Thursday, September 21, 2006

Murder onthe Radio

No, not DJs killing each other (though that has happened too I hear) It was the first broadcast murder trial. It had to happen, but this one was lost to antiquity and many people assume that this was a television first. The station was 1420 WHIS-AM.

It was in 1931 that WHIS-AM became the first American radio station to ever broadcast a murder trial direct from the courtroom. In the Spring of 1929 got permission to go on air. It was a sharing time Station WRBX-AM in Roanoke, but they made the best of it. Starting with 100 watts they signed on at 6:00 PM June 27, 1929 broadcasting from a tower atop the West Virginian Hotel in Bluefield.

The accused was one Minnie Stull. She was accused of murdering her three-year-old stepchild by scalding it to death in a wash tub of boiling water. Such a heinous crime had aroused the public greatly. At this time, the Mercer County Courthouse in Princeton was under construction, and Minnie's trial was to be held in the near by American Legion building.

As the room was too small to permit spectators, Judge Dillard suggested to Jim Shott that perhaps loudspeakers could be rigged up so folks on the outside could hear the proceedings. It was agreed upon and several carbon microphones were acquired. These were placed in shoeboxes prepared with cotton batting to reduce outside noise. The boxes were actually passed from judge to witnesses to attorneys.

Minnie was convicted and given a death sentence, but the case was appealed on the grounds that broadcasting the proceedings had made a "circus" of the trial. The trial would hant them for decades.

Shortly after changing frequency from 1420 to 1410 WHIS bought out WRBX the Roanoke station with whom it shared time. In 1933 the FCC again decided to change their digs and they moved up the dial to 1240. At the same time they incrased their power to 500 watts.

Then ironicly in 1935 WHIS-AM experienced their seecond first. Kid Canfield a lecturer on the evils of gambling dropped dead at the microphone live on air. He had just been introduced by host Mel Barnett. His death was attributed to Mic-fright.

It happened to them again in 1939 Mr. O. C. Young was recording the pianist Bob Longworth. He finished recording, and stood to leave the studio. As Longworth opened the soundproof door to leave, he dropped dead. He never even hear the playback!

Its unrelated, but breifly in 1948 WHIS-FM was the world's most powerful commercial FM station. Also owned by WHIS-AM, it had an ERP of 186,000 watts! But at the time FM was not yet popular and it died a premature death. but WHIS-AM 1440 lives on, they currently simulcast on WTZE.