“The inside story on how Gainesville’s WGGG challenged University of Florida’s WRUF”
University of Florida’s WRUF received its first local competition when WGGG-AM signed on February 1, 1948, in Gainesville. R. M. “Dolph” Chamberlin owned WGGG, known officially as “Watch Greater Gainesville Grow,” but known among the boys working at the station as “Where Good Girls Grow.” One of those boys, Windsor Bissell, helped build the station brick-by-brick while a psych/social studies student at the University of Florida.
According to Bissell, Chamberlin worked at Southern Bell prior to going into the service, where “he saved up $25,000 to build a radio station, and by God, he did it.” Bissell’s landlady in Gainesville, Thelma Bolton, noted Bissell’s interest in records and music and hooked him up with Chamberlin with the idea that he might become the station’s record librarian. Bissell worked at WGGG the rest of his college days—three or four very lean years. “They just managed to go from election to election,” he said. “That’s where they made their money. They used to fleece the politicians. There was no limit on how much you could charge them, so Dolph would make tons of money then. But [other than politicians] he wasn’t getting any advertising. WRUF had it all. So we’d go downhill, go weeks without anything.” Without a network affiliation, WGGG used to “steal programs from WRUF. If they had the president speaking, for instance, Dolph would take it right off [the air]. ‘Just don’t let them identify themselves,’ he’d say. We’d say on the air, ‘Now, here’s the president of the United States,’ and stick the microphone up against the radio!
“[Dolph] did all sorts of tricky things,” Bissell recalled. “He was going to try to run cables under the road and tie into the railroad tracks that went into Jacksonville,” thinking that “the tracks would carry our little signal into Jacksonville if it was grounded to the railroad tracks. Because of his Southern Bell knowledge, when we needed a line if we did a remote or football game across town, Dolph would get into that manhole. He wasn’t going to be paying Southern Bell or anybody. This guy knew how to do it!”
After Bissell graduated, he put his psych/social degree to work at the welfare department in Gainesville. One Saturday at a Florida Gators football game he bumped into Jim Sharp, a former WRUF learn-earn student who was working at WMBR Channel 4 in Jacksonville. “He said you ought to come over—they need a photographer. So I did—but they didn’t want a photographer, they wanted a cameraman. That appealed to me even more, because I wasn’t much of a photographer. A guy named Bill Terry was running the production part of the station at the time. I remember what he said: ‘Do you know what the minimum wage is?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s seventy-five cents an hour.’ ‘We’ll go along with that,’ he said. So I said, ‘I’m not sure if I can live over here on seventy-five cents an hour.’ ‘All right,’ he said, ‘we’ll make it a dollar an hour, we really can’t do more than that because wages are frozen.’ So that’s how I came to Channel 4, as a cameraman.”
Bissell would become a legendary producer, director, and a trailblazer in early broadcast television at WMBR, which would later become Jacksonville’s top-rated WJXT.
How WTVJ’s Dick Lobo got his start in broadcasting, and ‘ambushed’ Castro for an exclusive interview
Florida native Dick Lobo’s interest in broadcasting began as a child in Tampa, the grandson of Cuban immigrants who came to the United States to work in Ybor City’s cigar factories.
As he explained in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, “I was an only child without siblings to play with after dinner, and we didn’t have a great deal of money, so my entertainment was our radio. I fell in love with the medium–it transported me away from some of the hard times we were experiencing. I could escape.”
While in high school he got is first bicycle “and permission to ride it downtown . . . I used to hang around radio stations–WDAE was one of them, WFLA was another. There were some nice people there who saw I was interested.” As broadcasters generally did, they encouraged Lobo, asking him to help by putting away ETs (electrical transcriptions, the predecessor to records) and pulling wire copy from news services. “I’d roll up long rolls . . . and take them home. Sometimes in the privacy of my room, using a hairbrush as a microphone, I would read wire copy as if I were an announcer reading a newscast. I really loved doing that. Not only did I love the medium, I loved the news part of it.”
Lobo’s interest in news continued at University of Miami where, through its strong relationships with the fledgling television industry, he had opportunities to train at several local stations. “My professor was Ralph Renick. He was iconic in Florida.” That relationship led to a part-time job as a reporter/photographer for WTVJ Channel 4.
After graduation and a stint in the army, Lobo returned to Miami and joined WCKT Channel 7 as a photographer. While there he was sent to Cuba, right after the revolution, where the bold young journalist, fluent in Spanish, got an exclusive interview with the new Cuban president, Fidel Castro. “I ambushed him coming out of a meeting outside Havana. It aired on the Today show and Huntley-Brinkley.” The interview and the rest of WCKT’s coverage earned the station a Peabody Award.
That was just the beginning of Lobo’s broadcasting career, which included his leadership over a sea change in local television that would reshape the network-affiliate relationship and change much of the business of broadcasting forever.
Read more about Dick Lobo’s broadcasting career and many others in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, available now at by clicking here.
1922: Radio Comes to Florida
Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami were in a race to be the first city in Florida with a radio station. On May 17, 1922, Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union reported on what it thought would be the first licensed broadcast. Breathlessly, and with little punctuation, the newspaper announced:
PROGRAM WILL BE BROADCAST TONIGHT BY WCAN STATION ESTABLISHED BY SOUTHEASTERN RADIOTELEPHONE COMPANY
“Listen In” Tonight at 7:45 o’clock
There Will Be Talk and Music
Radio Parties Will Be Popular
The first official broadcasting program announced from a Florida station will be given tonight at 7:45 o’clock by WCAN, the station established at the Atlantic National Bank building by the Southeastern Radiotelephone Company.
For a couple of nights the “radio citizens” have been listening in and have enjoyed the impromptu music programs and last night heard one of the representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention in a short talk express its appreciation of the hardy welcome accorded the visitors by the city of Jacksonville, and announcing the date of the opening of the convention. Today at 12:20 o’clock the weather report will be broadcast.
The concert and general program will begin tonight at 7:45 o’clock. W. E. Arnold is in charge of the program and will have several delightful features. In future the programs which will be broadcast will be published in the morning paper prior to the event except as there are added attractions.
While there is a broadcasting station being erected in Tampa and it is understood that there is another one being constructed in the state it is believed this is the station which will have the honor of sending out the first program under the broadcasting regulations.
So “listen in” tonight at 7:45 o’clock, enjoy the program, because no matter how loud the static, you can get this concert in Jacksonville and many surrounding points, and only time will tell just how far these concerts can be heard during the summer season.
Jacksonville’s quest to be first was not to be. It was beaten by two days when WDAE-AM in Tampa, owned by the Tampa Daily Times, won the title of “first licensed commercial broadcast station in Florida” (license DOC #379), commencing operation on May 15, 1922. Clouding the question of which station was the first in Florida was the fact that at least three were on the air before they were officially licensed. In the free-for-all atmosphere of the day, stations went on and off the air testing, tweaking, and tuning—sometimes with three-month “provisional” licenses, but often unlicensed and generally undisciplined.
WQAM-AM in Miami claimed to be Florida’s first radio station, despite the fact that its original license is dated January 23, 1923, eight months after WDAE began licensed operations. A promotional brochure published in 1941 entitled The Voice of Tropical America—WQAM, said that the Electrical Equipment Company, the station’s founder, experimented with an amateur station starting in 1921, “broadcasting weather and news as a goodwill gesture” of the company. Then “the company constructed a real broadcast station, WFAW—the future WQAM—operating on 50-watts power.” It’s unknown if this incarnation was actually licensed.
(The National Radio Club, in its publication All Known US Radio Stations 1920–1930, lists WFAW as signing on June 16, 1922, under the ownership of the Miami Daily Metropolis, which later became the Miami News. It’s possible that station was first constructed as experimental by Electrical Equipment and later taken over by the Metropolis.)
Regardless of the confusion and other claims, the FCC confirmed WDAE’s place in Florida broadcasting history in a letter on its fiftieth anniversary to Robert W. Rounsaville, its owner at the time:
August 11, 1971
Dear Mr. Rounsaville:
The years 1971–72 mark the fiftieth anniversary of operation for a few of the more than 6600 radio broadcast stations now licensed and operating in the United States of America. A research of the records of broadcast stations licensed in the early 1920’s by the Department of Commerce has revealed the fact that Radio Station WDAE was first licensed on May 15, 1922 and was the first radio station to begin operations in the State of Florida as a broadcast station.
The records disclose the fact that the first license was granted on May 15, 1922 to the Tampa Daily Times, located at Tampa and Locke Streets, Tampa, Florida, with 500 watts power using the call letters WDAE.
The records disclose that the station has been in continuous service, with the same call letters since May 15, 1922. You are to be congratulated for being the operator of one of the oldest operating stations in the country and the oldest in the State of Florida. A copy of that first license is enclosed.
Happy Fiftieth Anniversary.
Quentin S. Proctor
Chief, License Division
WDAE’s path to historic distinction had more than a few twists and turns. In a book commissioned by Rounsaville in commemoration of the station’s fiftieth anniversary, L. Spencer Mitchell, who served as the station’s general manager for thirty-three years, told the beginning of the story: “World War I had left quite a few Naval and Coast Guard installations of radio in Florida. This equipment was very crude and was used mostly for radio telegraph communications, but many fine and sincere young men, working in these stations, were interested in the new art and hoped to make it a peace time occupation.” One of these young men was Harold McClung, who had been attached to the naval radio station in St. Petersburg. He acquired the necessary equipment to build a radio station but needed a sponsor to make it happen. Mitchell said McClung first approached the University of Florida, but at the time they weren’t interested.
Mitchell’s story digresses a little from Tampa Bay historian Mary Rae Thompson. According to her, McClung first approached Charles G. Mullen, general manager of the Tampa Daily Times, “but it was all so ephemeral, Mr. Mullen was just not interested.” Then McClung approached the University of Florida, which was extremely interested but had to find the money. While Florida pondered, “Mr. Mullen had a change of heart, sensing publicity advantages in the contraption, with the result that the Times purchased the transmitter.”u
Either way, the Times applied for and received a construction permit for WDAE on February 12, 1922, signed by Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce, the twelfth American newspaper to receive a radio broadcast license. Permit in hand, the Times hired W. R. McDonald and G. C. Warner, experienced radio operators, to get the station built and on the air. “A studio was rigged up in one of the rooms of the Citrus Exchange Building . . . and the broadcasting equipment on the roof, with the aerial wires strung around the cornice, here and there,” wrote Hampton Dunn in the commemorative book, WDAE Florida’s Pioneer Radio Station. “The first studio was a simple affair. A small room, with a microphone hanging from the wall. There’s all it was. In an adjoining room was the transmitting machinery, also simple.”
. . .
“On May 31st that year of 1922, the test periods for WDAE were over and the first regularly scheduled broadcasts were begun,” wrote Dunn. On the inaugural program, Tampa Mayor Charles H. Brown called radio “the wonder of the age that the human voice can be sent broadcast [sic] throughout the country.” The speakers included E. D. Lambright, postmaster and past president of the Tampa Rotary Club, who talked about the “Spirit of Rotary,” music teacher Homer Moore, children’s librarian Marian Pierce, and tenor Adam Weidenaur.
WDAE made more history the next week by being the first radio station in the United States to broadcast a complete church service. “The service from the historic First Methodist Church of Tampa was broadcast June 4, 1922,” wrote Dunn. “The Rev. William Frederick Dunkle, pastor of the church at the time, conducted the service, speaking on the subject, ‘Who Then Can Be Saved?’ The choir sang several hymns. Reports came in from listeners all over the country.”
Florida’s primary industry was agriculture, and WDAE, “As the official representative of the government in Florida . . . will send out all weather reports. This will acquaint the growers and truck raisers with any possible danger from freeze and cold cold [sic] spells, and inform them of dry spells, rains and all other weather features. Shippers also will be benefited as the territory covered by WDAE extends out into the gulf and ocean and storm warnings will be given to all mariners within a range of 1,000 miles when the static conditions permit.”
All the excitement, encouraged by promotion from WDAE’s newspaper owner, created strong demand for radio receivers. The Times sent a reporter to local radio stores to check on inventory. “‘Supplying them!’ said one dealer. ‘Man I am only trying to supply them, and not getting very far at that. I could sell 200 sets today if I had them. There were 16 people in here in the last two hours, all of whom would have spent a couple of hundred dollars to get almost any kind of an outfit. We are getting in a few sets and they are all spoken for weeks in advance.’”
The Times spoke eloquently about the societal effects of the new medium. “As the good roads and the automobile supplanted the old horse and carriage and made towns and villages suburbs of cities a hundred miles away, like the phonograph which placed the singer and the actor in the household for the evening’s entertainment, so does the radio-telephone place all sections of the country in the position of next door neighbors.”
Table of Contents
- “A voice in the wilderness”
- The Origins of Broadcasting
- 1922: Radio Comes to Florida
- “And to think it all began in the middle of a cow pasture”
- The Great Depression and the 1930s
- The War Years, 1940–1945
- Television Comes to Florida
- “We’ve got a barn, we could have a show!”
- The Weathermen
- Channel 10 in Miami—Bribes, Booze, and Bloodshed
- When Radio Was “FUN, FUN, FUN”
- “Can’t you just shoot the touchdowns?”
- Cuban Radio in Miami
- The Saga of Orlando’s Channel 9—The Longest-Running License Battle in FCC History
- The Eighties
- The Big Switch
- The Nineties
- The Twenty-first Century
- Florida Broadcasting’s Next 100 Years