Monday, August 18, 2014


A possible consequence of moving—even if it is only roughly 50 miles away from where we were—is that the television channels available to us also change. To be sure, such a change has to do with the cable of satellite carrier, which is another major complication. In any case, moving here to the western edge of Metro Detroit, we discovered that we suddenly have access to two Public Broadcasting System channels. One of these is the familiar WTVS, the Detroit Public TV. The other one turned out to be a channel known as WCMU. For the first time ever we have two public stations to view—and the changes in programming were interesting. It took a while before we found the time and energy to research what exactly WCMU is. The CMU stands for Central Michigan University. CMU owns the channel and transmits programs in five northern Michigan locations: Alpena, Cadillac, Manistee, Flint, and Mt. Pleasant; the last is the location of CMU itself. Mt. Pleasant has a population of 26,000 and CMU an enrollment, at its campus, of 20,000 students. I assume that students do not count as part of the population; another nearly 7,000 students are enrolled at other locations operated by CMU in distant places.

The programming of our urban DPTV (Channel 56) differs significantly from that of CMU’s (Channel 28). CMU’s is divided roughly evenly between subject matter designed to appeal to a more rural population (a touch more religious, heavier on northern Michigan places and events, and much more likely to feature country music and especially blue grass). DPTV is much more urban in its coverage. 56 is now (again) doing heavy fundraising; the frequency of these campaigns appears to be every other month. Meanwhile WCMU, during this same time, has no rude interruptions of programming—one reason why we’ve gotten to know it.

As a byproduct of our search of WCMU’s identity, a subject arose one tends not to think much about. We managed rapidly to discover the meaning of the letters CMU—but not of the meaning of that W. I knew—in some forgotten corner of my memory—that the W is something arbitrary, thus having no inherent relation to the letter itself. It turns out that that W is ultimately traceable to Geneva, Switzerland. Here is why:

The International Telecommunications Union (founded in 1865) is headquartered there. The ITU manages call signs, as these things are called, for all the countries of the world. The United States has been assigned the letters AAA through ALZ, KAA-KZZ, NAA-NZZ, and WAA-WZZ. Entirely at its own option, the United States, while possessing, does not use the leading letters A or N. It uses K for all stations west of the Mississippi and W for all stations east of the Mississippi. Arbitrary is the right word! You’d have thought that it would have gone the other way at least, with W meaning “west of Old Man River.” No, sir. W here stands for east.

I expect it will take us about three years to forget this again. Until then this post will be here as an equally forgotten reminder…

But WCMU is worth watching—if you’ve kind of soured on urban sophistication.


  1. The W in the east regularly throws me off, as well.

    Apparently the old US radio call signs for ships were K for the Atlantic and W for the Pacific; that's why K and W were given to the US. One wonders who decided they were going to reverse that for land radio! There are a lot of anomalies, too -- the border between W and K has changed (I think WBAP in Dallas, TX dates from the time when the border was much farther west than it now is), and apparently there was a brief period about a hundred years ago where they assigned every radio station a K no matter where it was, and a few of those have survived. They also have occasionally allowed special requests (I think WACO in Waco, TX is one of them).

  2. I had not discovered that originally W was for the Pacific, K for the Atlantic. Thanks for that. That makes a lot more sense -- and never mind our switcheroo...