Classic Mornings

To The Nines!


It’s a big deal! And unaware that the date was approaching, I was just as surprised as you to learn that April 6 marked the 99th anniversary of WILL Radio.

I glanced at the history of the station at our website. And I was reminded that the original call letters were WRM, which stood for “We Reach Millions.” It made me wonder if I’d be saying that every hour along with the station ID if they had kept those letters.

We switched to WILL in 1928. Needless to say, I-L-L stands for Illinois. I have read that before the 1920s, station call letters (some including numbers) were randomly assigned. Beginning in the early 1920’s, stations east of the Mississippi could choose call letters beginning with a “W,” and stations west of the Mississippi with a “K.” There are some exceptions. But I’m guessing that our current call letters would have been different if we were located further west. 

I was curious to see if any station had our original call letters these days. There are two: one in France, where the letters stand for Web Radio Mandres, and another in Tanzania, where they stand for Word of Reconciliation Ministries.

I enjoy the story that’s told about our earliest days. We began broadcasting from the University of Illinois Electrical Engineering Laboratory. WRM had the only two vacuum tubes on campus — tubes so fragile they had to be cooled by an electric fan. And because they were so rare, they were borrowed during off-the-air hours by a University of Illinois professor — the Polish engineer Josef Tykociner — for his pioneer work with sound film.

I wasn’t familiar with Tykociner. I came upon some articles about him, one of them from 2016 by my WILL-AM colleague Jim Meadows. That led me to a short film demonstrating Tykociner’s work, which is archived online by the University of Illinois Library. The film was shown on June 9, 1922 and was billed as the first “talkie.” For an early attempt to make a film with a soundtrack, it still managed to capture the charming Polish accents of Tykociner and his wife Helena! The film also includes the ringing of bells and a short performance by a violinist from the University of Illinois School of Music, identified by the library archives as Manoah Leide.

Meanwhile, during the hours that WRM made use of the vacuum tubes, the first broadcasts were taking place. What’s also exciting is that we were the first university station to be granted a license — and only two years after the very first licenses were issued to commercial radio stations.

We’ve come a long way. WILL-FM arrived in 1941. That’s another celebration — an 80th anniversary! And to jump ahead to more recent history, listeners in central Illinois have continued to be so generous that they’ve enabled both AM and FM to continue to present mostly separate programming — WILL-FM with mostly classical music and WILL-AM with news and information.  

We celebrated the 99th last Tuesday, in the midst of our Spring Fund Drive, which was planned to coincide with the almost centennial. There aren’t a lot of famous “99s” in classical music. I played the minuet and finale of Haydn’s 99th symphony. There is no Mozart 99th sonata, concerto or symphony. In the Mozart catalog K. 99 is one of those serenades known as cassations and written by the 13-year-old Mozart.

There were some milestone celebrations on that day. The Romanian pan flute (pan pipes) player Gheorghe Zamfir turned 80, and French pianist Pascal Rogé turned 70. April 6 also marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky.

Just for fun, I looked up the English expression “to the nines” in anticipation of the program. It means “to perfection” or “to the highest degree” — though usually in describing the way someone is dressed. There’a a bit of speculation about its origin. Some mention a British 99th regiment. But others dismiss that since there are examples of the expression being used before the regiment existed.

I had to smile at the thought that as much as we strive for perfection, we regularly fall short. In those instances, there’s a bit of consolation in the expression: “that’s live radio,” which suggests that things may not always go as smoothly as planned. Listeners are understanding. They know we’re real people. And they like being in the company of real people, even via radio.

They’re generous too! Last week’s fund drive demonstrated that once again. 

And I’m grateful to be able to present classical music for listeners in central Illinois. Thanks to the more recent technological development of live streaming, we may indeed reach millions, as our original slogan boasted.

So, here’s to the nines – to the 99 years!  And thank you for your support!