Why do all radio and TV station call letters begin with W or K?
We would like to mention briefly that radio waves are indestructible. As we speak, a vast sphere of earthly radio broadcasts is expanding into outer space, the leading edge of the balloon now more than 70 light years away. Somewhere out there in the void, an alien civilization is picking up these signals, and the aliens are saying: We must travel to Earth, and we must kill the man who is screaming in those car commercials.
The W and the K are part of an international plot. In the early days of radio, the International Telecommunications Union assigned letters to every country with radio stations. The Soviet Union got R and U -- we assume for Russia and Union. Yugoslavia got YU. Italy got I. Mexico got X.
Now you probably want to know why America gets W and K. We wish that we could report that the letters stand for "weenies" and "knuckleheads." The letters, unfortunately, are an enigma. We also don't know why some Canadian stations start with VE. In fact, many countries seem to have arbitrary lettering. The W and the K "was probably just happenstance," says Elliot Sivowitch, a technology expert at the Museum of American History.
In any case, the Federal Communications Commission says that W must be used by stations east of the Mississippi, K must be used to the west. There are a few exceptions for really old stations that predate this 1933 rule, like KDKA in Pittsburgh, the oldest commercial station in the country (dating to 1920), and WHO in Des Moines. The FCC considered deregulating the station names a few years ago, but decided that would cause chaos. (Imagine what would happen if stations could use any combination of four letters -- the heavy metal stations would be fighting over SCUM, the adult contemporary stations would all want to be called BRIE, and so on.)
Now let's raise a second question that touches on radio history: Why didn't FM radio become popular until the 1960s?
That's a sordid tale. Since the 1930s, FM has had many advantages over AM. For highly technical reasons, a frequency-modulated (FM) broadcast has less static and noise than one that is amplitude-modulated (AM). Moreover, FM could easily be converted to stereo when stereo was first developed around 1958. Only recently has the technology become available for stereo AM broadcasts, and it hasn't become widespread, since most AM stations have given up on music broadcasts and don't need fancy sound for traffic reports and call-in shows hosted by disingenuously apoplectic loudmouths.
Edwin Howard Armstrong, a former World War I major, patented frequency-modulated radio in 1933, but the radio industry, including the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), harassed him with endless lawsuits. There were many reasons for RCA's concerns, but one was that they had invested a lot of money in AM. (AM had one major technical advantage, also: The signal travels farther than an FM signal, an essential virtue in a largely rural country.) The Federal Communications Commission also didn't help Armstrong any, initially limiting FM to a narrow range of wavelengths and also restricting the wattage of FM stations. And Detroit continued to make cars with only AM radios. Armstrong never lived to see FM take over the radio market -- in 1954, he jumped from the window of his Park Avenue apartment. Why are primitive people so peaceful and "civilized" people so warlike?
During the 1980s we were worried about things like colorized movies, censorship, junk bonds, the Dow, those stupid potato chips that come in a cylindrical tube, and -- a personal obsession -- the fact that adult pajamas don't cover your feet the way little kids' jammies do.
Now, in the Nineties, we're worried about War. We want to know: When will humankind evolve beyond war? How long will this folly last? And when Bob Dylan said the answer was blowin' in the wind, wasn't that kind of, you know, evasive?
Let's talk about "human nature." The very phrase is controversial: Until just recently, the orthodoxy among academics was that we are products of our culture, not our genes. Supposedly our bad war habits are not a function of innate belligerence and aggression but rather a learned disorder, a bad habit, like using the tablecloth for a bib at fancy restaurants. Bad habits can be broken. Perhaps our psychopathology was caused by patriarchy, or monopoly capitalism, or religious repression, or some other structure that in the future would be wiped out. (Tenure-for-life presumably would be retained.)
Underlying this orthodoxy is a kind of utopianism that sees human beings as inherently wonderful, merely corrupted by an evil civilization. This ideology has given us the concept of the Noble Savage, and has been promoted by such great thinkers as Montaigne and Rousseau (you know how intellectual the French are) and, more credibly, by anthropologists working in the field.
Margaret Mead's classic work "Coming of Age in Samoa," published in 1928, argued that the Samoans were not aggressive or competitive, that sexual freedom was widespread and adolescence a joyous time rather than a painful one. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu -- along with Mead, one of the giants in the biz -- said that the !Kung people of southern Africa didn't punish their children. "No human being has ever been born with aggressive or hostile impulses," he said.
This is baloney. As Melvin Konner reports in his book "Why the Reckless Survive" (we'll say it again: "Why" is the hot word of the Nineties), subsequent studies of the Samoans and the !Kung people reveal that they are not much different from people everywhere. Rape is a closely guarded secret among these people, and is typically committed by adolescent males, just as in other societies. Homicide also occurs and, in fact, the murder rate among the !Kung was higher than that in the United States.
The reason the earlier researchers didn't realize this is that these are small populations: Among 1,500 !Kung there had been 22 killings over five decades, about one every two years, but this still translates into a higher homicide rate than New York City. (A question to be addressed in a later column: Why is the deep-in-the-throat clicking sound common to some aboriginal languages represented in English by an exclamation point, instead of, say, the "pound" sign? And, can we use this punctuation when we name our children? As in "!Elmer"?)
Konner concludes that anthropology is a kind of "philosophy with data," and can't escape being biased toward an idyllic view of how people ought to live. "So it is not surprising that it has also not escaped one of the major Western philosophic errors ... the myth of Eden and the fall from grace," he writes.
So the good news is this: We're not degenerating into savagery. We've always been that way.