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Exhibit showcases history of radio station WGY

The City of Schenectady, home of General Electric, was once a nursery for broadcasting. One of the nation’s first commercial radio stations began broadcasting 100 years ago. A new exhibit at the Museum of Innovation and Science is celebrating the history of WGY.

WGY was created by GE in 1922 and still operates today under different ownership as a news/talk station. The station’s history is currently on display at miSci in a photo exhibit called WGY: Radio's Laboratory Celebrates Its Centennial.

Chris Hunter, the museum’s Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions, took me on a tour of the exhibit located in a new gallery inside the museum.

“So, it was about 10th commercial station licensed in 1922. And because it was formed by GE’s publicity department, and not so much the engineers that formed a lot of the other early radio stations, they really placed a premium on entertainment and, kind of, the development of broadcasting.”

The exhibit contains 50 photos, from the earliest days of the station until 1980. There are photos of staff performing radio dramas, celebrities including Amelia Earhart and Harry Houdini, and then-Governor of New York Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“So this one of Roosevelt’s early fireside chats. They became really famous once he became president and he gave these personal talks every weekend, kind of comforting people through the Great Depression and World War II, but he kind of perfected the format while New York State Governor here on WGY.”

WGY was the first affiliate of NBC, and during the Second World War, provided news to the nation.

Included in the exhibit are some archival broadcasts. This clip is from a 1952 anniversary event, containing the voice of another would-be president.

[Archive sound of Calvin Coolidge]

“Oh yeah, the punchline behind the Coolidge recording is that his voice was very nasal and he heard it the first time and was like, ‘I don’t sound like that, I sound horrible.’ And his wife was said, ‘No, that’s exactly how you sound’” said Hunter.

The radio dial was not as crowded in WGY’s early days as it is today. Hunter explains WGY’s signal could be heard across New York and into neighboring states.

“Because it became a showpiece for GE to show its new transmitting equipment, it gained an outsized influence.”

Hunter said that GE’s experimenting with a 100,000 and 200,000-watt transmitter in the ‘30s brought WGY all the way to San Francisco.

Hunter says in the early years, commercial radio stations served in a similar purpose to public access television today. WGY was a community station.

“Each station basically did everything. WGY would have a classical music program, they’d have swing music, they’d have country music, they’d have a women’s program, they’d have church programs. And it was all rolled up into one station.”

He’s archival sound from a basketball game in 1929…

(Archival sound of basketball game)

The exhibit WGY: Radio's Laboratory Celebrates Its Centennial is on view at miSci in Schenectady until May 8th.

Note: Photos and archival sound provided to WAMC by miSci

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.