Here’s Why Radio Stations Always Start with a ‘K’ or ‘W’

You probably never noticed that they do until now.

It seems that whenever you switch on the radio for your morning commute all you hear is “Time to wake up with K98.3,” or “WBLS will be right back after this commercial break.” If you listen closely you’ll notice that they all have something in common; the vast majority of radio stations start with the letter ‘K’ or ‘W.’ For more letter trivia, did you know that most zippers have the letters “YKK” on them—and why?

All radio stations have a four-letter identification code. The hosts of the show typically come up with a more catchy station name than just the four letters, but you still hear it sprinkled in with their morning announcements and other advertisements. And the two letters that you consistently hear date all the way back to when people used to send telegrams.

In 1912, several countries attended a conference to discuss international radiotelegraphs. One of the things that came out of that meeting was the assignment or specific letters to identify each country’s radio and television signals. The United States was given the letters W, K, N, and A. Try decoding these common acronyms that you probably never knew stood for something.

The letters ‘N’ and ‘A’ were given to military stations, but ‘K’ and ‘W’ were assigned out for commercial use. Radio stations east of the Mississippi River had to start their stations with ‘W’, and stations west of the Mississippi with ‘K’. There is some discrepancy though since radio stations that already existed before this rule was put in place weren’t required to change their name.

The three letters after the ‘K’ or ‘W’ can mean a few different things. Sometimes they represent the networks that own the radio station—for example, WABC, KCBS, and WTBS. Sometimes it’s the actual station number, like in KTWO or KFOR. And other times it’s an acronym such as WTTW for “Windows to the World.” But the station that takes home the prize for the best four-letter combination is a sports radio station out of St. Louis that chose the name KRAP. Now that you know why radio stations do this, check out these other explanations for things you’ve always wondered about.

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is an Associate Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. She writes for rd.com, helps lead the editorial relationship with our partners, manages our year-round interns, and keeps the hundreds of pieces of content our team produces every month organized. In her free time, she likes exploring the seacoast of Maine where she lives and works remotely full time and snuggling up on the couch with her corgi, Eggo, to watch HGTV or The Office.