WOAI, the oldest radio station in San Antonio, signed on the air on September 25, 1922. Broadcasting over frequency 1190 AM using a 500-watt transmitter, the station was touted as one of the “first super powered stations in Texas” and was the brainchild of founder G.A.C. Halff. A popular story tells that Halff wished to carry out a promotional gimmick of giving away hundreds of small radios in connection with his business, and therefore he had to put a radio station on the air so that his customers would have something to listen to. Initial programming included a variety of information and also featured daily violin and piano selections.
WOAI increased its transmitter to 1,000 watts in July 1925. That year the station aired its first commercially-sponsored program that presented an orchestra performing Mexican songs. In 1926 the station increased to 2,000 watts and participated in the first successful chain broadcast with other stations across the United States. It joined the world’s first network, the National Broadcasting Company, on February 6, 1928. WOAI continued to increase its broadcasting power with a 5,000-watt transmitter in 1927 and the legal limit of 50,000 watts in 1930, making it the only 50,000-watt station in South Texas.
By the early 1930s WOAI had built its first radio newsroom and became one of the first stations to employ a local news staff. News was a major focus along with broadcasting soap operas.
In 1934 WOAI, along with WBAP in Fort Worth, WFAA in Dallas, and KPRC in Houston—the four largest stations in Texas, formed the Texas Quality Network. Connected by telephone lines, the stations established the capacity for simultaneous broadcasts and commanded a combined night-time power of 101,000 watts. This shared programming allowed the radio stations to carry the highly popular Light Crust Doughboys radio show, for example. WOAI had two local western swing groups of its own—the Tune Wranglers and Jimmie Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys. In the mid-1930s, both bands were favorite mainstays on the radio station.
WOAI constructed a single 425–foot tower near Selma, northeast of San Antonio, in 1937, which provided for extended coverage. The station’s dedication to news coverage resulted in the hiring of young news reporter Henry Guerra in 1939. Guerra was the first Mexican American to broadcast the news on a major radio station. His love of local history also led to the development of his own programs—13 Days of the Alamo and Henry Guerra’s San Antonio. He would remain with WOAI until his retirement in 1992.
In 1941 WOAI became one of twelve radio stations in the United States to be designated its own unduplicated or “clear channel” frequency as part of an emergency information system. As a result, WOAI was moved to 1200 kHz on March 29, 1941, and in fact remained the only station licensed to that frequency through the 1980s. As one of a select group of clear channel stations, also known as “highways in the sky,” the programs of WOAI could be heard across North America and even south into Central America some nights—reinforcing the station’s reputation as the “Blowtorch.”
During the 1940s WOAI presented Sunday broadcasts of Musical Interpretations, a classical music program that featured San Antonio Symphony conductor Max Reiter as the host. Reiter also conducted the orchestra live on WOAI from San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium for NBC’s nationwide Pioneers of Music.
Longtime staff announcer Bill McReynolds was hired at WOAI in 1947 and served as the host of the station’s country music band, the Radio Rodeo Gang. By the early 1950s he also did a farm and ranch program and would serve as the farm and ranch reporter for fifty years.
San Antonio’s first television station WOAI-TV went on the air on December 11, 1949. With the advent of television, the radio station underwent a transition during the mid-1950s from a news and mostly soap opera format to a music format. The station dropped the soap operas and hired disc jockeys to present a variety of music—from early rock-and-roll to country to the popular songs of the day.
Aaron Allan, on staff at WOAI from 1954 to 1959, experienced the format change and was kept on staff as the country deejay with his own show. He recalled, “On my show I played country and folk music recordings and played my guitar and sang.” Allan’s musical guests included a young and nervous Johnny Cash in one of his earliest interviews on the radio in 1955—well before he made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry.
WOAI’S four studios could accommodate any kind of musical entertainment from a full-sized orchestra to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to Red River Dave McEnery. Allan played a role in a small piece of San Antonio radio history himself by performing live on the radio “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” a song Red River Dave had composed about an African-American youth who had been murdered in Mississippi.
WOAI legend Bob Guthrie was hired in 1956 as a staff announcer. He became the station’s midday news anchor and remained on staff until his retirement in 2009. Along the way, he garnered awards in journalism from Associated Press, United Press International, Sigma Delta Chi, and other organizations.
WOAI continued to provide a variety of music through the 1960s. In 1975 the fledgling company of what would be Clear Channel Communications (see iHEARTMEDIA,INC.), established by Lowry Mays and Red McCombs, purchased WOAI for $1.5 million. During the latter half of the 1970s, the station’s format of primarily music with news and agriculture was gradually changed to a news/talk radio format. During the 1980s sports telecasts were also added, and in 1985 the station constructed a new 50,000-watt transmitter with a 540-foot antenna.
With Clear Channel Communication’s acquisition of Premiere Radio Networks, a syndicator of national talk shows, in 1998, a number of national radio programs such as Rush Limbaugh, and Coast to Coast AM were broadcast on WOAI. In the 2010s the station included a weekday morning news program with Charlie Parker and an evening talk show with Joe Pags (Joe Pagliarulo) along with the nationally-syndicated programs of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others. Weekend programming included a variety of “how-to” shows, and the station was San Antonio’s broadcast home for the San Antonio Spurs. WOAI is one of the few stations west of the Mississippi River (and the westernmost station in the United States) with a call sign that begins with “W.” Its designation was grandfathered in when the United States government required that call signs of stations west of the Mississippi River start with “K.”