, NJ to Mount Washington, NH. As the 1940s began, Doolittle’s stations grew in audience numbers, advertising, and programming—including the first FM commercial program. By 1943, the FM station was also signed WDRC.

Doolittle continued to own the stations—and even tried dabbling in early television— until 1959, when his corporation sold the stations to the Buckley-Jaeger Broadcasting Company. Upon its acquisition, WDRC-FM was moved to its current signal at 102.9 MHz and the CBS affiliation ended a year later.

Dick Robinson: Leveraging Hartford’s Leadership

In the 1960s, from its new studios on Blue Hills Avenue in Bloomfield, WDRC-FM was a trailblazer in pop music under the leadership of program director Charlie Parker and music director Bertha Porter. The decade saw them in a fierce competition with Newington-based WPOP, as the two stations were on the cutting edge of entertainment with the British Invasion coming to America. WDRC gained an edge with the arrival of Dick Robinson in 1964.

Dick Robinson at WDRC. (Photo courtesy WDRCOBG.com)

Dick Robinson at WDRC. (Photo courtesy WDRCOBG.com)

Robinson’s weeknight show Dick Robinson Company (DRC) was immensely popular among teenage audiences that wanted the best music and a DJ that they could connect with. His show was filled with jokes from popular TV shows and was built upon telephone interaction with listeners.

On his show, Robinson interviewed artists such as the Rolling Stones, created novelty singles, and ran pop charts that could be found in record stores. Off the air, he built his audience by hosting numerous “record hops” in the area, usually starting them not long before he would slip out to host his on-air show.

Robinson went on to become a legend in the radio industry. Within a year of his arrival in Hartford, he founded the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. For the last 50 years, it has been regarded as the industry standard training school for aspiring radio personalities and technicians, including training in television and media production. Growing to now 12 campuses across the Eastern Seaboard, its alumni includes Rush Limbaugh and Artie Lange.

As the broadcasting school continued to grow, Robinson’s on-air time decreased, but he also became more involved in station management. In the late 1960s, WDRC gained several popular DJs from WPOP and continued to be a pop powerhouse in the Hartford market. It continued spinning pop records through the 1970s before spending the last few decades as an “oldies” station continuing to play the same great hits, and the AM station moving to talk radio.

Buckley-Jaeger owned the stations until 2014, when they were sold to Connoisseur Media, LLC, which now operates the FM station as 102.9 THE WHALE and the AM station as The Talk of Connecticut.

Legacy of Innovation

All this we owe to Frank Doolittle, whose visionary innovation for improving radio helped it to become a pillar of American entertainment. Doolittle died in New Haven in 1985.

Sources

  • Hartford Courant, Connecticut School of Broadcasting
  • WDRCOBG.com, The Talk of Connecticut
  • Wikipedia (binaural recording, stereophonic sound, Connecticut School of Broadcasting)