Baltimore Afro-American, December 14, 1929. William K. “Hello World” Henderson
was this crazy old bastard who built a high-powered radio station down Shreveport way, primarily as a vehicle of self-expression. He’d get on the air at night and drink and ramble on about why the Republicans sucked and how Herbert Hoover was a “yellow shit” and a “cross between a jackass and a bulldog bitch,” then he’d play some hillbilly or blues records. Then he’d be back on the air to rail about how the chain stores were sucking the life’s blood out of the South, then he’d play some more records and . . . well, you get the idea. He’s the grand daddy of all shock jocks. And also of all disk jockeys–you weren’t supposed to rely on records as programming back then.
And he was easily one of the most popular, if not the most popular broadcaster in the nation. His loyal rural fan base extended all the way up to New England. KWKH’s signal pretty much covered the map because Henderson didn’t bother with bureaucratic niceties like assigned wavelengths and signal strength. He’d boost his wattage according to his mood, and do it right on the air too. He’d yell at his engineer, “Give us more power, doggone you, give me all the power you’ve got!”
Another of his favorite pastimes was baiting the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the FCC), who, you’ll surmise, were not big KWKH fans. Once he telephoned the regional radio supervisor at his home in New Orleans and started cussing him out on the air. Several years ago I heard Howard Stern perpetrate a virtually identical prank on the chairman of the FCC.
I guess I don’t have to add that he was something of a racist too. Well, I would have to add that if this were an academic forum. I’d have to go on and on about it, and then maybe offer some feeble theoretical construct establishing that broadcasting itself is inherently racist, as are indeed the very principles of radio wave propagation. If I could just do these simple things, I’d be a big professor of media right now, instead of a homeless blogger living under a bridge.
Aaaaanyway, Henderson and KWKH are the subject of a fascinating chapter in my compulsively readable book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age (“Subtly hilarious!” raved the Journal of American History; “Vivid and exciting!” cheered the American Historical Review; “A bit of a slog,” complained my mom). And hey, I just noticed that Amazon has discounted it just in time for Chri–er, the Festive Gift-Buying Season! Do your bit for the economic recovery, folks.