The "W" prefix call sign for radio amateurs has been around since 1918, almost a century, and may still be considered by most as the most prestigeous. It may connote that a "ham" has some experience and wisdom. But today, under the present licensing format, anyone can enter the hobby and on the first day swap for a "W" call under the vanity program. In 2016, there are over 6,000 "hams" in the 5th who use "W" calls today (almost half of the potential pool available). Here is a little essay on how this came to be, and how it shakes out in the old 5th radio district:

In the beginning, all radio was "amateur radio" or "wireless." There was no commercial market for the technology. Samuel Morse had come up with his code in 1844, and applied it to land lines, which were at that time open copper strung on poles. Coaxial cable and finally fibre optics would come many decades later. It took a while, but soon there was a transcontinental open wire link, and eventually shethed underseas copper wires. Western Union, and others, had a monopoly on taking and delivering messages. Telegraphy was in its heydey. It would be applied to the new wireless medium first, with voice and music coming soon afterwards.

While the concept of "wireless" technology had been proven as early as 1880, it took another twenty years for practical applications to develop. Radio experimenting, or "wireless" communication technology, was mostly an eastern regional phenomenon in the early days. Not much was going on in the south. Like aviation and "horseless carriage" building, early radio was also a male-dominated activity.

If you have ever listened to an old AM car radio when thunderstorms were off on the horizon, you get a feel for early radio transmissions, which were generated by spark gap "transmitters." You judged the early operators by the size of their spark! Receiving was done literally by connecting primitive telephone-type earpieces to a piece of crystal and a "cat's whisker." Transmissions, like bursts of static from thunderstorms were "long wave." Transmissions did not go very far, usually you were lucky to make it to the horizon. In the south there weren't many operators or stations to communicate with on the long waves. Eventually, experimenters discovered that higher frequencies (short waves) could bounce off the ionosphere, but that is a story for another time.

Experimenters were self-policed at the outset, there was no government regulation. The first receptions took place in 1900 and 1901. Stations were generally identified by the initials of the operators, with "call signs" or "call signals" that would tell other stations who they were communicating with. Directories developed by which operators could look up the geographic locations, if they did not already have them memorized. Most of the calls were "three letter."

By 1909 there were around 50 experimenters known to each other, including 15 in New York and New Jersey, 7 in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and two in Philadelphia. Somewhat surprisingly, there were 8 early experimenters in California. One John Christianson and a second, Edwin R. Willard, operated from Chicago, and Ralph T. Morse (RTM) from Indianapolis in the midwest. There were no operators identified in what would become the 5th radio district of the south central US.


In 1912 Titanic sank in the north Atlantic, and the loss of life was significantly higher than it could have been. In part this was due to the lack of radio communication with potential rescue ships. One other nearby ship had a radio, but it had been shut down for the night, and the disaster in the making was not known to them. Others had no radios at all. As a result, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912. It was mostly concerned with maritime and navy aspects of the new communication technology. The United States Department of Commerece, Navigation Bureau, was tasked with the inspection of radio stations for ships, and almost as an afterthought, on land as well.

Early on, a distinction started to develop between commercial stations, which handled message transactions for a fee, and non-commercial or "amateur" stations. In particularly, the Marconi Company was attempting to make inroads in the messaging market, previously held in a lock by Western Union, which handled most land-line telegrams. But, the Radio Act had not addressed this issue specifically in its early, "one-size fits all," regulatory framework.

It was also realized early-on that radio waves did not respect political boundaries. A framework of international regulation began to fall into place. The International Telegraphy Union had existed since 1865 to govern international wire-line traffic. It adapted to the times, and changed its name to what eventually became the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Today it is under the umbrella of the United Nations. Broadcasting had not yet been really thought of, as few families had receiving sets.


Radio districts were established as an administrative vehicle in the United States by the Department of Commerce, numbered 1 through 9. There was an inspector or "engineer-in-charge" for each district. Initially the 5th district radio office was located in the New Orleans Customhouse. A branch office was eventually set up in the Burt Building in Dallas.

Early stations placed the number of the call district in front of the alpha designator, thus Ralph T. Morse would have become 9RTM in Chicago. Three letter designators were retained for some commercial land-based stations for decades. In New Orleans, WHK was assigned to the Marconi Company, and NAT to a Navy shore station. Some of these would become known later as commercial broadcast station calls beginning in the 1920's as consumer radio receivers became available. Perhaps the best examples in the south is WSB in Atlanta or WWL in New Orleans.

The Navigation Bureau soon began to publish lists of "calls." As late as 1932, both stations and operators received licenses separately, and in the early days, stations were physically inspected and approved by a Navy Department inspector. But during World War I, licenses were cancelled. At the end of hostilities, amateurs had to reapply and receive new call signs. Part of the reason for the Navy's desire to license radio operators had been just so that they could ban civilian use of the airwaves if it was deemed necessary.


In the 5th district in 1918, call signs issued to amateurs began at 5AA, and generally moved sequentially through the alphabet, with just a two letter suffix. While not necessarily the oldest calls, they were to last in perpetuity. As long as an amateur stayed alive, did not move, and did not fail to renew his license, he could keep the same call. It also became the practice at the FRC, and later the FCC, to attempt to award counterpart calls to hams who changed addresses from one radio district to another. The "counterpart call" policy was to last until 1977.

At the end of World War I, the first "scramble" for radio licenses took place when the airwaves were reopened. Everyone had to reapply to get the best choices of station licenses and call signs. Around 1923, some experimenters began using short wave frequencies, which had the potential to cross international borders and oceans. Those US "hams" who made international contacts started informally adding a small "u" in front of their call signs. This practice continued until 1928.

In 1927, the regulation of radio was transferred to a new agency, the Federal Radio Commission. In the same year, the ITU held a conference in which official prefix letters were allocated to each nation of the world. The United States was awarded KDA-KZZ, N, and W. Later, the rest of the K block was shifted to the US from Germany, and much later, in 1947, the United States was also granted the use of the block AA-AK.

Starting October 1, 1928, the prrefix letter "W" officially became part of the call sign of all US amateurs in the continental 48 states (offshore territories such as Alaska and Hawaii received "K call" assignments). In the 5th district, hams offshore in the Canal Zone received "K5" calls.

In the early days, it was the stations that were inspected, by the "engineer" of the radio district. Radio inspectors had the discretion to issue "calls." A license was issued both for the station, and the operator until 1932, when combined station and operator licenses became the norm for hams. The fifth district headquarters was (and still is) in New Orleans. Originally, the state of Alabama was included, along with the present day Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Eventually, Alabama shifted to the 4th district in 1927 when the Radio Act was revised and the new FRC was created.

As long as there has been regulation of amateur operators, there have been various classes of license. A good bit of it had to do with the distance a ham lived from the nearest government office. Those close to the major cities could appear in person, receiving a normal license. Starting in 1927, a temporary license could be obtained by taking a test from another amateur, with grading by a government inspector after the test was sent in by mail. The temporary license was designed to last one year, or until the operator could appear in person before a government examiner. No special privileges or call signs were attached to the early license classes, except that in the early years enhanced frequencies were made available to hams who could master higher speeds of Morse code. Morse code requirements were to later become an alleged mental block for many who wished to enter amateur radio, claiming that they could not learn the basic characters.


By 1934, Congress revisited the Radio Act, and passed the Communications Act of 1934. This created the Federal Communications Commission, which took over most of the duties of the Federal Radio Commission. The staff moved out of the Commerce Building into a new facility, but mostly the FCC continued as the FRC had in the past. There was now a distinct division between commercial and amateur users memorialized in the law, something that had been absent previously.

During the 1930's and 1940's, most amateur licenses were good for three years. The relatively short renewal period allowed many call signs to go dormant if the ham failed to renew. As with most hobbies, the attrition rate is fairly high from those who decide not to pursue it further, or lose interest. Unfortunately many young amateurs did not return from World War II. Their call signs could then be reissued, and often were. There were club and school stations licensed, at least as early as 1927.

Many fraternal organizations developed with radio amateurs as organizers, the largest of which, the Amateur Radio Relay League, or ARRL, became the largest. The League was founded in 1915, shortly after the Navigation Bureau began inspecting radio stations. Originally fraternal and a message handling medium back then, It later took on the role of today what we would call a lobby organization. ARRL seeks to influence government policy makers, as well acting as an advertising and promotional clearinghouse for manufacturers catering to the amateur trade. The ARRL has always been regarded as the best or the worst thing, depending on who you talk to. Those who remember or do not care for "incentive licensing" matrix of the 1960s, often still revile the ARRL today.

There were roughly 12,000 call signs available for assignment in each radio district, with certain normal combinations excluded or bypassed for various reasons. In 1928 this probably seemed like a lot. The suffixes beginning with X Y and Z were not assigned at the outset, being reserved.

The first radio district to "run out of call signs" was the 9th, which originally incuded Kentucky, the UP of Michigan, and everything from the Great Lakes to the Rockies. The FCC was able to delay the inevitible only by spending a lot of time reissuing dormant W9 call signs. The immediate need for more call signs was, however, delayed by suspension of ham radio 1942-1945.

During World War II, amateur station licenses were cancelled, but operator licenses were merely suspended until the end of hostilities. New operator licenses could still be earned during the war. During this time, the ARRL think tank advised the FCC as to post war call sign planning. The FCC adopted the ARRL proposal, and a new tenth district was created in January 1946. Hams who had a "9" call who lived in Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, etc., generally got a counterpart "zero" call, and the pressure on the 9th was relieved temporarily. This took place at license renewal time, so it was phased in over a couple of years, nd did not happen all at once. No longer would any state be split between radio districts. Out west, territory was shifted from the 6th into the 7th. Alaska and Hawaii picked up the H and the L in their earlier unique "K calls." Up east, the 2nd district was revised to include only New York and New Jersey. But still, the 2nd and 6th would be the first to run out of calls. Moving Kentucky and Virginia into the 4th turned out to have been ill-advised, as later the 4th district was to run out of call signs the quickest.

Early amateur call signs in the continental US were exclusively of the W prefix through the entry of the United States into World War II in December, 1941. At that time amateur radio was shut down for the duration of the war. Originally, the W5X- series were reserved for experimental stations, and the W5Y calls were assigned only to club stations. Z suffixes were also blocked in the early years. Certain combinations were not particularly desirable, or in bad taste, and would sometimes be skipped, but generally the call assignment was supposed to be in alphabetical sequential order, starting with W5AA, W5AAA, and ending up with W5WW and W5WZZ. In practice, it did not always happen that way. Sometimes, but not always, call signs that conoted or contined the initials of government agencies or departments were also bypassed.

Before 1920, not many calls had been needed in the 5th district, and in 1928 all were apparently of the two-suffix-letter variety Assignments had only consumed the first four or five letters of the alphabet!


The first amateurs we know of in the 5th district would have probably been 5AA, Eugene B. Knight of Little Rock, Ralph Jones of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Clarence E. Albertson, 5AJ of Tupelo, Mississippi. The first in New Orleans may have been one Theophile Reboul, 5AL of 2106 Chartres Street. By 1916 the early two letter call series had reached into the E series, with 5EN being the most recent grant noted in the alphabet. These were all cancelled during World War I. This as contrasted to the second call district, where three-letter suffixes in the AAA-AZZ range were already being assigned during the same time period.

Once the two letter calls AA-ZZ were used up, the district inspector generally began using AAA-AAZ block assignments. Not all letter combinations were used in the early days, and as would tend to be the case throughout the decades of amateur radio, certain inspectors could be talked into assigning certain calls. Not always would the order assignment be stricly "by the books."

Early "commercial" receiving sets were noted more for the cabinetry, although how "powerfully" the radio could pull in distant stations would also become a factor in sales. As broadcasting became possible, it was often the local furniture store or hardware dealer who would promote sales. In order to spur sales, store owners figured out how to conduct live broadcasts, and play recorded phonograph discs from a player that could be hooked up to the transmitter. This encouraged many to become hams, but the distinction between broadcasters and amateurs was finally set in stone. Government issued "call books" would continue to be published each year, with lists divided into amateur and commercial, and finally the categories were separated into different publications entirely. Private companies entered the publication of call books in the 1920s as well, and by 1932, the Radio Amateur Call Book publishing company out of Chicago became the most noted and pervasive of the vendors. Hard copy call books were published by RAC right up through the 75th edition in 1996. Today, call directories are almost always in digital media, as there are over 750,000 amateurs listed.

In 1940, the FCC had started to "refarm" the radio spectrum. Higher frequencies, or short waves, were starting to be more in demand than the lower frequencies. The FCC, which is dominated by commercial interrests, is generally under heavy pressure from industry groups seeking to implement new technology, or to grab additional bandwidth for older technology. Amateurs have always considered themselves to be lucky to have any frequencies on which to operate, and traditionally have been allowed to use bandspace that no commercial interests wanted or could figure out how to use. This has been true since the beginnings of radio, and is still true today.

Commercial broadcast stations, which were exclusively on the "AM" dial at that time, were "repopulated" in 1941 by the FCC, much as was later done in television during 2009. Various classes of broadcast stations were set up, power levels set, and antenna tower radiation patterns regulated in an attempt to minimize stations "interfering" with each other. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission has been responsible for proposing and promoting various regulations now codified in the administrative law of the nation (The Code of Federal Regulations). Disputes are settled by "administrative law judges." Amateur radio governance, including the classifications of radio operators, is included in the CFR. While individual amateurs may initiate rule changes through petition to the FCC, in reality it is the uneasy partnership of the FCC, ARRL, and other groups of amateurs, who are responsible for bringing change. Amateurs also have operator license classifications. There are no classifications of stations. Either this is one or there is not. Originally, stations were classified as land based, mobile, maritime mobile, and aeronautical mobile, and had to be identified as such. This is no longer true.

And more changes there have been.

Originally, if an amateur moved from one FCC district to another, he generally had to change call signs. A few exceptions were made for those having dual residency in multiple districts. In those cases, a second call sign could be issud without giving up the first. But normally, an amateur moving, say, from New Orleans to Los Angeles would give up his "5" call, and get a "6" call. Often, "counterpart" calls would be assigned if one was available. Since 1978, this has no longer been true, as the FCC eliminated the provisions and secondary calls were also cancelled. After a scandal at the FCC, where staff at the call sign processing center was discovered to be accepting bribes from amateurs during the late 1970's, a system of strict call sign assignment, in order of alphabet, was established. Amateurs could no longer bug the FCC with their calls and letters.

In 1951, another "reclassification" of amateur operator class had resulted in a new, temporary, novice license being created. It was non-renewable at the outset, but eventually became renewable. The distinctive N was used in the W call and later K call until an operator either upgraded, or the license expired after just one year. Eventually novice license terms were extended to two years, five years, and finally to ten. For a very short time in the late 50's, the letter V was used to signify a novice license in two radio districts (2 and 6) that had jumped into WA prefix blocks. It returned to N after all of the outstanding conflicts with WN and KN were resolved by the expiration of those WN and KN calls. There were never any WV calls in the 5th district as they were not needed.

At the time, the novice license was unique, in that the test could be administerred by another ham, not necessarily just an FCC staff employee. It could also be taken by mail. For the first time, an interested person could contact a local amateur and make arrangements for the test locally, rather than having to miss work or school to travel to New Orleans.

Then there is the case of the "Advanced" class, which went away in 1951, but had conveyed no extra privileges in terms of call sign assignment or operating frequencies. The earlier "advanced" class had disappeared for the 1951-1967 period, when no new licenses were issued in that group. The disappearance of the class angered those who were in it previously, as they were the recipients of an unearned downgrade. Then the advanced class reappeared with the "incentive licensing program" of 1965-1968, a double slap in the face to those who remembered the earlier slight.

Various forms of "incentive licensing" also have tied into the processing of amateur call signs, particularly since 1968. Starting that year, many frequency bands were subdivided, and "privileges" handed out based upon a revised class structure. This structure resulted from an allegation by the ARRL that the quality of amateurs would decline unless something was done to enhance the "hobby." This reintroduced the concept of reserved frequencies by class of license to a new generation of hams who had not previously experienced it. It would not be long, however, before the ARRL wished it had not raised the bar to millions of new hams. We shall return to that topic shortly. But in the 1970's, highly desired vacant call signs were distributed to "extra" class amateurs who had been licensed 25 years or more. Many old timers who had used W5 and K5 three letter calls for their entire ham career, found reason to give them up. Soon, those remaining desired calls were opened up to even the newest "extra" class licensee.

Finally, with the rising the tide of amateurs requesting specific call signs, and engaging in all sorts of trickery to obtain one, the FCC adopted a "vanity" program in 1993. Amateurs were allowed to apply for call sign changes, according to time frame established by certain "windows." A fee was charged for this service, the original impetus of passage being as a money raising scheme for the FCC. Eventually, it seems everyone finally got what they wanted, and the waterfall of applications dwindled just to a trickle. In mid 2015, the fee for vanity applications was waived, as being administratively not cost effective. The processing of credit cards was costing the government more than it was raking in from hams, and the lost fees were shifted from amateurs to other commercial users of the radio spectrum.

But we return to the present incentive licensing scheme. For the first time in 1968, call signs were also tied to class of license, with "prestige groups" of calls being offered as enticements to upgrade. Calls with two letter suffixes were reserved for "higher class" licensees. During the late 1970's, "extra class" operators were allowed to pick preferencil two letter suffix calls from those that were unassigned at that time. Twenty yeaars later, those type calls were opened up for "vanity" application.


Such remains the situation today. The novice license was abolished in 2000, although those who had them and wished to renew still can. Two letter suffix W and K calls remain highly sought after, often providing the sole reason for a ham to upgrade license class, even when he or she is not interested in the additional frequencies also made available to that class. It has gotten to the point that obituaries are watched of SK hams, from those hoping to "harvest" their plum call signs.

Since the onset of incentive licensing, entry into amateur radio has gotten progressively easier, many say "dumbed down." Exams have become predictable, based upon question pools that are fairly easily diagnosed by exam prep companies. Partially this resulted from the citizens band radio craze of the 1970's, which turned out to have been something of a flash in the pan. CB operators did not have to take any tests or know Morse code. The ARRL, in a sudden reversal of policy, was seemingly no longer interested in the quality of amateur operators, but rather the quantity. The commercial pressure of advertisers and vendors of products for amateurs, as well as the need for more dues paying members, may unfortunately have also tended to influence the ARRL policies of the time. Today ARRL volunteers teach "to the test" with no involvement by the FCC other than to issue a call.

In that vein, amateurs no longer have to travel to an FCC location in order to take examinations. Prior to the 1960's, one had to physically appear at an FCC district office, or one of several "field office" locations in each district. Examinations, including Morse code tests, were taken in front of an FCC examinter. Code tests of 13 wpm and 21 wpm helped define a class structure of licensees. This was changed to 5 wpm by 2000 (the original novice standard), and evneutually eliminated altogether in 2007 with the blessing of an ARRL evidently no longer concerned with "incentive licensing." With the pool of "1x2" call signs now used up or on two year waiting lists, there is no longer even that incentive to entice licensee education. Those who seek further knowledge now generally do so for employment or economic gain rather than for purposes of amateur radio. And that may be as it should be.

Back in the day, FCC employees traveled from New Orleans to more remote locations, such as Memphis, Tennessee, and gave exams on a quarterly or as needed basis. FCC employees administered exams at remote sites during larger regional and state amateur radio conventions. Some mail out tests were given by authorized groups, and those who passed were given "conditional" licenses.

Often, groups of hams acquired their licenses on the same day back then, by passing their tests, and call signs often were assigned in the same groups. Today this is no longer necessarily true. All processing is through a computerized process, exam administration since 1984 has been conducted by civilian volunteers, and code tests are no longer required. But, sometimes you can still tell about when and where an individual passed his multiple-choice exam by the call sign he receives. In 1978, all conditional licensees were converted to general license by an FCC administrative action. The problem of having two classes of license based upon the distance one lived away from an FCC field office was finally resolved.

The FCC structure has become much more centralized over the years. In addition to the policy making and enforcement staff in Washington DC, there originally were field engineers stationed around the country, often with monitoring capability. Many was the amateur who received a "pink card" from an FCC inspector, notifying him of an out of band operation, or poor transmit characteristic. This, also, has passed. While the FCC may still issue notices of infraction from Washington for egregious behavior, most "policing" of amateur operations is by volunteer civilians, and notices of infractions for random cases of operating error are few. In 2015, the FCC field structure was proposed for total elimination, due to alleged budgetary constraints. The number of field offices was finally trimmed, but not totally shut down. As far as we know, there is still a field office in New Orleans.

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