AM1700 was rumored to have been founded in 1897 — a good nine years before the first experimental AM broadcast was made by Reginald Fessenden. Even stranger stories have Shelby Hutchinson’s purchase of AM1700 in 1912 to be what bankrupted the S&H Green Stamps mogul. While these legends make for some interesting folklore, this is the true story of AM1700.
AM1700 was founded in 1909 by GW McConnell as a small, independent telegraph office operating under the name, The Ypsilanti Telepost Company. The company operated between Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Erie, Pennsylvania. Rates were a quarter for the first thirty words and a dime for each additional ten words when the message was delivered by messenger; and a quarter for the first fifty words when the message was sent by wire.
As the company grew, it expanded its communications operations and eventually became involved in the newspaper publishing business. The Ypsilanti Democrat was printed from April 1913 until November 1915 before merging with The Ypsilanti Chronicle and becoming The Ypsilanti Herald-Democrat. The Ypsilanti Herald-Democrat would go through a series of name-changes operating as The Ypsilanti Daily Herald, The Ypsilanti Press-Tribune, and The Ypsilanti Evening Statesman before finally ceasing operations on August 15, 1917.
As GW McConnell’s health began to fail, the fate of the Ypsilanti Telepost Company became unsure. In 1914, the day-to-day business operations were turned over to Thomas McConnell, the oldest of GW’s four children, but his mounting gambling debts had led him to begin embezzling from the company. His misappropriations were initially overlooked as the business was operating at a profit, but as the debts continued to rise and the newspaper portion of the operation was forced to consolidate, Thomas’ defalcations become public. Thomas would eventually serve eight years in prison for tax evasion before finally taking his own life in 1928.
With Thomas in prison and GW dying of influenza, the business was the victim of a hostile takeover by minority partner Tivadar Petrovic. Petrovic emigrated from Hungary in 1899 and found work in Ypsilanti’s budding mineral water industry in the early 20th century. Petrovic first acquired an interest The Ypsilanti Telepost Company during the era of Thomas’ excessive gambling. With Thomas out of the picture and the remaining three heirs squabbling over GW’s estate, Petrovic was able to buy controlling ownership in 1920. It was under Petrovic’s guidance that the company would evolve to become the modern company we know today.
By 1921, 8MK (a radio station started by the Detroit News which would later become WWJ 950AM), KDKA (Pittsburgh, PA), WBZ (Springfield, MA) and XWA-AM (Montreal, Quebec) were broadcasting regular programming. It was during this time that Petrovic decided to revive the media wing of the business. With the telephone becoming more and more commonplace, Petrovic saw radio as new way to generate revenue and keep the company profitable.
On January 1, 1922, AM1700 began broadcasting at 1700 kHz to southeastern Michigan. The station began its broadcast day at four in the afternoon and continued until 12:15AM, ending each day with the playing of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The station played music and read the news, but the most popular shows were radio plays. Archie Duncan and the Little AM1700 Symphony performed some of the most influential programs of their day. Duncan’s most infamous program was that of “The Great Lakes Massacre” wherein a realistic account of a sinking ship was presented before revealing that the characters were actually actors. The drama was often considered the precurser to Orson Welles’ reading of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” in 1938. Duncan’s radio play was later translated and broadcast in Germany and England. The play was originally scheduled to air in Paris on November 16, 1925, but was instead banned from French radio because the government feared that the dramatic SOS messages would be mistaken for genuine distress signals. This incident brought the radio station much unwanted bad press, and ultimately led to the dismissal of Duncan in 1927 after sponsors began pulling advertising.
The station continued to get upgrades and increased range, and within five years received reception reports from as far away as Terra Haute, Indiana, Cookeville, Tennessee, and Boruca, Costa Rica.
DEATH OF AN ICON
Despite having lived in America for nearly 30 years, Petrovic was the unlikely recipient of anti-Hungarian backlash that still existed in Ypsilanti as the result of World War I. He had grown to be a man of significant power and influence, but as racist sentiment was being whipped up towards Hungarians, Petrovic began to lose key Ypsilanti allies. It was after Mayor Hugh E. Vandewalker publicly denounced his long-time friend that everything would come to a head. On February 2, 1928, the headquarters for The Ypsilanti Telepost Company on North Huron Street were bombed, killing Petrovic and his long-time secretary, Margaret DeWitt. Not only was the crime never solved, but Mayor Vandewalker stopped the investigation by the Ypsilanti Metropolitan Police less than three days after the bombing took place. While many disputed it, the lack of an investigation played a significant role in Vandewalker’s defeat to Max Matthew in that spring’s mayoral election. This was ironic considering Petrovic was banned from being buried in Highland Cemetery due to his Hungarian heritage. His bodied was finally entombed in neighboring Milan, Michigan.
THE EXODUS OF AM1700
Petrovic’s death left The Ypsilanti Telepost Company and AM1700 in a state of disarray. Without a home and without an owner, the business was broken into pieces and sold. Michigan Bell purchased the telegraph business. The Ypsilanti Machine Tool Company, owned by the Tucker family, acquired the industrial services business. Finally, AM1700 was sold to Emanuel Missionary College and would be simulcast as AM590 WEMC out of Berrien Springs. The Seventh-Day Adventist school did away with the radio plays that made AM1700 distinctive and began to program sermons and air live broadcasts of church services.
In order to finance expansion and the construction of Nethery Hall, the school sold off AM1700 in 1940 to the Michigan Weather Service. With the exception of broadcasting air raid warnings to Washtenaw County and the surrounding communities in 1944, the station would continue to be the local source for weather-related emergency information.
On March 29, 1941 as part of the NARBA frequency reassignment, AM1700 moved to 630 AM. It also began broadcasting under the call letters WYPS although the FCC never officially granted the call letters. By 1948, the Michigan Weather Service was granted its petition and the station was returned back to broadcasting at 1700 kHz where it would continue to broadcast to this day.