The Most Powerful Radio Station in the World

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a ceremonial button on his desk in the Oval Office in May 1934, a 500 kW behemoth stirred in a field outside Cincinnati. Rows of 5-foot glass tubes warmed, and water flowed around them at more than 600 gallons per minute. Dozens of engineers lit filaments and flipped switches, and within the hour enough power to supply a town of 100,000 coursed through an 831-foot tower. Thus began radio station WLW’s 5-year, 24-hour-a-day experiment. The so-called “super station” now had the ability to reach most of the country, especially at night, when AM radio waves were traditionally at their weakest. The power of WLW rattled gutters loose from buildings, kept neon signs on continuously, and allowed farmers to hear WLW through their barbed-wire fences. In fact, the transmission, which covered half the globe, caused neighbors of the radio station to hear the audio in their pots and pans and mattresses. Other stations assumed they would get the go-ahead for higher power, but that never materialized. In the end, WLW’s power would be the downfall of the experiment. In 1936, the FCC conducted hearings and initiated a survey of rural residents. Finally, in 1939, regulators decided not to renew WLW’s authority to broadcast at 500 kW, causing the station to roll back to 50 kW, which is still the maximum wattage allowed today.