Founded as WNAT
On October 17, 1922, a new Philadelphia radio station was authorized by the government to the Lennig Brothers Co, a radio supply company headed up by Frederick Lennig at 827 Spring Garden Street. Lennig placed WNAT on the air at 833 kHz in November, 1922. An early slogan for WNAT was "We Never Are Tired." Over the next two decades, the station changed frequencies and ownership a number of times as summarized below:
|1925||1200 kHz||Lennig Brothers||Shared time with WIAD|
|1927||1040 kHz||Lennig Brothers|| |
|1928||1310 kHz||Lennig Brothers||Shared time with WFKD|
|1929||1310 kHZ||Albert Walker|| |
|1931||1310 kHz||Curtis Publishing||Shared time with WTEL|
|1939||1310 kHz||Bonwit-Teller|| |
|1941||1340 kHz||Philadelphia Record|| |
With the sale of WNAT to Albert Walker in 1929, the station's call letters were changed to WHAT. On March 29, 1930, studios were moved from Spring Garden street to room 538 of the Public Ledger Building at 6th and Chestnut Streets. Albert Walker then sold the station to a subsidiary of the Curtis Publishing Company. By the late 1930s, the station was airing time-brokered religious and ethnic programming. On May 23, 1939, the station was sold to department store company Bonwit-Teller for $10,000. In 1940, Bonwit-Teller sold the station (under the name Independence Broadcasting Company) to the Philadelphia Record Company, a newspaper publisher.
On February 12, 1944, former WIP salesman William Banks purchased WHAT for $22,500 from the Philadelphia Record and became the station's new President. His sister, Dolly Banks, became program director and expanded on the ethnic format while ending time-brokered programming. In 1946, studios were moved out of the Public Ledger Building to 1505 Walnut Street. WHAT continued to share time with WTEL until 1949, when WTEL was reassigned to its own frequency. WHAT then began a 24 hour per day operation and also was granted permission to raise power from 100 to 250 watts, and eventually to 1000 watts during the day.
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, WHAT was known for innovation. "In 1945, WHAT became the first U.S. radio station to hire a full-time black announcer, the first to program a regular show featuring a black woman as hostess and the first station in the city to hire black newscasters. It also was the first in the nation to feature a black as host of a daily talk show."1
In 1954, the station moved its studios and transmitters to a new structure at 3930-3940 Conshohocken Ave dubbed "The WHAT Radio Center." The station programmed an R&B Soul music format with DJs that included Hy Lit, Sonny Hopson, Jerry Blavat and Georgie Woods. In 1978, a "black talk" format debuted, and ended two years later with a return to black-oriented top 40 music. In 1979, William Banks died at the age of 78 and Dolly Banks was named president and general manager and assumed full ownership of WHAT and sister station WWDB-FM. Dolly resigned as general manager in 1984 but continued as president and chairman of the board until her death on September 10, 1985 at the age of 71.
In October 1986, Reginald N. Lavong and Miller Parker, owners of Main Line Communications purchased WHAT from Independence Broadcasting for $625,000. The sale included the station's office building and 4.5 acres of land on Conshohocken Ave. Former sister station WWDB-FM was sold to lawyer Ragan A. Henry around the same time. In 1989, the station, now running an African American-oriented talk and Nostalgia format, was sold to Philadelphia radio veteran Cody Anderson. Anderson had been general manager of WDAS-AM/FM and his company "KBT Communications" paid $1.65 million to obtain WHAT-AM.
In 2007, WHAT was sold to Marconi Broadcasting, who ended the station's longtime African American-focus. Known for years as the "Voice of the African American Community," all station employees, including hosts Albert Butler, Elmer Smith, and Mary Mason were let go.
Mary Mason began her broadcast career as a gospel music host on WHAT in 1958. Her first talk show, "Mornings with Mary" first aired on WHAT in 1970. Mason became a prominent and politically influential fixture at the station, with a loyal audience who sought her opinions on a wide range of local, national, and international topics. Her shows on WHAT were the highest rated on the station, and she also hosted programs on sister station WWDB and the former WCAU-AM. During a visit to Phildelphia in 1993, President Bill Clinton made a guest appearance on Mason's morning show.
Initially, Marconi Broadcasting programmed an alternative format called "Skin Radio" which was the first such format in Philadelphia radio since Y100. The format was short-lived and by August, 2007 switched to an adult standards format reminiscent of the old WPEN, albeit with a more diverse playlist and more 70s music. Originally called "Martini Lounge Radio" the name eventually changed to "The Greatest Music of All Time." The station featured legendary Philadelphia radio talents including Bill Webber, Bob Craig, Elaine Soncini and Mike Bowe.
WHAT abruptly went silent on August 1, 2011 ending the adult standards format. The station was sold to Lawyer and former Philadelphia City Solicitor Ken Trujillo under his personal investment firm, Aztec Capital. WHAT returned to the air that September as Spanish-language music format "El Zol" with a "crossover" format that's not as beat-driven as rivals Mega AM 1310 or Rhumba 1480.
(1) Burr Van Atta, Obituary: DOLLY BANKS SHAPIRO, 71, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/24/1985, U12
AIR Awards 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award
Joe Logan, WHAT-AM OPTS FOR NOSTALGIA OVER TALK, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/16/1989, E06
Jan Lowry, "WHAT Profile", Broadcast Pro-File
Joseph N. DiStefano, "Trujillo powers up in Spanish at WHAT-AM", Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/30/2011