Remembering WOK, Arkansas’ First Radio Station

When you think high-tech, what comes to mind? Wi-Fi? Artificial intelligence? Smart phones with more computing horsepower than the Apollo moon missions? A century ago, radio was the high tech of the day, and Pine Bluff was on the cutting edge, thanks to the efforts of a visionary power plant executive. The story of WOK starts in 1920 when Harvey C. Couch Sr., the founder of Arkansas Light and Power Company (later renamed Arkansas Power and Light—AP&L), announced that his company was planning to build a radio system to serve as a communication network for the company's plants throughout the state. Couch realized the incredible impact radio could have on every aspect of life, including his business. In 1921, Couch visited the radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the trip, Couch met Lee de Forest, the inventor of the radiotelephone. Intrigued, Couch bought equipment and decided to bring his radio dreams to life. The following February, Couch erected the antenna, a wire strung between two 100-foot wooden poles at the company’s office on Main Street in Pine Bluff. A week later, the U.S. Department of Commerce gave AP&L permission to operate with 500 watts of power. James Leland Longino, the company vice president, was given the honor of naming the new station. Deciding that the call letters should stand for something, he decided on “Workers of Kilowatts,” or WOK. The first radio broadcast in Arkansas came two days later, on Saturday evening, February 18, 1922. Listeners were encouraged to call the office and remark on the quality of their reception. People all over the United States dialed in to say they had heard the station loud and clear. Radio programming in those days was different from the round-the-clock broadcasts we have today. WOK aired two days a week—Tuesdays and Fridays—for one hour each day—from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. Programming included a mix of news bulletins, monologues, and musical talent from the Pine Bluff area. During the station’s first week, a musical performance by Kueck’s Orchestra of Pine Bluff aired, as well as an instrumental program linked to an event at the Pine Bluff Country Club. A Metropolitan Opera soprano named Lenora Sparks sang several songs. WOK made history during its first year of operation. Rev. H.B. Trimble, pastor of Couch's church Lakeside Methodist, delivered a sermon over the radio, an opportunity Couch offered other denominations. The radio quickly became a favorite medium for preachers, as it remains today. Couch was a relentless champion of his station. He promoted WOK all over Arkansas, including in many hotels (which began putting radios in their lobbies), the Arkansas State Fair, and even in prisons. Because AP&L paid for the station, WOK was commercial free. Although listeners loved it, the radio station eventually became a financial drain on the company. In June 1923, broadcasting ended, with the promise that it would begin again in the fall. Although the station’s license was renewed in September 1923 for another three months, WOK was permanently shut down the following June. WOK may have lasted just two years, but its influence can still be felt today. Sources: EncyclopediaofArkansas.com, TheArkansas100.com, ArkansasOnline.com, Delta Music and Film, Jefferson County and the Lowlands Image Credits: TheArkansas100, James Leslie Collection

Remembering WOK, Arkansas’ First Radio Station