Race Horses, The Post War Radio Boom and the Voice of Dixie

To preserve resources needed during wartime, the FCC put a freeze on applications for new radio stations during World War II.  When that freeze was lifted in October of 1945, the FCC was facing a backlog of over 1,200 applications. 

By late 1945 the funds from the sale of the Brennan farm had been nearly consumed by the families’ horse racing ventures, which had by this time relocated to Miami.  The buzzing South Florida paradise provided better weather and posh racing venues such as the Jockey Club at Hialeah, Tropical Park in Miami and Gulfstream Park in Hallendale Beach.   

Left Photo - Cyril M., Mary, Bill and Francis Brennan / Right Photo - Mary, Bill, Francis and Cyril G. Brennan at Gulfstream Park, Hallendale Beach, just north of Miami.

About that time Billy Benns approached Bill Brennan with the thought that owning part of a radio station would be a safer bet than racing horses.  Next, it was up to Bill to convince his father of the same.  There were just enough funds left in the Brennan’s family till to insure their 50% stake in the new Birmingham station.  Money from William Benns, Sr.’s architecture practice and any remaining funds from the sale of WFTM would become that families’ portion of their seed money for the first Brennan/Benns joint venture, Voice of Dixie Broadcasting.  In January of 1946 Voice of Dixie Broadcasting was incorporated. William Benns, Sr., his wife Iralee, son Billy and Cyril M. Brennan pooled $22,000 in authorized capital to start their company.

Just over one month later, on February 4, the Voice of Dixie tendered an application with the FCC for a new station to operate on 690 kc with 10,000 watts of power, full-time – utilizing a directional antenna at night.  The application was accepted for filing by the FCC on March 25, 1946 and assigned FCC file number B3-P4598.  It would take until August  for the FCC to assign the application to the post-war expedited processing line number two. 

The use of the frequency 690 kc would entangle both the applications of WVOK and WAPE in an international treaty negotiation.  The NARBA, short for the North American Radio Broadcasters Agreement, went into effect in 1941.  It was meant to regulate by treaty the use of, and interference received by AM radio stations operating in the North American region.  The 690 kc channel was designated as a Canadian Clear Channel, which afforded that nation a great deal of protection from nighttime interference.  Cuba also operated a full-time station on 690 kc in Havana.

Upon further examination by the FCC, the initial application of Voice of Dixie for full-time operation would not extend proper protection to stations already in operation outside of the boarders of the United States.  Even though the use of a directional antenna system was proposed, on November 7, 1946, the application was dismissed by the Commission.

It took about three weeks for Consulting Engineer Billy Benns to get new documents in front of the FCC.  On December 18, Voice of Dixie’s petition to the FCC requesting reinstatement of their application for new station on 690 kc was accepted by the agency.  This time, the request would be for operation at 10,000 watts, but hours of operation would be limited to daytime only.   The application was ordered reinstated and the amendment was accepted. 

The value of the 690 frequency was not lost on the competition.  WSGN-AM operated on 610 kc with a power of 5,000 watts day and 1,000 watts night.  The prospect of a high-powered competitor just up the dial got their attention.  On November 15 they also tendered an application for 690 kc.  Under their proposal, WSGN would move from 610 kc to 690 and operate with 50,000 watts day and night.  As noted with the WVOK application, nighttime operation was in violation of the NARBA treaty then in effect.  The Commission did not see the wisdom in converting a full-time station to daytime only.  The competing WSGN application was dismissed by the FCC on December 9.

The acceptance of the petition would clear the way for the revised application for 690 kc to be accepted for processing by the Commission on January 23, 1947.  In the last week of February of 1947 the construction permit was issued for WVOK-AM Birmingham to operate with 10,000 watts of power only during the daytime hours.   Work began immediately on the station, as did a request to modify the construction permit.  In May of 1947 an application was filed with the FCC to make changes in the stations transmitter and antenna system as well as modify the location of the transmitter site and specify a studio location.  This would become the familiar facility on the Bessemer Super Highway.  The Commission would okay the changes to WVOK’s construction permit less than six weeks later.

The official grant for WVOK’s license would come from the FCC in an action dated October 20, 1947.  Within a period of a few short weeks, the Voice of Dixie WVOK would become Birmingham’s newest radio station.  WVOK’s ownership was listed as Iralee Benns, President (20%), Cyril M. Brennan VP (50%), William Benns Jr. (10%) and William Benns Sr. (20%).

Iralee Benns celebrates the sign-on of WVOK

The spirit of family was evident in the very beginning of WVOK.  Dan recalled how “there were probably a few slightly crooked walls” in that original cinderblock building on the Bessemer Superhighway, as all of the family pitched in to help with its construction.  “Sweat equity” would be a watermark of every Brennan/Benns station; everyone who was able to work did.

The original structure of the WVOK Building in 1947 before the addition of studio, office, transmitter space and a basement.

The Birmingham station would also be the site of the first in the series of Brennan/Benns designed and built transmitters.  The design credits for that original WVOK 10,000 watt transmitter are shared between Bill Brennan and Billy Benns.  This transmitter would differ from the later Brennan/Benns models in that it utilized a Class B style amplifier, instead of the Doherty configuration.  The power supply would utilize military surplus tubes from the power supply of a World War II radar set. 

WVOK's original 10,000 watt transmitter

Much of the construction of the actual components of the transmitter was done by Cyril G. Brennan and George Blaskow, who were wrapping up their obligations to the U.S. Army.  They would work on sections of the transmitter in their off-duty hours and ship the parts back to Birmingham for final assembly.    

George Blaskow and Cyril Brennan in the workshop.

As females in a “normal college” were a rarity in the early part of the 20th century, even more rare were women who managed and operated radio staions.  Iralee Benns fit both discriptions.  She was listed in 1947 as the President of WVOK, while the duties of General Manager were handled by                                 Mr. J. E. Reynolds, and Mrs. Benns’ son Billy oversaw the technical construction and engineering at the station.  As mentioned earlier, the Brennan’s took a very active role in every phase of the station from early planning and construction to the day-to-day operations.   Cyril M. Brennan was even the host of a weekly Sunday music show on the station where he used a slide rule to “calulate ” his selections.

Cyril M Brennan on WVOK and Cyril G. in the WVOK office

Brennan sons Cyril and Dan were quickly enlisted into the family business.  Fresh out of the Army, Cyril put his engineering talent to work keeping the growing WVOK facility going.  Bill was busy along with Billy Benns on plans for the expansion of the station, along with plans for more new stations to add to the families portfolio.  At just 18 years old, Dan, having just graduated from high school in Miami, found his initial calling on the air and in sales.

Still, there was the quest for full-time operation.  But that would not be possible on 690.  Billy Benns had completed a study which gave some hope to the situation on an adjacent channel.  In March of 1948, the station briefly sought full-time operation on 680kc with 10,000 watts of power.  This endeavor was short lived.

The allure to be the most powerful radio station in Alabama would give WVOK bragging rights as big as its signal.  On May 25, 1949 WVOK abandoned its plans for a full-time signal and filed an appliation with the FCC for 50,000 watts daytime on 690 kc, the maximum power allowed.  The request was quickly approved by the Commission and the power increse was granted in July.

The final design plans were finalized and construction begun on the first 50,000 watt Brennan/Benns transmitter.