‘Go back with me to a year when most of us weren’t yet even born. There was essentially no TV ---- especially in the South. Only a handful of FM stations graced the “old” FM band (42 to 50 megacycles). While there were short wave broadcast stations --- mostly propaganda from overseas and a few efforts by the big U.S. radio networks to share entertainment programs with other countries in the Americas, broadcasting in the U.S. meant the “Standard Broadcast Band” or AM radio as we refer to it today. Radio was largely dominated by the major networks, their big clear channel affiliates (many of which were owned by the networks themselves), and their smaller regional and in some cases local affiliates. Entertainment largely meant going to the movies, listening to 78 RPM records, reading a book, or ---- the biggest pastime ---- listening to Radio!

The year was 1941. War was raging in Europe and Asia, and while the U.S. was supporting our soon to become Allies in arms, we were still officially neutral. Preliminaries had started in 1937 for something generally known as “The Havana Radio Conference.” Its main work was centered on the AM broadcast band, which in those days stretched only from 550 kilocycles to 1500 kilocycles. (Kilocycles per second were officially renamed kiloHertz in 1960 in honor of radio founder Heinrich Hertz; however, the term was not widely used until the 1970’s.) Super-powered stations along the Mexican border with the United States had become a problem for the industry at large hawking such dubious products as goat gland pills and prayer cloths. Other stations in North America were interfering with each other. There was a need to have better frequency coordination not only within a given country, but among all countries in North America. The international conference in Havana was called to reallocate frequencies in all of North America including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Newfoudland. (Yes, Newfoundland was a separate country until 1949 when it became a province of Canada.) The plan was to allocate radio frequencies equitably based on population and to set or confirm various technical standards such as allowable co-channel interference especially at night, Classes of stations, maximum power for each Class, and the like.

Here in the United States 795 of the 883 stations in operation or authorized were ordered to change channels all on the same day at the same hour ---- 3 AM (or whenever they signed on after that hour since almost no stations maintained 24 hour schedules back then) on March 28, 1941.

The band was expanded adding 540 kilocycles as a new Canadian clear channel.

Ten regular channels between 1500 to 1600 kilocycles were also officially added to the band. In 1934 the FCC had authorized experimental high fidelity AM stations on four double wide channels in this range occupied by “high fidelity” experimental AM stations, notable among them W2XR in New York at 1550, which in 1941 became all-classical WQXR. The conference ended this and made 1500-1600 into 10 regularly spaced channels.

Most of the large U.S. stations operating on “clear channels” did not change frequencies. The many stations using six local channels were all moved to 6 new local channels: 1230, 1240, 1340, 1450, and 1490, with almost all such stations operating with 250 watts day and night. Here’s what happened to the 15 stations then on the air in Tennessee. Note that a station may not still be operating today on the frequency to which it moved on March 28, 1941:

StationLocationOld FrequencyNew Frequency
WJHL (now WJCW)Johnson City880910
WNOX (now WNML)Knoxville1010990
WAPO (now WGOW)Chattanooga11201150
WDOD (now silent)Chattanooga12801310

Perhaps it wasn’t too great an inconvenience for listeners. There was no TV and essentially no FM to share the attention of broadcasting consumers, and radios were not digitally channelized as most are today. You simply turned the tuning knob gliding continuously and smoothly up and down the “dial,” and stations generally were moved no more that 40 kilocycles (4 channels up or down). It did, however, make big news in the various periodicals of the day including not only trade publications, but practically every daily newspaper in the nation as well. In addition to the “Standard Broadcast Band” and the short wave bands, the Havana Conference also dealt with the “ultra short wave frequencies.” In those days the terms “ultra short wave” frequencies and “ultra high frequencies” were considered anything above thirty megacycles. Later UHF was defined as frequencies from 300 megacycles to 3,000 megacycles with 30 to 300 megacycles defined as very high frequencies (VHF). FM, the new kid on the block, was confirmed in its band of 40 channels between 42 and 50 megacycles; however, in 1945 that was changed to 100 channels between 88 and 108 megacycles thereby making obsolete every FM broadcast receiver already in existence and forcing the pioneer FM stations still on the air to totally rework their transmission facilities. It was decided at the conference that television would have nineteen 6 megacycle wide channels between 30 and 300 megacycles. That later got trimmed to 13 and finally after World War II to 12 VHF channels. UHF TV channels ---- all above 400 megacycles ---weren’t authorized until 1952. Of course, this conference was held in a very different Cuba than we know today. It was two decades before the supposedly democratic government of the island nation ---- whose constitution was patterned after our own, but which in fact was far from democratic ---- was overthrown in the revolution led by Fidel Castro. In the 1940’s and 1950’s Cuba was a playground for American tourists. As the conference progressed, various commercial radio interests in the U.S. sent advisers to assist and hopefully guide the official conference representatives from our country. Broadcasting Magazine included some candid shots of these U.S broadcast executives lounging on the beaches of Havana, “the Pearl of the Antilles!” If only I could have been there!

George DeVault was a manager at and for almost 35 years President of Holston Valley Broadcasting Corporation in Kingsport, Tennessee, until his retirement in 2017. He is a Past President of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters and served two terms on the Board of the National Association of Broadcasters. Research assistance for this article was provided by former Knoxville television station owner, Lewis Cosby.