In 1922, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was one of the first religious organizations to enter the commercial radio broadcasting field – a technology that was still in its infancy. Shortly after going out over the air on the initial broadcast, the Watch Tower’s second president, Joseph F. Rutherford, gave one of the very first long distance radio sermons.
It wasn’t until the early 1920s that commercial radio broadcasts in the United States were generated from just a few small stations in some of the largest cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Detroit, Michigan. They were using expensive long distance telephone services whose wire lines delivered weak radio signals to local AM radio stations for transmission over the air. The sound was scratchy and voices were often unintelligible to listeners who were using factory-built crystal sets with earphones. Radios with built-in loudspeakers and aerials weren’t produced until the 1930s.
In the early 1920s, members of the International Bible Students’ Association (IBSA) better known as the “Bible Students,” and legally represented by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of PA (the SOCIETY), were relatively few in number. (They were known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses” from 1931 onward.) In fact, the January 1, 1950, Watchtower magazine reported, “In 1918 there were only 3,868 persons announcing the King and the Kingdom in all the world.” That being the case, it’s easy to see why the religion’s leaders believed radio would be a good way to get out their message.
The “Bible Students” organization was one of the first religions to enter the broadcasting field and radio became a major tool for spreading the SOCIETY’S message. In those early days they even did live, on-air baptisms.
On Sunday, April 16, 1922, Joseph F. Rutherford, the SOCIETY’S second president, gave one of the very first long distance radio sermons from the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia, PA, titled, “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” The message was carried over miles of Bell Telephone wires. A large crowd attended the event, but an estimated 50,000 residents living in several surrounding eastern states were at home using their headphones listening to the broadcast on their primitive AM radios – likely a record radio audience up till then.
That event no doubt influenced Rutherford to come up with the idea for the Bible Student organization to build its own radio station to promote his lectures. Later on, in 1922, Rutherford and a few advisers took claim to some twenty-four acres of property the SOCIETY owned in southwestern Staten Island in the New York City borough of Richmond.
Throughout the winter and on into the summer of 1923, construction went on with many young men from the SOCIETY’S headquarters in Brooklyn assisting on weekends. That same year, the SOCIETY purchased radio equipment from the decommissioned radio station 740 WDT-AM at Stapleton, Staten Island, which the Ship Owners Radio Service was shutting down.
A license from the government to broadcast had been obtained by the SOCIETY their name for it being “Watchtower” and the call letters assigned were WBBR-AM. Facilities and accommodations for the staff were located in a magnificent, three-story Greek Revival house at 1065 Woodrow Road.
In 1924, the station began broadcasting with a 500-watt transmitter. The radio signal reached Staten Island, Brooklyn, and central New York City. In 1927, a newer 1,000-watt transmitter was purchased and installed.
Over the next twenty years, tall buildings being built in New York City began to block WBBR’s signal for many boroughs. So the Federal Communications Commission granted WBBR permission to increase its power to 5,000 watts in 1947. That increase in transmission power required the installation of a three-tower directional antenna system to prevent signals from intruding on distant radio stations. That array increased the 5,000-watt power to more than 25,000 watts in a northeasterly direction where the population was the greatest – allowing WBBR to be heard in all areas of metropolitan New York and the adjoining states of New Jersey and Connecticut.
WBBR – First Broadcast
All was ready for WBBR’s first broadcast on 1230 kHz (“kilocycles”) after Judge Rutherford dedicated the new station on Sunday evening, February 24, 1924. The first two-hour public broadcast was from 8:30 to 10:30 PM and was composed of piano and vocal solos followed by Rutherford’s one hour lecture, “Radio and Divine Prophecy.”
The station continued to broadcast each evening during that same two-hour time time-slot and from 3:00 to 5:00 PM on Sundays. Programs continued to contain a mix of music, religious talks (some for 15-minutes) and recorded speeches by Rutherford and other of the SOCIETY’S officers and writers. WBBR’s programming schedule also included programs in several languages, including Yiddish and Arabic.
Complaints About WBBR
The government began to receive complaints about WBBR. Some were regarding technical problems, but most were about content – primarily their denigration of other faiths – but also their opposition to canned goods, and specifically their opposition to vaccinations. Not only was WBBR used to broadcast Rutherford and his other associates’ hostility towards not only vaccination but also other medical practices. In August 1924, the SOCIETY’S staff doctor (an osteopath), Dr. Mae Work, began to frequently lecture on WBBR about the “Abrams Treatment.” Mae Work was a proponent of the “Abrams” method of diagnosing and treatment of diseases using an electronic diagnostic machine (which years later was a proven to be a hoax).
In 1927, the FCC subsumed (absorbed) WBBR-AM to the benefit of WJZ-AM, pulling the station out from under Rutherford. That was big enough news for Time Magazine to write about it:
“At was at a hearing of the Federal Radio Commission in Washington. The commission had given the radio wavelength of WBBR, Judge Rutherford’s station, to WJZ of the National Broadcasting Co., and had refused to allocate any wavelength to WBBR. WBBR was considered an unessential station. That was a conspiracy plot, cried Judge Rutherford.”
“Through the gracious providence of Jehovah,” the voice of Judge Joseph Frederick Rutherford, president, the International Bible Students’ Association, boomed from Toronto last week to pass out from 53 separate radio broadcasting stations. The “hookup” was the widest in radio history and was the result of a goading which Judge Rutherford several weeks ago drove at President Merlin Hall Aylesworth of National Broadcasting Co.
It was at a hearing of the Federal Radio Commission in Washington. The commission had given the radio wavelength of WBBR, Judge Rutherford’s station, to WJZ of the National Broadcasting Co., and had refused to allocate any wavelength to WBBR. WBBR was considered an unessential station.
“That was complot,” [conspiracy or plot] cried Judge Rutherford. The “regular” churches were seeking to destroy his sect. In 1918 they had him sent to Atlanta Penitentiary for obstructing the War draft. But the U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after he had spent eight months in jail, had ordered him released. The present exclusion from the air was another “frame-up.” Mr. Aylesworth was in cahoots with the preachers.
“I dare you to let me speak from your station,” Judge Rutherford had shouted at Mr. Aylesworth during the Radio Commission hearing.
“You may speak, sir, for one hour on any day and at any hour you may select,” Mr. Aylesworth exclaimed angrily.
“All right. I choose 3 p. m., Sunday, July 24 next.” Astute, the Judge chose the hour during which the New York Federation of Churches had been broadcasting the past four years. He would reach the ears of his ‘enemy’ congregations; he would make the ‘devil’s’ spear serve as the staff of Jehovah, whose aide-de-camp he pictures himself.
“Last week he was in Toronto to lecture to the International Bible Students’ Association convention there. Mr. Aylesworth, better than his promise, gave his sharp goader all his radio facilities.”
In the New York area, the SOCIETY also bought time on WBNX, WOV, WGBB, WFAS and WNEW. But, Rutherford’s derogatory attacks on other religions and their clergy led many stations to drop his programs, sometimes cutting him off before he was finished. The Bible Students viewed this as part of a religious and government conspiracy against them.
Rutherford bought airtime on half a dozen different New York stations. As he attacked other religions sometimes he was banned from individual stations. Ostensibly it was his attacks on the clergy that resulted in bans by both NBC and BBC radio networks. But it’s just as likely that he was also making a repeat performance of his WWI “seditious” comments. He created tension and enemies, especially in opposing nationalism and flag-waving patriotism during wartime.
Another Radio Event – WBBR’s Organ
The Watchtower or “White” network was organized in 1928, especially to serve the Detroit convention. It was so successful that the SOCIETY decided to operate a weekly network of radio stations throughout the United States and Canada. A one-hour program was arranged and it emanated from WBBR. These were live broadcasts, featuring a lecture by Rutherford, with introductory and concluding music furnished by a SOCIETY maintained orchestra. Every Sunday from November 18, 1928, through the year 1930 radio listeners could tune into “The Watchtower Hour.” Later, broadcasts were beamed via shortwave to over 400 stations worldwide, sometimes originating from WBBR’s studios.
In 1931, the WBBR studios were moved to 122-126 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn. They were situated in a rear building near Furman Street. In 1931 they installed an organ, a Gottfried formerly from WHK in Cleveland. Edith White was the SOCIETY’S organist.
With the erection of the Brooklyn, Queens Expressway along Furman Street, the SOCIETY had to sell a 15-meter strip of their property with the consequence that the studio had to be knocked down. Therefore, around1948 the studio moved back to Staten Island. It is unknown what happened to the Gottfried organ.
Radio programs occupied much of Rutherford’s time and he was unable to travel or organize conventions in various parts of the earth. So in 1931, the WTS decided to present transcribed programs. Two hundred and fifty stations were organized to present fifteen-minute transcriptions made by Rutherford at his convenience, and played by the radio stations at times they chose.
In 1932 this radio service (called the Wax Chain) was expanded to 340 stations. By 1933, the peak year, 408 stations were being used to carry the program to six continents, and 23,783 separate Bible talks were broadcast, most of them being these fifteen-minute electrical transcriptions.
In 1941, WBBR’s license was transferred to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the religion’s publishing arm, from the Peoples Pulpit Association (February 24, 1924-1941). In March of that year, WBBR (and its share-time partners) moved to 1330 AM.
Rutherford died in 1942 and was buried at Rossville in a Methodist cemetery within sight of the WBBR towers where it is claimed he lies in an unmarked grave where there was a private burial plot for the SOCIETY’S branch volunteers on Woodrow Road. In 2002 a caretaker at the immediately adjoining graveyard answered an inquiry about the SOCIETY’S graveyard by noting, “I couldn’t tell you who is buried on it because it has absolutely no markers or headstones.”
A fire at the Rossville transmitter in February 1945 put the station off the air briefly. In 1946, WBBR erected a 411-foot, three-tower array at Rossville and two years later, the power was increased to 5000 watts. A new structure housed the transmission equipment. For all its days on the air, WBBR was powered by its own electrical generator. A new structure housed the transmission equipment.
The transmitter site was an 18-acre farm, complete with a 24-room house and a swimming pool (which in 1955 I enjoyed swimming in with a Bethelite who invited me there for a Saturday afternoon).
There also was a cannery, a barn, two greenhouses, and 20 chicken houses. There was no power on the property except for a huge generator plant that was sufficient to serve a town of 30,000.
Another interesting self-sufficient feature was that the farm had a storage tank for millions of gallons of water. WBBR was only part of a 30-acre farm operated by the SOCIETY. By 1957, the farm was sending food to the Brooklyn Watch Tower facilities where at each meal 1,000 were fed.
A New Broadcast Studio
In 1950 they dedicated a new broadcast studio at 136 Columbia Heights which also served as a Kingdom Hall. About this, the August 15, 1950 Watchtower magazine, p. 221-222, paragraph 4 stated:
“In March 1950 the radio office force and studio personnel moved from Staten Island into Bethel, where it has its offices and elegant studios of floating type, a large and a small one, with the control room in between. The large windows permit visitors in the observation room to clearly view all going on in the studios while they listen in on the loud-speaker. Kingdom Hall itself will be used as the largest of WBBR’s studios, the console of a new and larger organ being located westward of the speaker’s platform. The broad grill-work in front of the organ pipes is just behind and over the platform. Full-scale educational and musical programs carried on by the Bethel family will be radiocast direct from Kingdom Hall. On Sunday, March 12, at 8 a.m., WBBR initiated its broadcasting from its new Bethel studios, the Society’s president fittingly presenting the day’s text and after a musical interlude the Watchtower’s extended comment thereon, as the opening feature of the day.”
The new studio was equipped with a larger concert organ with 1200 pipes. It was, in fact, the III-Manual 15-ranks Austin op. 1788 which had replaced the old Gottfried organ at WHK, Cleveland, Ohio, in 1931. The organ remained in the Kingdom Hall until 1960 when it was sold to St. Augustine Presbyterian Church in the Bronx where it was situated until 2009, though unplayable.
Sale of WBBR
In 1957 my future husband, Joe Anderson, a volunteer worker at Bethel, said organ music played by a Bethelite on the Bethel organ, which was located in the Brooklyn Heights Kingdom Hall, was broadcast over WBBR early in the morning and the music was heard in the Bethel dining room before breakfast started at 7 A.M. One particular morning after the music stopped at 7 AM, President Nathan Knorr announced that no more would there be organ music heard before breakfast because that day was the end of WBBR broadcasts. The hundreds of people there that morning weren’t completely surprised because rumor had it that WBBR was to be sold.
On April 15, 1957, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of PA sold its station to H. Scott Killgore’s Tele-Broadcasters Of New York Inc. for $133,000 which also owned many other radio stations across the U.S. The sale included 18-acres of the 30-acres owned by the SOCIETY. Also, the mint condition 5 kW RCA transmitter that had been used only 30 hours per week. Call letters were changed to WPOW on May 1, 1957, the religious talks and placid string and organ music disappeared, and the new station embarked on a series of changes that would repeatedly make it something of a pioneer in New York area radio.
After the station was sold, the new owner found out that there was no power on the property except for that huge generator plant which meant the power company had to bring in a power line from three miles away.
In July 1959, Killgore sold WPOW for $250,000 to John M. Camp, an Illinois-based advertising agent and broker of religious broadcast time.
In 1979, WPOW’s other share-time station, WEVD, was sold to Salem Media and became WNYM. In the early 1980s, Salem Media bought out WPOW for $4 million, most of that sum simply for the Staten Island real estate.
On December 31, 1984, WPOW signed off without ceremony, and the last time-sharing arrangement in New York AM radio came to an end.
Why did the SOCIETY sell WBBR? Their answer was when the station began to operate in 1924, there was only one congregation of about 200 Bible Students covering all five boroughs of New York City. That included Long Island and even parts of New Jersey. By 1957, however, there were 62 congregations with over 7,500 JWs within New York City.
Further, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., publishers of the history book, JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES PROCLAIMERS OF GOD’S KINGDOM, stated that the personal contact made possible by house-to-house calls was far more effective. It afforded better opportunity to answer the questions of individual householders and to search out “deserving ones.” Additionally, the station and programs were said to tie-up manpower and money that could be used in other ways.
Another Side to the Story
However, there was another side to the story. By 1957, there were scores of religions that were broadcasting their message by means of radio. The constant attacks on other religions and their clergy by Jehovah’s Witnesses on WBBR were so offensive that other religions spent hours of radio time refuting the Witnesses attacks. It was this that made WBBR a losing venture both in time, money and converts.
Starting around 1997, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ leaders began to adopt the Internet as a method of mass communication hoping to capitalize on a medium that was attracting billions of people around the world.
A few years into the 21st century (approximately 50-years after selling WBBR), Jehovah’s Witnesses’ current leaders were rethinking face-to-face, door-to-door evangelizing. It was a time when few people were at home to talk about religion or refused to answer the door if they were at home – and when comedians continued to make fun of Jehovah’s Witnesses disturbing people on Saturday mornings.
Their solution to try to gain converts once again was to go back into broadcasting by spending millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art broadcasting facility in Warrick, NY. There they would make videos and broadcast governing body talks and meetings using new technologies. However, as hopeful as Jehovah’s Witnesses are about converting the world to their religion using a medium they condemned as being “from the Devil” in the 1990s, new converts are becoming fewer and fewer.
The simple fact is that the newer broadcasting mediums used by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not being accessed by many non-Witnesses. It is mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses who are using their mobile devices (such as smartphones and tablets) to access and download study materials designed for use at their meetings. Consequently, the Governing Body will have to try to find new ways to catch and convince unwary people to believe their fanciful message that has no basis in truth.
In the spring of 1975, Frederick W. Franz, considered since the mid-1920s to be the Watchtower’s “official oracle,” stressed the urgency of the Christian preaching work during his public speeches. Why? Because he believed that 6,000 years of human history would end that next September or soon after.
In a memorandum dated March 28, 1941, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation strongly suggested that Joseph F. Rutherford, then president of the Watchtower Society, be closely monitored and potentially arrested “…in the event of a national emergency.”
J. Edgar Hoover (the FBI Director) was very aware of Rutherford’s political positions during the late 1930s and 1940. He knew that Rutherford decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses should not support any war preparation efforts, not salute the flag of any country, and to avoid military service of any kind – even under threat of arrest or imprisonment – or death.
Hoover’s memo makes it clear that “Judge” Rutherford had been monitored for some time by the United States Government. In fact, he mentions that a dossier on Rutherford was being sent along with the memo. It was likely that Rutherford’s praise of Adolph Hitler and the leaders of other “fascist” countries during the late 1930s created some “red flags” within the FBI and other government agencies.
It was also significant that Rutherford and other Watchtower officials had been arrested, convicted and imprisoned for a short time in 1918 and 1919 – for taking anti-government positions during World War 1. [See Wikipedia quote below.] While the Watchtower leaders’ convictions were overturned and they were eventually released from prison in 1919, Rutherford continued to preach loud and often against the political systems of the world and their armies. He often accused various governments of being in league with and led by Satan the Devil – and wars were clear evidence that his position was valid. Rutherford also severely criticized the world’s major religions – especially the Catholic Church – for supporting war efforts by the world’s governments.
In 1941 Hoover’s FBI was (and to some extent, still is) perhaps the most powerful and influential police force in the world. What Hoover asked for he got. No other government agency would take a stand against him or the FBI. Even the most powerful politicians avoided any conflict with him, preferring to “turn a blind eye and a deaf ear” to Hoover’s sometimes excessive use of authority.
In early May 1918 US Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory condemned The Finished Mystery as “one of the most dangerous examples of … propaganda … a work written in extremely religious language and distributed in enormous numbers”. Warrants were issued for the arrest of Rutherford and seven other Watch Tower directors, who were charged under the 1917 Espionage Act of attempting to cause insubordination, disloyalty, refusal of duty in the armed forces and obstructing the recruitment and enlistment service of the U.S. while it was at war. On June 21 seven of them, including Rutherford, were sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. Rutherford feared his opponents would gain control of the Society in his absence, but on January 2, 1919 he learned he had been re-elected president at the Pittsburgh convention the day before, convincing him that God wanted him in the position. In March 1919 the directors were released on bail after an appeals court ruled they had been wrongly convicted; in May 1920 the government announced that all charges had been dropped. [LINK to Wikipedia article]
Less than a year later, on January 8, 1942, “Judge” Joseph F. Rutherford died in San Diego, California from cancer of the lower bowel. He lived just long enough to see the United States enter World War 2 one month earlier. After nearly twenty-five years of unrelenting scathing attacks on the world’s governments and churches, his voice was silenced forever. But many of his Jehovah’s Witness followers he left behind did refuse military or government service during the World War, Korean War, and the Viet Nam war and some of them spent years in prison.
Did you know how (in sworn testimony during the recent Australian Royal Commission hearing) Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson responded to the question, “Do you see yourselves as Jehovah’s spokespeople on earth?”
Jackson replied, “That, I think, would seem to be quite presumptuous to say that we are the ‘only spokesperson’ that God is using.”
Really? Was he being truthful and honest when he replied that way?