Why Do Radio Stations Begin With 'K' or 'W'?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Radio might not be quite the media force it once was, but there are still thousands of stations around the country, and the call letters for almost every one of them begin with either "K" or "W."

Why? Because the government said so.

In the days of the telegraph, operators started the practice of using short letter sequences as identifiers, referring to them as call letters or call signs. Early radio operators continued the practice, but without a central authority assigning call letters, radio operators often chose letters already in use, leading to confusion.

To alleviate the problem, the Bureau of Navigation (part of the Department of Commerce) began assigning three-letter call signs to American ships in the early 1910s. Ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico got a K prefix; in the Pacific and the Great Lakes, a W. The precise reasons for choosing these two letters, if there were any, are unknown (bureaucracy works in mysterious ways). At the 1912 London International Radiotelegraphic Convention, ranges of letters were assigned to each of the participating nations and the U.S. was told to keep using the W and most of the K range. (Military stations used N.)

When the federal government began licensing commercial radio stations soon after, it had planned to assign call letters to the land-based stations in the same way. Somehow, things got flipped during implementation, though, and Eastern stations got W call signs and the Western ones got Ks. Where exactly does the Bureau of Navigation draw the line between East and West? For a while it ran north along state borders from the Texas-New Mexico border, but shifted in 1923 to follow the Mississippi River.

Some areas, however, might have both a K and W station in the same vicinity. Why? When the dividing line switched, some stations were made to change their call signs, while others weren't. For about a year in the 1920s, the Bureau of Navigation decided that all new stations were going to get a K call sign no matter where they were located. Still other exceptions were made by special request, station relocations, ownership changes, and even human error.

As for the rest of the call sign: That sometimes includes the station (ABC, NBC), but can also be an acronym. WGN stands for "World's Greatest Newspaper" (as it was considered the Chicago Tribune's radio station) while Chicago's WTTW is "Window to the World." But nothing beats St. Louis sports station KRAP, which gave itself the very self-aware label in 2014. “Our signal is KRAP,” reads their website. “Our studios are KRAP. Even our staff is KRAP.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

iStock
iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER