Billy & Dolly Banks
Born in 1914, Broadcast Pioneers member Dolly Banks Shapiro began her role as a broadcast owner in 1944 when she and brother Billy Banks purchased WHAT Radio (Independence Broadcasting Company) from the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper. The purchase price was $23,500.
That Dolly Banks would find herself in a part of “show business” is not surprising. Not many knew that she longed for a career as a professional dancer. She performed with both the Philadelphia and the Littlefield ballets.
Born in 1908, Broadcast Pioneers member William A. Banks, known to his peers as “Billy,” started as a time salesman for WELK Radio (now WDAS) in 1928. The next year, he moved over to WIP Radio. He started there in 1929 and worked with Broadcast Pioneers member (and former Broadcast Pioneers President and founding member) Max E. Solomon. In fact, Solomon told us that Max and Billy had a real fist fight over an account. Both, according to Solomon, almost lost their jobs.
Billy decided to buy his own radio station when Ben Gimbel called him into his office. Gimbel's complaint was that Billy was selling too much radio time. Ben told Billy that Banks was making more in commission that Gimbel earned as General Manager. Billy got his commission reduced and Banks swore he would never let it happen again. The only way was to own a station.
Once the Banks siblings owned the outlet (purchased on February 12, 1944), Billy was known to have said, “with a good crystal radio set, you could pick it up maybe three blocks away.” The station came on the air in 1923 as WNAT. At that time, WNAT broadcast at 833 KHz, sharing their frequency with WGL, Philadelphia’s first radio station and WWAD. Two years later in 1925, WNAT shared time and their 1200 KHz frequency with WIAD and WWAD, all three were 100 watt Philadelphia stations. In 1928, WNAT, still at 100 watts, was sharing their 1040 KHz frequency with the more powerful WRAX, a 250-watt Philadelphia station. In 1929, it became WHAT Radio and the following year moved to 1310 (where it would stay for several years) sharing time with WFKD in Philadelphia. The next year, WFKD became WTEL (now known as WWDB). On March 29, 1941, WHAT moved to 1340, but so did WTEL. They continued to share the frequency until WTEL moved to 860 KHz in the fifties.
A sidebar from Broadcast Pioneers member Don Henson:
The early days of radio were quite different from today. In 1941, when I was in high school, I had a job as well with WTEL.WTEL and WHAT at that time shared time at 1340 on the dial. Each station had about three or four hours on the air and then would sign off for the other station to broadcast. It was back and forth all day long in this manner. It seems that every time I signed off, Grady & Hurst would be ready to take over with whatever programming they had at the time.
December 7th that year was, of course, a big day - the invasion of Pearl Harbor. I was on duty when the news broke, but WTEL did not have a teletype machine. Washington must have known, as I was flooded with telegrams which I had to organize into news articles. I was 16 years old and all alone at the station and had to take it upon myself to pre-empt commercial programs in order to present the news. It was scary for me and a day I'll never forget.
In 1948, the Banks purchased WINX Radio from the Washington Post newspaper. That station was in the nation’s capital. Four years later, in 1952, they sold the broadcast outlet. WHAT-FM (later WWDB) started frequency modulation broadcasting in 1957. Shortly after that time, Broadcast Pioneers member Sid Mark started playing jazz on FM overnights. As the popularity grew, the Banks decided to broadcast jazz, 24 hours a day, the first in the nation. It would keep that format for 17 years until it went with a talk format (March 17, 1975) using the call letters, WWDB (We’re William and Dolly Banks). Again, the station made history as the first FM telephone talk station in the U.S.A.
The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported, “both stations (WHAT & WWDB) are known for innovation (under the Banks’ ownership).” The paper said, “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 (Mary Dee) 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.”
Dolly Banks once said that one of her most proud moments was joining Rev. Leon Sullivan, in 1953, in forming “The Citizens Committee to Combat Juvenile Delinquency,” a forerunner to “The Opportunities Industrialization Center,” the OIC.
In 1973, Billy Banks was appointed to the FCC's State & Local Advisory Boards on Cable Television. He was past president of the Pennsylvania Associated Press's Broadcasting Associates. He was a member of the Allied Jewish Appeal's Broadcast Committee and a member of the board of the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters.
When Billy (who was a lifetime member of our Advisory Board and a founding member of our organization) passed away in 1979, it was said that he (until that date) owned and operated a broadcast property longer than anyone else in the history of the entire United States.
Dolly assumed complete ownership of the stations (Independence Broadcasting and Banks Broadcasting) and became General Manager with Billy's passing. She would hold that post until May 1985. On September 10, 1985, Dolly passed away at Lankenau Hospital. On Friday, November 19, 2004 in front of a half dozen relatives, Billy & Dolly Banks were inducted into our "Hall of Fame."
Many in the industry regarded Dolly Banks as being “very tough and very cold.” She once told a reporter that it was all an act. She did it in self-preservation. She said, “I am all woman and soft.”
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Text written, compiled and researched by Broadcast Pioneers Historian Gerry Wilkinson
© 2009, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
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