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Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Radio Pioneer (WBBR 1924 - 1957)

"Radio Tells the World Millennium Is Coming,” declared the Philadelphia Record of April 17, 1922, continuing: “Judge Rutherford’s Lecture Broadcasted from Metropolitan Opera House. Talks into Transmitter. Message is Carried Over Miles of Bell Telephone Wires to Howlett’s Station.” So began a newspaper report of J. F. Rutherford’s first radio address, given on Sunday, April 16, 1922, at the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The subject? “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” His visible audience was a mere handful compared with an estimated 50,000 residents of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who heard the speech on primitive radios in their homes.

Those were the early days of radio communication. In the United States it was not until 1920 that regular commercial radio broadcasts were made from Pittsburgh’s station KDKA and WWJ of Detroit, Michigan. A person could then buy a factory-built crystal set with earphones, but not until the 1930’s were radios with built-in loudspeakers and aerials produced.

Jehovah’s servants of the early 1920’s were relatively few in number. By 1924 in the United States there were, on the average, only 1,064 Bible Students preaching from house to house weekly. So, during that period God’s people recognized the far-reaching effects of radio and considered it a fine means of reaching the masses with the Kingdom message.

In 1922 J. F. Rutherford and a few advisers first took claim to some twenty-four acres on Staten Island in New York city’s Borough of Richmond. Taking us back to that interesting time, Lloyd Burtch once stated: “One Saturday afternoon the president of the Society, Brother Rutherford, took some of us with him to Staten Island. Upon arriving at the property that had been purchased, he pointed to a spot in the heart of the woods on the land and said: ‘All right, boys. Here is where we start digging. We are going to build a radio station on our land.’ And did we dig! Every weekend during that summer we were at it.” Throughout the winter and on into the summer of 1923 construction went on apace, many young men from the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn assisting on weekends.

In 1923 Ralph H. Leffler was teaching radio theory at the Alliance, Ohio, high school. One day he received a letter from the president’s office of the Watch Tower Society. It asked: “Noting that you are a teacher of radio . . . would you consider devoting all your time in the Lord’s service in this behalf?” Brother Leffler clearly saw Jehovah’s hand in this and could not refuse to accept this opportunity. By mid-October he arrived at Bethel and was put to work washing dishes! “Had I not had enough of washing dishes in the army? thought I,” he later wrote. “Then I remembered the scripture: ‘The LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.’ (Deut. 13:3, AV) Yes, this is another test, I concluded.” But a month later he got started on radio work. “A 500-watt composite radio transmitter was located in the city and purchased for the station,” Brother Leffler recalls. This he quickly installed and all was ready for the first broadcast.

“Emotions were running high,” admits Brother Leffler. “Would the first broadcast be a success? Would anyone be able to hear us? License from the government to broadcast had been obtained. And the call letters assigned were WBBR. All was now ready for the first broadcast. That occurred on Sunday evening, February 24, 1924. It was my privilege to throw the power switch on for that first broadcast and away we went, hoping for the best.”

That first program over WBBR continued for two hours, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. There were piano solos, singing, and in between was the feature of the program, the lecture by the Society’s president, J. F. Rutherford, on the subject “Radio and Divine Prophecy.” Each evening thereafter, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., and on Sundays, from 3 to 5 p.m., programs with good music and educational talks were radiocast.

Opportunities for dramatic work over WBBR presented themselves. Maxwell G. Friend shared in this. He had undergone intense dramatic training at the renowned City Theater in Zurich, Switzerland. Years later Jehovah favored Brother Friend with the unexpected privilege of producing and directing Biblical dramas and realistic reproductions of court trials of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses by clergy-influenced, prejudiced judges and prosecutors in America. These dramas exposed them to public shame and exonerated God’s servants. The trained performers and musicians who worked in these presentations made up “The King’s Theater.”

In 1928 at South Amboy, New Jersey, some of Jehovah’s servants were arrested for preaching the good news on Sunday. That marked the beginning of the decade-long “Battle of New Jersey.” “The King’s Theater” played a part in this. During court trials of true Christians, often local judges were Catholics who manifested prejudice in the courtroom, using uncouth language and even betraying ecclesiastical allies who sought to remain in the background. Courtroom exchanges were recorded in shorthand. Trained performers attended the trials and studied the voice and intonations of the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and so forth. A few days later “The King’s Theater” duplicated the courtroom scenes with astounding realism. Thus the air waves were used to expose the foe, and eventually the judges became so frightened that the spotlight had been turned on them, as well as upon misguided policemen and prosecutors, that many became more astute in handling cases involving Jehovah’s people.

For some thirty-three years WBBR brought glory to Jehovah and spread Bible truth far and wide. It began broadcasting with a 500-watt transmitter. Three years later, a new 1,000-watt transmitter was purchased. In 1947 the Federal Communications Commission granted WBBR permission to increase its power to 5,000 watts, providing this would not interfere with other stations operating on the same frequency in widely scattered parts of the United States. Installation of a three-tower directional antenna system solved that problem and this array increased the 5,000-watt power to more than 25,000 watts in the northeasterly direction where the population was the greatest. WBBR was heard in the area of metropolitan New York and the adjoining states of New Jersey and Connecticut. However, letters concerning its programs were received from England, Alaska, California and other distant places.

The Society sold the station on April 15, 1957. Why? Well, 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, as well as Long Island and even parts of New Jersey. By 1957, however, there were 62 congregations within New York city and a peak of 7,256 proclaimers of the Kingdom, besides 322 full-time publishers of the good news. So a good witness was being given. Also, it is much more effective to speak to the people in their homes, where they can ask questions and receive further instruction from the Word of God. The money spent in connection with radio operations could be used in some other way to advance the interests of God’s kingdom.

There was more to the radio work of the Society, however. One day J. F. Rutherford came into Ralph Leffler’s room, laid a map of the United States on the table, and, pointing with his finger, he said: “I have in mind locating broadcasting stations here and here and here. Would you be willing to engineer the construction of these stations?” “I’d be happy to do so,” was the reply. So, when November 1924 arrived, Brother Leffler was on his way to the Chicago area to work on the construction of another Society-owned radio station, this one with the call letters WORD. Brother Leffler also installed transmitters for other stations, not directly owned by the Society but managed by its representatives.


During the 1920’s Jehovah’s people not only pioneered in establishing one of the early radio stations, WBBR. As already noted, radio history was made by Jehovah’s servants on Sunday, July 24, 1927, when J. F. Rutherford spoke over a network of fifty-three stations from Toronto, Ontario, Canada—the largest radio chain forged up to that time.

What led to this unprecedented network broadcast? A series of events. An agreement had been made between WBBR and the owner of New York city station WJZ to share time, but the agreement was not kept. Later, WBBR was assigned to broadcast on another wavelength, and still later reassigned to one less favorable. Under the Radio Act of 1927 the Society’s station began a proceeding before the Federal Radio Commission to be assigned a more desirable wavelength. At the hearing (June 14, 15, 1927) President Merlin Hall Aylesworth of the National Broadcasting Company testified to the great service rendered by New York radio stations WEAF and WJZ, apparently to show that it would not be right to permit WBBR to occupy part of the time, although both WJZ and WEAF had separate wavelengths. During cross-examination by J. F. Rutherford, this question was propounded to Mr. Aylesworth: “Your purpose is to give to the people by radio the message of the greatest financiers, the most prominent statesmen, and the most renowned clergymen in the world?” The reply was affirmative.

“If you were convinced that the great God of the universe will shortly put in operation his plan for the blessing of all the families and nations of the earth with peace, prosperity, life, liberty and happiness, would you arrange to broadcast it?” It would have been quite difficult to say No, and so the answer was Yes. Then Mr. Aylesworth voluntarily said that he would be pleased to broadcast a lecture by the president of the International Bible Students Association. Naturally, J. F. Rutherford accepted the offer.

So it was that as Brother Rutherford spoke to a convention audience of some 15,000 at Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Sunday, July 24, 1927, millions more heard him by means of a hitherto unparalleled radio network. In a letter received by the Society from the National Broadcasting Company, it was stated: “I imagine that Judge Rutherford had as large an audience yesterday afternoon as any man living has had over the radio.”

The Bible Students were involved in another notable radio event in 1928. In Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, August 5, when J. F. Rutherford delivered the public lecture “Ruler for the People” to an audience of 12,000, it was carried by a radio network that linked 107 stations, required 33,500 miles of telephone lines and 91,400 miles of telegraph lines, and it was rebroadcast by short wave to Australia and New Zealand.

The Watchtower or “White” network was organized in 1928, especially to serve that Detroit convention. It was so successful that the Watch Tower 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 Brother Rutherford, with introductory and concluding music furnished by an orchestra maintained by the Society. Every Sunday from November 18, 1928, through the year 1930 radio listeners thus could tune in to “The Watch Tower Hour.”

Radio programs occupied much of Brother Rutherford’s time. A fine witness was given, but he was unable to travel or organize conventions in various parts of the earth. So in 1931 the Society decided to present transcribed programs. Two hundred and fifty stations were organized to present these 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 message to six continents, and 23,783 separate Bible talks were broadcast, most of them being these fifteen-minute electrical transcriptions. In those days, one might spin the radio dial and tune in Watch Tower broadcasts emanating from widely scattered stations at the same time. Often the air waves were filled with words of truth that glorified God.

- 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, WTB&TS


Radio Station WBBR Preaches the Word

Jehovah’s witnesses now declare “the day of vengeance of our God” and at the same time “comfort all that mourn”. (Isa. 61:2) This message of judgment upon the nations and of comfort to the mourners is being published in all the world unto all nations by God’s faithful Kingdom publishers who are ministers of the gospel, by the printed page, by word of mouth, by correspondence and by radio. Outstanding in the field of radio is the Watchtower station WBBR, in New York City.

Many have been the attempts by the misguided servants of darkness to still the voice of this, the only radio station on earth dedicated wholly to the service of Almighty God; but after twenty-six years of uninterrupted proclamation of the Kingdom message giving unstinted praise to Jehovah, WBBR goes confidently on sharing with all other Theocratic instruments the
protection Jehovah has promised to his people.—Isa. 54:17, Am. Stan. Ver.

This station being confined to a building, and its voice not being strong enough to reach into all lands, it is unable to fulfill the divine command to preach this gospel of the Kingdom to all nations. The overspreading of the earth with the gospel message is done by the entire body of gospel preachers, Jehovah’s witnesses, as they actively publish the truth in all nations. However, WBBR does have a rare opportunity of preaching to many persons from many nations.

WBBR’s voice may reach some or many of the official representatives of nations, because of its location in New York city. How so? Why, because the focal point of the largest gathering of national representatives ever to exist on earth is New York city. The nations gather there representatively in a United Nations organization. And WBBR has a message that should vitally concern the United Nations, because God’s Word speaks of such international attempts to rule the world, and WBBR preaches that Word.

Over nineteen centuries ago Jesus gave warning of the coming of this great council of nations with its religious backing and said it would presume to stand in the holy place, claiming to be divinely authorized, but in actuality it would be a dreadful desecration under the guise of the political expression of the kingdom of God on earth. “‘So when you see the dreadful desecration, of which the prophet Daniel spoke, set up in the Holy Place’—the reader must take note of this.”—Matt. 24:15, An Amer. Trans.; Ps. 2:1-9.

At the time this great kingdom counterfeit come into prominent view there is to be a mighty world-wide proclamation regarding the true kingdom: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matt. 24:14) The desecrating counterfeit has come into view; God’s people are taking note of this. And WBBR is preaching it, at the very doorstep of the U.N.

Not only are the official representatives of many nations within reach of WBBR’s radio signal, but also there are millions of individuals speaking the languages of the various nations, many thousands of them being foreign-born. The iron curtain may be down between the good news of the Kingdom and those nations behind that iron curtain, and may hinder though not stop gospel-preaching in those lands; but there are still in the great metropolitan center of New York city, WBBR’s primary area, according to the last census, 926,516 Russians; 412,543 Poles; 322,586 Austrians; 123,188 Hungarians; 57,624 Czechoslovakians; 84,675 Rumanians, and 11,355 Yugoslavians.

We might look to Palestine, with its 1,912,000 inhabitants, when we think of the good news of the Kingdom going to the Jews of the fleshly house of Israel, and yet incline to ignore the fact that there are “2,035,000 Jews in New York city alone. We think of Rome as being the city where most Italians would be found in one place; there are 1,500,000 inhabitants in Rome, yet in New York city there are 1,095,000 persons, Italian-speaking or Italian-born. There are 506,635 people in Dublin, Ireland, where the kingdom message is greatly opposed by the Catholic clergy, yet there are 518,466 Irishmen in New York city alone, where the Kingdom message is freely broadcast by WBBR. And while in Greece Jehovah’s witnesses receive diabolical persecution at the hands of false religionists, from WBBR the good news of the Kingdom is within easy reach of 53,253 Greeks residing in the city of New York.

WBBR is indeed a powerful instrument in the hands of the Most High God, privileged to preach not to all nations, but to many individuals from many nations.


While it is true that WBBR counts it an honor and a privilege to declare the purpose of Jehovah and his coming judgments upon the nations, it takes particular delight in comforting those within its great audience that mourn, and there are many such. Today we are living in the time of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos 8:11: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord Jehovah, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Jehovah.” (Am. Stan. Ver.) Throughout the land of Christendom there is a dearth of truth, a spiritual famine. Many of the Lord’s sheep are hungrily seeking the green pasture where food convenient can be found. WBBR is playing an important role in cooperation with the Lord’s people in seeking out those hungry ones.

The Watchtower Society, the owner and operator of WBBR, has found that these dear sheep of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, can be fed most conveniently in small home Bible-study groups. As the Good Shepherd promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20, Am. Stan. Ver.) WBBR enjoys the happy privilege of being able to serve more than 5,000 such home Bible-study groups.

In addition there are countless homes into which the heart-cheering message of the Kingdom is sent by radio signal. Uniformed attendants, unsympathetic doorkeepers or grumpy householders cannot stop a radio message from reaching the receiver of some hungry sheep casually turning the dial if haply he might find something upon which to feed his hungry soul. In the huge apartment houses of metropolitan New York this is particularly true. The tenant in the back room or a member in the family, neither of whom ever goes to the door, still may be reached and served with the mere turning on of his receiving set and his tuning to 1330 kilocycles. From among the apartment houses of Manhattan comes this note of gratitude:

“The West Manhattan Unit of Jehovah’s witnesses wishes to express appreciation to WBBR for the good work that is being done for the people of good will in our territory. The West Manhattan territory is such that much of it is inaccessible, but we are comforted in the knowledge that the powerful radio waves of WBBR can go beyond those doors and reach in where we cannot.”

One would expect to find in the Lord’s work perfect coordination between all its branches. A faithful witness standing patiently at the street corner, holding in view of the passers-by the message of life as contained in The Watchtower and inviting others to partake of the message, could hardly know that WBBR had already paved the way and stirred up a hungry sheep to seek the green pasture of truth. But such was the case. From a Kingdom publisher comes this happy testimony:

“When we were in street work I handed a lady an invitation to the public Bible lecture. She smiled and thanked me. She said she had been listening to WBBR for about four months and found it very interesting and ‘the gentleman on the radio told me someone would call and help me study the Bible. You know, two are better than one. Do you do that work?’ I have had three studies with her in ‘Let God Be True’. That is the first time anyone ever came up and asked me for a study. Thanks for the wonderful help we are receiving in the field from the broadcasts of WBBR.”

But WBBR’s service is not confined to metropolitan New York, as large and extensive as it is. From the eastern reaches of New Brunswick, Canada, came this note of interest: “I called on a family who are all old and crippled in some way. They are isolated and love the truth dearly. They get the evening programs of WBBR . . . The radio is really a blessing to this isolated family and they are happy beyond description.”

And then those unfortunate shut-ins: “Just a note of appreciation to our heavenly Father for the programs we hear each day. My mother is 95 years of age and almost blind, and but for the radio would indeed be lonely.”

Expressions from our Jewish friends should not be overlooked:

“I have been a constant listener to your evening broadcasts. If there be any solution to the world’s ills, it shall be only one: the abandonment of materialism displaced by spiritual belief and love for one another and for God. I would like to know more about the Watchtower. My upbringing, being nearly empty of religious instruction (of the Hebrew faith), lacking knowledge of the truth, has caused me to be in confusion. Now, however, the truth is seeping in. Awaiting your reply.”

This dear sheep got his reply! From another sincere Jew came this heartfelt praise:

“Among your many well-wishers, I too should like to extend to you my heartfelt wishes in behalf of your splendid work. It is perhaps needless for me to tell you that among all the major and minor broadcasting stations yours indeed excels them all, for your services are of priceless value, sound and inspiring. Your humble organization of Jehovah’s witnesses, in the devotion towards spiritual light and truth, is a sublime consolation and effort in this unbearable tragic day and age of spiritual and moral darkness and desecration.”

And so with boldness in this day, giving all praise to Jehovah, WBBR gives warning, declaring “the day of vengeance of our God”, and with humble gratitude to the Great Shepherd, Jehovah, and the Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus, continually feeds the sheep, comforts those that mourn, and faithfully preaches the Word.—2 Tim. 4:2.

- August 15, 1950 Watchtower, WTB&TS