A chat with an author
Christopher Varela informs me that more copies of his book, "Kotton, Port, Rail Center: A History of Early Radio in Houston" is available for purchase.
Anyone wanting a copy can send $21 to:
P.O. Box 12810
Houston, TX 77217-2810
Copies are also available the city's visitors center inside City Hall for $16.95. For questions, contact Varela at email@example.com.
"Kotton, Port, Rail Center" mostly covers Houston's broadcasting history from the prewar period of WWI to the formation of KPRC and KTRH and other AM stations. Much detail -- most of it available in a book for the first time -- is given to those early amateur radio enthusiasts who helped shape local broadcasting as we know it.
I recently posed some questions for Varela based on his book:
Q: How did you get the idea for a book on Houston's early radio history?
A: I got the idea for the book back in the mid-1990s when I had a conversation with a co-worker who is an amateur radio operator and a historian on radio broadcasting in Houston. I chose to condense my book to the "antique age" of broadcasting before 1930 because I felt that it would be a forgotten part of history and few historians would be interested in documenting it.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
A: One of the things that surprised me was the distance these amateur radio operators and first broadcasting stations were reaching. Family legend has it that William John Uhalt of New Orleans, and who would later install station KTUE in Houston, was receiving the faint distress SOS signals from the Titanic as she was sinking some hundreds of miles away in April of 1912. Other Houston amateurs were reaching Europe and the Hawaiian Islands. Given good, atmospheric conditions, Houston's first broadcasting stations could be heard around the nation and into Latin America and Canada. No wonder broadcasting was viewed as an excellent attention getting gimmick at the time. I was also surprised how intimately related radio technology was to television. Without radio, there would be no television and some of pioneer radio broadcasters would go on to invent television. Radio stations KPRC, KTRH and KXYZ of Houston had some of the city's first television licenses. But only KPRC-TV (Channel 2) would realize this next evolutionary step of radio technology.
Q: Your book mentions Howard Hughes' involvement in amateur radio. Was he particularly instrumental to the history of radio in Houston?
A: Howard Hughes had little direct influence to Houston's broadcasting movement. But as an amateur radio operator during the late 1910s, he had the finest radio equipment with an ever-supporting father. Being the fact that he would go on to become a famed 20th century figure, the stories I have in my book of his amateur radio hobby in Houston just add more texture to the history. In 1920, Hughes' father would donate a radio set to the Rice University for its budding amateur radio activity. From this, Rice University's broadcasting station WRAA would briefly sign on in 1923.
Q: Local radio pioneers like Clifford Vick, Jimmie Autry and Will Horwitz have largely been forgotten when discussing Houston history. Is it safe to say Vick and Horwitz were local celebrities in their time?
A: Yes, these broadcasting pioneers were hailed as local heroes during the 1920s. Even as an amateur radio operator, Clifford Vick was recognized as a hero by the Houston Chronicle when he reported up-to-date information on a hurricane which struck the lower Texas gulf coast in 1919. These radiomen introduced an exciting new medium to the Houston public. I would equate their popularity to that of a star athlete or other prominent figure.
Q: I was surprised to learn how much the local business community became involved in radio just after WWI. There were licenses issued for the Houston Chronicle (WFAL), the Houston Post (WEAY) and the Levy Brothers Dry Goods company (WPAN). It sort of seems like the mid-1990s when every business tried to set up its own Web site.
A: Back in the early 1920s, the sole purpose one would establish a broadcasting station was to "advertise" an agenda, whether it be to sell radio sets, air an event from one's venue, or bring one's radio knowledge to light. As you have stated before, it is reminiscent of the World Wide Web craze we have now where one sets up a website to bring ideas to public domain.
Q: In general, how did Houstonians react to those early days of broadcasting?
A: Houstonians reacted to broadcasting with extreme acceptance. To have a radio receiving set in the 1920s would be like having the best HDTV today with a state-of-the-art stereo system connected. As you can see in my book, newspapers, the general public, musicians, public figures, entertainers and the hotel industry gravitated to broadcasting.
Q: Anything else you are working on?
A: I am currently not working on anything concrete. Just ideas that I am developing. Like you, I am looking for stories of Houston's past that have been forgotten or overlooked.