Radio Waves: 10/26/18

Sears has more in common with radio than you thought

I’ve decided to branch out … I’m going to contact the judge involved in the Sears bankruptcy to convince him or her to let me run Sears. As part of my revival of the storied catalog and retail company, I will buy WLS/Chicago and return the station to the company that launched it more than 90 years ago.

I know what you’re thinking. Sears? WLS? What’s the connection?

Sears actually launched WLS — the calls stood for World’s Largest Store — on April 12, 1924 after a few days of experimental broadcasts that “lit up” the Sears switchboards at the company headquarters in Chicago with listeners calling in after hearing the broadcasts.

The idea for WLS was simple. Sears had been buying time on area stations to target the lucrative farming market in the Midwest. By the early 1920s, the company understood the potential of radio and decided to launch its own outlet; Sears president at the time Julius Rosenwald approved a plan to construct a station as the company set up the Sears-Roebuck Agricultural Foundation, a clearinghouse of farming information and assistance. The station and the Foundation would work together to help local farmers.

And of course sell stuff. A lot of stuff. Not only farm equipment, which was a major part of the catalog, but radios. Like RCA, Sears understood that it was easier to sell radios when there was compelling content. And it didn’t hurt that Sears sold a full line of radios … and the electronic tubes needed to keep them playing.

According to the website,, “As stated in the 1925 Sears Catalogue, ‘WLS was conceived in your interests, is operated in your behalf and is dedicated to your service. It is your station.’

“Broadcasting several hours a day, the station’s slogan becomes ‘Bringing The World To The Farm.’ According to accounts, in little more than four years, WLS went from being an obscure signal to a Midwestern powerhouse. It was even rumored to be heard as far away as New Zealand!

“The station aired speeches from President Calvin Coolidge, Ralph Stockton’s sermons, the comedy of Pie Plant Pete and  the wit of Will Rogers. WLS hosted a 1925 Military Tournament as well as Chicago’s reception of Colonel Charles Lindbergh.”

Of course none of this has anything to do with retailing or radio today. Except that it does. In fact, it has everything to do with today. Sears lost its way by not focussing on the customer. I worked for Sears years ago, and I can tell you, the customer was absolutely the focus back then. From training on how to help customers buy the best items for their needs — not just the item with the highest markup — to customer service backed by a true Satisfaction Guarantee that had no time limit, Sears was a company I was proud to be part of.

Similarly, radio lost its way by not focussing on the listener. Instead the focus became bean-counting. How much can we cut programming costs so we can increase the pay of upper management of the huge companies that bought up the majority of radio stations throughout the country? 

Listeners are no longer the focus of most stations; I’d venture that listeners are not even mentioned in the Mission Statements of most major radio group owners. That is why so many listeners are no longer are loyal to the majority of stations and radio ad revenues are still down years after the end of the last recession.

By focusing on the consumer, whether in retail, catalog … or radio, you benefit all. So I see no conflict or problem with taking over Sears and WLS. Eventually, I will buy back other legendary stations such as KHJ (930 AM), KCBQ/San Diego, and relaunch KFRC/San Francisco where it should be at 610 on the AM dial. When my Sears dominates retail again and my network of stations — I think I’ll call it RKO — shows the big boys how radio can be done, then I’ll start looking to do things that are actually difficult.