While KSD gets bragging rights as the first station with a broadcast license in St. Louis, WIL can lay claim to activity as early as 1920 with the experiments of L.A. “Eddie” Benson.
Benson is said to have transmitted presidential election returns on November 6, 1920, using an improvised transmitter in the basement of his St. Louis home. Benson, who had entered Washington University in 1916 at the age of 16 and later served in the army during World War I, founded the Benwood Radio Company, a parts and service store.
A list of Special Land Stations, provided by Barry Mishkind, lists station 9ZB, owned by Lester Benson, in St. Louis, established in December 1920. In 1922, Benson founded WEB (broadcast license granted April 5, 1922).
In addition, according to a Broadcasting profile of Benson published in 1934, the Post-Dispatch commissioned him to build a transmitter at the newspaper (but it is not clear from the profile whether this was KSD; Secrest’s history of KSD does mention a wireless station that was the predecessor of KSD). According to the Oldradio database, WEB became WIL in 1925.
As the 1934 Broadcasting profile reported:
A dozen years ago he placed St. Louis’s first commercial station on the air. Subsequently he established three others. He proved the practicability of broadcasting two ways from a moving automobile — the forerunner of the police radio services of today. He originated play-by-play broadcasts of baseball games in St. Louis, and announced the first blow-by-blow account of a prizefight in that city.
Even with all that, WIL bounced around on the dial during various Federal Radio Commission reallocations in the late 1920s, being listed at various times on 1160, 1350, and 1420 kHz.
For a time during 1928 (and perhaps 1927), WIL shared time at 1160 with short-lived station WSBF, owned by the Stix, Baer, and Fuller department stores. WSBF was Stix’s second attempt at broadcasting; the prestigious store had operated WCK until from April 3, 1922 until at least 1925. While the Commerce Department’s radio bulletin listed WSBF as WCK’s new call letters in 1925, a Kansas City Journal-Post article on the Federal Radio Commission’s first reallocation of stations in 1927 noted:
WSBF, St. Louis, Mo., owned by Mississippi Broadcasting company. Newly licensed station, authorized to operate with 250 watts power on frequency of 680 kilocycles (440.9 meters).
While WSBF appeared in a Kansas City Journal-Post list of all U.S. radio stations on January 14, 1928, operating at 258.5 meters (1160 kHz), it did not show up in lists of the November 11, 1928 reallocation. In his list of stations with W calls west of the Mississippi, Thomas Hamilton White shows WSBF as deleted on November 30, 1928.
WIL obtained exclusive use of 1200 kHz in 1933 after a two-year fight with the St. Louis Truth Center’s KFWF, with which WIL was sharing time. WIL began its battle for fulltime operation in 1931. A Federal Radio Commission examiner first recommended the denial of KFWF’s license in July, 1932. The St. Louis Truth Center won a rehearing, but on April 14, 1933, the Commission upheld the examiner and awarded WIL full-time operation on 1200 kHz. A Broadcasting report explained:
KFWF, operated by the St. Louis Truth Center, was charged with failure to serve [the] public interest by soliciting funds for allegedly questionable medical and religious enterprises of its owner, Emil Hartmann.April 15, 1933
After losing a court appeal on May 12, KFWF was ordered to cease operations at 3 am, May 18, 1933.
WIL remained a low-power local-coverage station until 1939, when it finally stepped up from 100 to 250 watts.
After World War II, WIL moved to its present 1430 kHz slot with 5,000 watts (DA-2). The Oldradio database said this occurred April 1, 1949; however, WIL had a full-page ad in the March 14, 1949 Broadcasting profile blaring forth with these headlines: “WIL St. Louis Now Delivering 5,000 Watts Full Time to One of The Midwest’s Most IMPORTANT Markets”.
WIL also began to emphasize sports, including St. Louis Cardinals baseball games, later such a mainstay on KMOX. The Benson family sold WIL to the Balaban chain in 1957; the station is presently owned by Bonneville Broadcasting. It was an early Top 40 station in the 1960s before being overtaken by KXOK; after a brief fling with an all-news format in the late 1960s, it became the country music station in St. Louis. The format continued on co-owned WIL-FM while the AM became WRTH on December 4, 1990, and eventually switched to a nostalgia/MOR format.
On June 29, 2005, the WIL call letters returned to their historic home, along with a “Country Legends 1430” format evocative of the station’s long history with country music. Unfortunately, the calls once again departed the 1430 slot on March 5, 2008, becoming KZQZ, and changing format to a combination of oldies and talk.