From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs… —Isaiah 24:16
A dot on the map midway between Waukegan and Kenosha, the lakeside Illinois town of Zion doesn’t make the news much these days, but throughout the first third of the 20th century it was nationally famous–“notorious” may be a better word. Zion’s celebrity peaked between 1923 and 1928, when the town was home to WCBD, one of the most popular radio stations in the pioneering age of American broadcasting.
Note, please, we’re not talking about the Golden Age of Radio here. Forget about Jack Benny, Walter Winchell, the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, and cornball soap opera dialogue punctuated by swelling organ chords. All that came later, in the 30s and 40s. The 20s were a separate era: call it the “bronze age of radio.” The medium was entirely new, without ratings, rules, or an FCC. Everything that went out on the air was an experiment of sorts.
Such were the open-ended circumstances that enabled little Zion, population 6,250, to capture one of the largest listening audiences of the day with homegrown programming that combined faith healing, classical music, sentimental Victorian parlor ballads, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching, and zealous advocacy of the notion that the earth is flat.
The seeds of Zion’s brief season as a mass media capital were sown at the time of the town’s creation. Incorporated in 1902, Zion was a prime example of what the neohippie set would term an “intentional community.” In the words of religious historian Grant Wacker, Zion was an experiment in social engineering “that ranks among the largest and most grandly conceived utopian communities in modern American history.” The architect of this brave new world was the Reverend John Alexander Dowie. A Scot who began his clerical career as a Congregationalist, Dowie left that body in 1878 to launch his own denomination, which, despite its purely Protestant nature, he dubbed the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCC for short). Doctrinally, this start-up faith was distinguished from the competition by Dowie’s ideas about “divine healing.” According to revelations given to Dowie by God, sickness and infirmity were manifestations of sin and inadequate faith. Consequently, he preached a radical rejection of all conventional medical treatment in favor of prayer and clean living. That meant no tobacco or booze, and strict adherence to the pork- and shellfish-free diet prescribed in Leviticus.
For a time Dowie plied the trade of an itinerant revivalist, spreading his take on the word of God throughout the English-speaking colonies of the Pacific Rim and building a sizable international following. In the late 1880s, however, mob violence precipitated by Dowie’s radical temperance agitations in Australia led to a short stretch in an Adelaide penitentiary. Upon his release in 1890, Dowie moved his base of operations to Evanston, a bone-dry bastion of the American temperance movement.
An intensely charismatic preacher, Dowie quickly accumulated a substantial midwestern following. In 1901 he persuaded 10,000 of his congregants to settle on 6,600 acres of unoccupied land he had mortgaged at the northernmost end of Sheridan Road. There Dowie proposed to build a prosperous theocratic utopia free of sin, vice, class antagonism, and poverty–a veritable anti-Chicago, in other words. The shining city by the lake was conceived as a hybrid of commune and company town. Settlers would be employed in various collectively owned light industries, which included a lace factory, candy factory, print shop, lumber mill, and bakery.
To keep this hive of industry on the straight and narrow path, Dowie forbade his followers to purchase property outright. Instead, the citizens of Zion leased their homes for a generous term of 1,100 years, their tenancy subject to swift termination should they attempt to exploit it for any immoral enterprise. Expressly forbidden by the terms of the lease were saloons, tobacco shops, opium joints, theaters, opera houses, gambling dens, dance halls, circuses, brothels, and “any place for the manufacture or sale of drugs or medicines of any kind, or the office of a practicing physician.”
A forward thinker on many questions, Dowie possessed a Jules Verne-like understanding of what the future of communications technologies held in store for evangelists like himself. In 1904, for example, 16 years before radio broadcasting began in earnest, he was already making uncanny prophecies about television. “I know not the possibilities of electricity,” Dowie instructed his flock in the course of a Sunday sermon preserved for posterity in the pages of Zion’s weekly magazine, Leaves of Healing. “It is possible that it may yet convey the face of the speaker, and by photoelectricity, show the man as he is talking. Perhaps a discourse delivered here may be heard in every city of the United States. Some day that will be so and the word spoken in Zion will be heard even in the farthest corners of the earth!”
Not content to dream of the evangelical tools of tomorrow, Dowie pushed restlessly at the limits of the technology available to him, as if trying to realize the future in the present through sheer force of will. A 1902 magazine profile of Dowie’s innovative ministry gives the impression of a fully formed televangelist anachronistically stranded in the horse-and-buggy era. “He possesses,” marveled the author of the piece, “a clock stamping-machine. When he receives a request for prayer for the sick, he puts it in this machine, and stamps it, for example, ‘Prayed May 10, 3 P.M. John A. Dowie.’ If the patient gets better about that time, he has a record to show what did it. When he receives a request from a man, say, in Boston to pray for a sick wife, he calls up the husband, or, better yet, the wife, on the long-distance telephone, and prays before the receiver, in order that the effect of his words may be felt. In his spare moments he preaches and prays into a phonograph, reproduces the records by a new invention he has recently secured, and advertises that his followers in far-off Australia may now hear his voice conducting services, at so much a service to defray the cost of making the record and forwarding it. He controls a well-known photographer, and has had a lens made large enough for life-size portraits, and has such a picture of himself. In addition, he has a photograph of himself for every time he turns about, and puts one on every periodical or pamphlet that he sends out.”
To a man like Dowie, a radio station would have been as cream to a cat. Alas, God had other plans for his faithful servant, and chose instead to stick Dowie with the same bum deal He gave Moses–an advance glance at the promised land and then curtains. Except that Moses was at least permitted to keep all his marbles, whereas Dowie’s mind began to wobble badly just as the Zion experiment was getting off the ground. Around 1903, Dowie cast off the identity he’d been issued at birth and declared himself Elijah the Restorer, messenger of the Second Coming of Christ. Settling into his new persona, Dowie was soon swanning about the globe in an Old Testament prophet costume of his own design, replete with elevated patriarchal headgear, jeweled breastplates, and an ornately carved shepherd’s crook. At about the same time, he began endangering an otherwise promising experiment in Christian industrial socialism by borrowing against Zion’s assets to leverage an even more ambitious utopian initiative: the “Zion Paradise Plantations,” a million-acre agricultural commune he proposed to establish in Mexico.
Panicked by Dowie’s increasing instability and by the fact that nearly half of Zion’s original labor force had already abandoned the city, in 1906 the town’s leading citizen-investors summoned Dowie’s second in command, the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva, back from missionary work in Australia. After taking one look at the books and another at Dowie decked out in his Cecil B. De Mille drag, Voliva staged an ecclesiastical coup, usurping Dowie’s position as “General Overseer in Zion.” The following year Dowie, now in an advanced state of dementia, died.
An able administrator in a hard-assed, Nixonian sort of way, the new General Overseer managed by the mid-teens to put Zion’s business enterprises back in the black. By the end of World War I things were so rosy in Zion that Voliva began billing himself as “The World’s Richest Holy Man.”
Although he possessed little of his predecessor’s charisma, Voliva shared at least some of Dowie’s prescience where telecommunications were concerned, a trait he demonstrated in early 1923 by signing a contract with the Western Electric Company for the delivery of a 500-watt radio transmitter. The easy part of getting into radio circa 1923 was obtaining a broadcast license. The U.S. Department of Commerce was the body nominally in charge of the national airwaves, but its regulatory powers were narrowly circumscribed by the antiquated Radio Act of 1912. The fundamental purpose of this law was to check the anarchic activities of a subculture of teenage techno-geeks known as “wireless amateurs,” protohackers who were building their own radiotelegraph equipment out of household scrap, filling the sky with Morse-coded adolescent chatter, and thus interfering with official users of the airwaves such as the U.S. Navy and the American Marconi Company.
As a solution to this problem, the drafters of the Radio Act created a spectral reserve for the wireless amateurs in an out-of-the-way portion of the radio band and imposed a license requirement and a few minimal technical standards for all transmitters operating on American soil. Shortsightedly, however, the drafters of the Radio Act neglected to reserve to the government the discretionary power of denying a license to any qualified applicant. And that was where the law still stood when broadcasting came along in the 1920s; if you could fill out the forms, pass a quick technical inspection, and pay a few minor fees, the commerce department had no choice but to issue you a license.
As one might imagine, these liberal licensing policies resulted in some supremely crappy broadcasting. Many of the 600-odd radio stations on the air by 1923 were jumped-up hobby sets whose “programs” consisted of a Victrola grinding away next to a microphone. WCBD, however, was destined for higher things. The station’s advantages began with the exceptional wealth of cultural capital in Zion. From the time of Dowie, the CCC had placed a high spiritual premium on musical literacy and performance skills. In keeping with these precepts, music education in Zion was socialistically funded and free to all community members. Unfortunately, the separatist character of Zion sharply limited opportunities for public displays of its musical talent. With the acquisition of WCBD, however, the meaning of this surplus was revealed. “It was God’s plan,” explained church official Michael Mintern in 1928, “to withhold from us the real purpose in providing a corps of trained singers and players for the radio work.”
Blessed with what must have been the highest per capita supply of trained musicians in the nation, Zion enlisted more than 10 percent of its citizenry to take an active part in the radio programs. In addition to the Zion Symphony Orchestra and the 300-voice White Robed Choir, this army was subject to reconfiguration into a variety of more intimate permutations: a children’s choir; vocal duos, trios, quartets, and quintets; a marching band; brass, woodwind, and string ensembles; a mandolin and guitar band; a marimba band; a melodic troupe of handbell ringers known as the Celestial Bells; and a host of solo artists. All this talent, as Apostle J.H. DePew, the station manager, proudly pointed out in 1925, was available to WCBD free of charge, thanks to the perfected way of life practiced in Zion: “Not a dollar has been paid to any artist for any service rendered. Even the staff and personnel, with an exception or two, have made the radio work their vocation, maintaining their former duties regularly.”
To make the most of these gifts, the citizens of Zion collectively plowed $120,000 into perfecting their broadcasting facilities. It was a figure that placed WCBD among the very best financed stations of the day. After a careful study of the relevant acoustic principles, the enormous Shiloh Tabernacle, epicenter of spiritual life in Zion, was expertly wired for sound. An array of eight microphones strategically distributed throughout the temple and controlled from a central mixing panel located in a soundproof control booth at the rear afforded separate pickups of the speaker’s platform, the choir, the band, the organ, and the orchestra. In addition to this careful retrofitting of the tabernacle, Voliva commissioned the construction of a separate studio building adjacent to the church, a facility that boasted “every convenience,” including an independent power plant, advanced acoustic surfacing from floor to ceiling, and indoor plumbing. Flanking the ultramodern brick studio building was a brace of steel towers 150 feet high, between which was suspended WCBD’s 90-foot horizontal antenna.
Zion’s lavish investment in WCBD was money well spent given the station’s extraordinary performance, which far surpassed the manufacturer’s guarantees. At the time they purchased their original 500-watt transmitter, the citizens of Zion were advised by Western Electric to anticipate a 150-mile radius for night transmission and a 100-mile radius for daylight transmission. Whether through God’s favor or some quirk of geography, WCBD’s signal reached much further than expected. “As a matter of fact,” noted a church official with satisfaction, “the evening concerts of this station are heard quite regularly, not only up and down the Atlantic coast, even in midsummer, but last winter, under the most favorable conditions, they were heard clearly and distinctly in remote parts of Canada, in California, Alaska, Mexico, Cuba, Central America, and on ocean steamers far out on the Atlantic.”
Capitalizing on WCBD’s atmospheric advantages, in mid-1924 Voliva moved to increase the station’s signal power tenfold by contracting with Western Electric for delivery of a 5,000-watt transmitter, one of only three such “super power” transmitters then in operation. “In signing the contract for the new station,” exulted a CCC spokesman, “the Western Electric Company has guaranteed a 250 percent distance increase over the present station, and if the distance actually reached is as much greater proportionately than that guaranteed for the present station, the results will be gratifying indeed. This will put Zion in the forefront of all radiocasting, such that the concerts and services will be heard regularly in all parts of the United States and Canada.”
The new transmitter began operating in early February of 1925 and more than matched these anticipations. For the next three and a half years WCBD enjoyed truly international stature, as demonstrated by the steady stream of correspondence from appreciative year-round listeners in Canada, Panama, Cuba, Haiti, Bermuda, every region of the continental United States, and the territory of Alaska.
Signal coverage of this kind was exactly what the Christian utopia needed to combat what it perceived as persistent misrepresentation in the national press. As Voliva explained to a reporter in 1928, WCBD “was conceived and born in prayer to counteract the evil that the newspapers and their atheistic writers have done us.” “For 30 years,” elaborated J.H. DePew, “certain newspapers in this country had lied about Zion with impunity. The radio station took care of this. It was God’s rebuke to a crooked press. We go over their heads now, and reach the ears of the multitudes.”
The publicity problems to which Voliva and DePew alluded were real enough. When the town was founded, the considerable attention paid by the press to Zion wavered back and forth between skepticism about Reverend Dowie’s integrity and/or sanity and guarded admiration for the communal ideals that Zion embodied. By the prohibition era, however, Zion had become a national joke, lampooned by Jazz Age journalists from coast to coast as a microcosmic symbol of repressive Protestant moralism. On slow news days the national wire services turned a brisk trade in anecdotes concerning hapless motorists who, having taken a wrong turn into “the hair shirt town of the universe,” were pulled out of their automobiles and carted off to jail for smoking cigarettes, or forcibly escorted to the town limits for wearing lipstick and bobbed hair.
External perceptions of Zion as an enclave of benighted fanatics were generously reinforced by newspaper coverage of Reverend Voliva’s pulpit antics. Voliva liked to keep his name in the news by making calculatedly outrageous theological statements to the press. Especially fruitful on this count was his signature insistence that the earth was a flat plane suspended midway between a physical heaven and a physical hell. Outflanking the leading anti-Darwinists of the day, Voliva asserted that his monopoly on this flat-earth doctrine made him “the only true fundamentalist in America,” the competition disqualified by their complacent acceptance of the fallacious “Pythagorean-Copernican-Newtonian system.”
On the air four nights a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday), WCBD mixed about one part Voliva to three parts music. The Zion station plied what might be termed a Victorian oldies format, heavily dependent on what its musical director, Apostle John D. Thomas, called “sacred music, wholesome secular, and old-time favorites.” In practice this entailed a steady diet of sentimental parlor songs from the post-Civil War, pre-ragtime era (“Tenting on the Old Camp Ground,” “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?,” “A Flower From Mother’s Grave,” “The Convict and the Bird”) and dulcet Low Church hymns of similar vintage (“The Little Brown Church in the Vale,” “Lead, Kindly Light,” “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” “Softly and Tenderly”). Less frequently, WCBD made musical forays to higher cultural ground, broadcasting choral and orchestral works by Saint-Saens, Verdi, Rossini, Beethoven, Liszt, and Handel.
The bastard offspring of the social sciences known as “broadcast ratings” was yet to be born, so there is no way of gauging the size of WCBD’s fan base. But the station reported receiving thousands of pieces of listener correspondence every year, and among the hundreds of these preserved in the pages of Leaves of Healing, a striking number include references to WCBD’s popularity in their community of origin. Equally impressive is the number of letters from fans whose occupations afforded them a privileged viewpoint from which to vouch for the station’s wider popularity. In 1925, for instance, a traveling radio salesman based in Emlenton, Pennsylvania, wrote to say that WCBD’s “programs are mentioned more often by the people I meet than those of any other station.” Another commercial traveler wrote from Gary, Indiana, to share his conviction that WCBD was “the most universally liked of all stations now broadcasting,” a judgment he based on hundreds of conversations with “farmers in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.” Milwaukee police patrolman G.H. Briddle wrote Zion to say that “you surely would be surprised to know how many families on my beat listen to your broadcasting.”
Of all of the volunteer pollsters laboring on behalf of Zion, the prize surely goes to the telephone operator in Marine, Illinois, who in 1927 took it upon herself to conduct a telephone survey of all the rural exchanges within her reach. Her research indicated that some 3,000 inhabitants of Madison County had “equipped their homes with expensive radios for the express purpose of enjoying WCBD.”
A significant minority of the fan mail published in Leaves of Healing came from major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, but most bore the postmarks of such places as Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, Shamokin, Pennsylvania, and Schaller, Iowa. Towns like these were still home to nearly half the American population in the 1920s. Because of its rural appeal, WCBD was commonly lumped in with a class of broadcasters known colloquially as “farmer stations,” but the fit was only approximate. The other farmer stations also thumped the Bible hard and often, sang hymns on weekdays as well as Sundays, and favored Tin Pan Alley fare dating back to the McKinley administration. But ordinary farmer stations would not have touched “highbrow” stuff like Brahms and Rossini with a hay rake. Conversely, WCBD never played the old-time fiddle tunes and other rustic fare that ordinary farmer stations broadcast.
To many rural listeners, the polished musical antiques broadcast from Zion sounded like heaven itself. “The tears trickled down my cheeks as I listened to the wonderful music,” reads a representative letter from a Minnesota farmer, “as I had never expected to hear these songs again. I surely was carried beyond the realms of the earth. In all the world, there never was and never will be anything so thrilling to me.”
The flip side to this appreciation for WCBD was the rural audience’s abiding hatred for most of what they heard coming out of the city. Opera, a programming staple of corporate-owned “high-class” metropolitan stations like KYW and WMAQ, struck the rural ear as “fancy screaming” (an attitude memorialized in the fuck-you title given The Grand Ole Opry, which took to the air in 1925). Even more repulsive to rural sensibilities was the output of a class of urban broadcasters variously called “lowbrow stations,” “cheap stations,” “cabaret broadcasters,” and “jazz mills.” Although it was only one of many in Chicago, our own WBBM began as a prime example of the genus. Founded by brothers Ralph and Leslie Atlass, youthful wireless amateurs with a rich daddy and a taste for jazz, WBBM obtained most of its evening programming by broadcasting from speakeasy cabarets and commercial dance halls. Stations like this filled the night sky with the sounds of hot jazz bands and smutty burlesque shows, all set against an ambience of tinkling glasses and boozy laughter that mocked the law of God.
Rural listeners knew the sound of sin when they heard it, and WCBD fans in particular were virtually incapable of putting pen to paper without signifying their abhorrence of jazz–aka “hated jazz,” “dastardly jazz,” “nighthawk jazz,” “rotten jazz,” “crazy jazz,” “terrible jazz,” “worldly jazz,” “silly jazz,” “tin pan jazz,” “razzy, jazzy jazz,” and just “jazz! jazz!! jazz!!!”
A related thread of complaint reflected a somber rural impatience with the low vaudevillian comedy of the “lowbrow” stations, with their “frolic and jokesters,” “suggestive nonsense,” “parodies and superficial stuff,” “foolish programs,” “trashy shallow things,” and “silly dialogue.” “One would think,” wrote a listener in early 1926, “that the whole continent were being drowned in jazz and jokes.” Amid this satanic clamor, WCBD’s fans tuned their receivers to Zion as “an oasis,” “a spring of living water in a desert,” “a rose among many thorns,” “a bright morning star in the cloudy sky of broadcasting.”
Undoubtedly it was WCBD’s music that most appealed to listeners, but due consideration must be given to Reverend Voliva’s prowess as a preacher. Revivalism and showbiz are cousins (God was being uncharacteristically direct when He set Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis among us to drive the point home), and fundamentalist audiences of the day judged preachers as much by their verbal pyrotechnics as their doctrinal soundness. When it came to spreading around the fire and brimstone, Voliva, like Dowie before him, had the right stuff. “His invective,” as a biographical sketch published by the CCC put it, “is as a scorpion’s sting. He rebukes sin in low and high places with a verbiage calculated to arouse the sinner and make him repent.” Expressions of enthusiasm for this aspect of WCBD’s schedule, while less common than praise for its musical offerings, were also a routine feature of the station’s fan mail. Often listeners wrote to applaud the General Overseer’s condemnation of a given sign of the world’s moral decline. A party from Lafayette, Indiana, wrote to say that Voliva’s “speaking of bobbed-haired women as possessed of many devils was appreciated”; a listener from Lindley, New York, wrote to say that “you express our sentiments with every word you speak on the subjects of tobacco, drink and movies.” “We are writing to commend your position on present-day amusements,” wrote a righteous soul from Walhalla, South Carolina. “If the preachers were not tender-footed and would proclaim the truth in its simplicity, there would be hope of checking this carnival of crime.”
At least a few listeners were actually moved to action by Voliva’s broadcast exhortations to “come out of Babylon, and get into Zion.” A Mr. Arthur Moon emigrated from Wisconsin with his wife and children and was soon made a member of Voliva’s uniformed security corps, the Zion Guard; Laura C. Moriarty of Columbus, Ohio, was called to Zion after hearing the White Robed Choir sing her favorite hymn, “The Ninety and the Nine.” In the estimate of Chicago radio listener A.J. Anselm, migrations like these were the true purpose of the station. “We can readily understand why Voliva wants 5,000 watts,” wrote Anselm to the commerce department in 1925: “He needs recruits to keep his industrial units fully manned with cheap labor. He must have distance to advertise, because no one in nearby towns takes Voliva’s bunk seriously.”
If Anselm was right, and WCBD was intended as a migratory beacon, then it was a dud: the population of Zion remained rock steady throughout the 1920s. Zion seems to have had slightly more success at winning long-distance converts to the CCC. From places as far away as Caddoa, Colorado, Spencer, West Virginia, and Glen Aubrey, New York, radio congregants faithfully paid tithes and purchased prescribed dietary items such as Zion-made “beef bacon” and pork-free shortening through the mail. But most WCBD fans seem to have been ecumenicists who accepted those aspects of Zion’s religious agenda that conformed to their own ideas of Christianity while overlooking the aberrant bits, such as Voliva’s enduring obsession with “globular astronomy.” One such fan was Harry K. Goodall of west-suburban Elmhurst, who wrote to the commerce department in early 1924 to defend the station against its detractors: “I read that some people had complained about Voliva’s sermons. I don’t believe all he says, but let him preach by radio. Those that don’t like it, why do they listen? The poor boobs! We get some splendid music from WCBD.”
Similar flexibility was demonstrated by a listener in Antioch, Illinois, who wrote to WCBD to vouch that “while we may differ in minor matters with Brother Voliva, yet in the main we agree, and congratulate him on the great work of spreading the Gospel of our Savior.”
From the time of Dowie, Zion had worked hard to promote itself as a tourist destination, and in this respect WCBD clearly succeeded. Encouraged by invitations renewed with every broadcast, fans came from Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and New York to tour the station’s studios, participate in services in the Shiloh Tabernacle, enjoy the comforts of the Zion Home, and shop in Zion’s large retail arcade. In 1928 station manager DePew credited WCBD with bringing “hundreds of visitors to the Tabernacle each Lord’s day, year after year,” an effect he called “the chief good that this station has done for Zion.” Upon returning home, listener-pilgrims frequently wrote back to Zion to applaud all they had seen: “the wonderful Christian atmosphere,” as a couple from Kansas put it, “the clean-cut young men, and the kindness and friendliness shown to us.”
In addition to attracting travelers to Zion, WCBD made it easier for Zion’s own travelers to make their way through Babylon. Like any such commercial concern of the day, Zion Industries Inc. relied on a legion of traveling salesmen, or “drummers,” to develop and service distant markets for its products. According to DePew, the burden of representing Zion to the world was substantially reduced with the advent of its broadcasting. “Whereas our traveling men used to meet rebuffs,” declared DePew in the summer of 1928, “they are now greeted in a friendly way, and I believe all of them will tell you that the people are glad to see them, and that they have a good word to say for the radio station.”
All things considered, WCBD was a pretty good thing for a lot of people. General Overseer Voliva commanded the bulliest of bully pulpits; the musicians of Zion enjoyed an outlet for their gifts; traveling representatives of Zion Inc. got a warm welcome wherever they went; and a whole lot of farm families enjoyed listening to a bracing hellfire sermon followed by gentle, beautiful music four nights a week.
But it was not to last. After seven years of anarchy in the airwaves, in 1927 Congress finally managed to pass a new set of laws governing radio. Charged with cleaning up the mess that laissez-faire had created was a new bipartisan body called the Federal Radio Commission, precursor to the FCC. Though the new Radio Act expressly denied the FRC any formal power of censorship, it did permit the commission to deny the renewal of a station’s license if its programs did not meet the nebulous standard of “public interest, convenience, or necessity”–which is to say that the FRC enjoyed pretty robust powers of censorship. The act also empowered the government to dictate stations’ wavelengths and hours of operation.
In October 1928 the commission promulgated a “reallocation plan” for the midwestern states aimed at reducing interference among stations and rationalizing the distribution of program service. This in effect meant restructuring things to serve the interests of the emerging national network systems, NBC and CBS. Besides suppressing a number of technically substandard stations in the region, the FRC’s reallocation plan called for the abrupt eviction of WCBD from the wavelength that had served it so well, displacing the station to a marginal piece of the spectrum located off the dials of most existing receivers. The reallocation plan limited WCBD’s broadcast schedule to daylight hours, a ruling that, taken in tandem with the unforgiving laws of AM signal propagation, demoted the station from a continental superstation to one with a humble service radius of a few hundred miles.
The announcement of WCBD’s imminent removal from the nighttime airwaves brought equal or greater anguish to its far-flung audience. In the weeks before the reallocation plan was to take effect, WCBD fans poured out their hearts to their favorite station. A devoted Milwaukee listener wrote to declare that news of the impending separation “has aroused in me a feeling of regret such as one would experience upon the loss of an old and faithful friend.” “It’s like losing one of our family,” concurred a fan in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Particularly afflicted listeners retreated into a state of denial. A fan in Rockford wrote, “I do not believe that God will let such a good station go off the air.” “My, how fearful,” wrote another Milwaukee listener. “When my son John came in after you had signed off Lord’s Day evening, I could scarcely tell him about it, I felt so badly; and he said, ‘Mother, that is only for the time being. They would not stop a Station such as Zion’s from broadcasting their programs.’ I sincerely hope such may be the case.”
Others denounced the ruling as “criminal,” “an outrage,” “almost murder.” The wrathful and the heartbroken alike expressed bafflement that, of all the stations on the air, one so uniquely and consistently “uplifting,” “inspiring,” “soothing,” and “sensible” should be singled out for suppression. “I cannot,” protested a boggled Wisconsin listener, “think of a single just reason for this strange ruling.” “If these men,” wrote a confused and desperate fan from Elmwood, Illinois, “would just sit down and let their minds drink in some of the good that comes from WCBD, they would give a different order. If only they would take off the air some of these wild radio stations, these commercial hounds that broadcast for the sake of gold and think nothing of the poor public that has to suffer and listen to their rotten messages!”
The indignation and disbelief of its devotees notwithstanding, the disadvantageous treatment WCBD suffered at the hands of the FRC was more or less inevitable. As a category, religious broadcasters fared poorly with the commission, which espoused as a guiding principle the sentiment that there was “not room in the broadcast band for every school of thought, religious, political, social, and economic, each to have its separate broadcasting station, its mouthpiece in the ether.”
In practice, this principle of selection was selectively applied. Independent political broadcasters like station WEVD of New York, operated by the American Socialist Party, and WCFL of Chicago, licensed to the Chicago Federation of Labor, managed to mount effective campaigns of defense against this regulatory prejudice and hold on to their licenses and wavelengths. As a rule, minority religious sects like the CCC fared much worse. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, received crippling wavelength reassignments comparable to WCBD’s during the reallocation period, even though their two stations, WBBR of Staten Island and WORD of Batavia, Illinois, were, like WCBD, long established, well financed, and technically above reproach.
Another strike against WCBD was the fact that it never sought to expand service past its original 1923 schedule of 14.5 hours of programming over four nights a week. The FRC expressly favored a broader continuity of service–50 or 60 hours a week–in assessing “public interest, convenience and necessity.”
In 1929 Voliva appealed the FRC’s reallocation ruling in Washington, D.C. He might have had a chance if he’d stood on his First Amendment right of free speech and sought the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was searching for disfranchised broadcasters to defend against the government’s new power to censor. Instead, Voliva clumsily cited the Fifth rather than the First Amendment, arguing that his rights to property had been negated when the commission took away his original wavelength of 870 kilocycles. The appeals court easily rebuffed this appeal, ruling that “there is no property right, as against the regulatory power of the United States, to engage in broadcasting.”
The loss of its international radio audience was just the first in a series of setbacks for the city that Dowie built. Though the autocratic Voliva had worked wonders in restoring Zion’s economy to health in the wake of Dowie’s mismanagement, the Great Depression hit the utopian community like a thunderbolt. By 1933 the assets of Zion Industries Inc. had been placed in receivership. Voliva’s loss of financial control weakened his political authority, enabling a coalition of dissidents calling themselves the Independent Party to seize political control of the town from his Theocratic Party and to disarm his personal police force, the Zion Guard. Voliva swore to the press that he would regain control of the city and drive his enemies out, but after 1935 he began spending less of his time in Zion. He settled into a peevish semiretirement in Florida, where he would die from diabetic complications in 1942.
With Voliva out of the way, the Independent Party quickly set about repealing most of the blue laws for which Zion had been famous. Soon cigarettes, pork, shellfish, baseball, motion pictures, card playing, lipstick, medicine, and other previously forbidden commodities and activities were legal in Zion. In a related reform, the Independents reoriented the science curriculum taught in Zion’s schools to conform with the precepts of modern “globular astronomy.”
On its new wavelength, WCBD continued to provide local daytime service to a drastically reduced audience until 1934, when Voliva sold the station and its license to a secular concern, Oak Leaves Broadcasting Inc., for $10,000. Resituated in Chicago and given the call sign WAIT, the new station pursued a conventional line of commercial broadcasting and was later affiliated with the Don Lee Network. In 1937 a fire set by the teenage son of one of Voliva’s disaffected followers destroyed the Shiloh Tabernacle and its derelict radio studio. By that time, WCBD was already beginning to fade from public memory. But for five shining years at the dawn of the age of electronic mass communications, it was one of the greatest stations in America.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Christ Community Church.