John G. Leitch

During 1929, a Federal Radio Commission inspector told Dr. Leon Levy, president of WCAU Radio that the station would have to leave the air for a few days for non-compliance of government regulations in regard to the station's frequency stability. The transmitter site was on the rooftop of the Pennsylvania Hotel. When the hotel's elevators were running, the station's frequency varied too much. The situation was corrected and that inspector was offered the job as the Chief Engineer. It was John Leitch who worked for the station for the next four decades.

Born on May 5, 1898 in Hardwood, Michigan, John G. Leitch (often called Jack) went to High School in the bay area of Escanaba, some 37 miles away. He loved learning Morse Code from his mom. She learned it from her husband who was a railroad station master and train dispatcher. When he turned nineteen, Leitch joined the Army and spent most of his time with the signal corp where he learned more speed in code.

Then he became interested in electronics. From 1919 to 1922, he was a radio officer in the Merchant Marine. After leaving the service, Leitch went to work for RCA and then some other electronic companies. In 1924, he went to work for the Department of Commerce as a federal inspector for what would later become the FCC..

John joined WCAU Radio in 1929 as the station’s Chief Engineer. In 1932, he became Technical Supervisor, a post he held until 1936. At that point, he became WCAU’s Technical Director until 1949. Then he became Vice-President and Director of Engineering, a post he held until the stations were sold to CBS in 1958. At that time, he became Director of Engineering for WCAU-TV.

During the Second World War, Leitch went to the U.S. Navy’s Naval Station in Cape May, NJ as a communications officer. Then he was transferred to Philadelphia’s Naval Yard. Next, he was placed in charge of the naval station in Greenland and then off to the Pacific where he joined the staff of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz. During 1945, he returned to the U.S. as a staffer of the Director of Naval Command in Washington, D.C. At the time of his death, he held the rank of Captain USNR (retired).

He was associated with many firsts during his long career. He was part of the team that transmitted the first photograph from an airplane in flight. He transmitted a picture of Charles Lindbergh from 4,000 feet above the City of Philadelphia. That was 1928. You can get more about this experiment here on our website.

He also was involved in the first installation of speakers in elevators (in the WCAU Building, 1622 Chestnut Street in center city Philly.

During the thirties, John Leitch worked with Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski was provided a workshop by WCAU in their “new” building on Chestnut. Part of the things they did included amplification experiments that concluded with the development of an electronic beam instrument for visually showing the sound intensity of the musicians. It was later used by the Philadelphia Orchestra on their broadcasts over CBS Radio.

In 1938, John Leitch designed and constructed WCAU’s shortwave station, W3XAU. It was Philadelphia’s only shortwave outlet at that time.

The Chestnut Street building for WCAU which started operation in 1932 with a grand opening in February of 1933 was designed by John. Leitch wanted something better than condenser microphone for the new facilities. WCAU Radio was the first station in the world to use the now famous RCA 44 velocity mikes.

John G. Leitch

The next year, 1934, Leitch shared responsibilities for KYW Radio when they moved to Philadelphia from Chicago. WCAU, whose physical plant KYW shared with WCAU in WCAU's new building at 1622 Chestnut until 1938, was given the authority to program and sell KYW. This only changed in May of 1938 when KYW moved to their own building at 1619 Walnut Street.

He allowed in his “Chestnut Street” plans for the later development of television. WCAU-TV operated for 4 years out of that building before they moved to a larger facility in Bala Cynwyd, PA (just across the city line from Philadelphia). Leitch was also responsible for the planning and construction of that suburban building.

He was a senior member of Institute of Radio Engineers, Veteran Wireless Operators and a former member of the board of directors of Scranton Broadcasters, who owned WDAU-TV. He retired from WCAU on June 1, 1963 (at age 65, a CBS-forced mandatory age) He was a founding member of this organization. In 1968, Leitch spent five months in the Philippines helping to get broadcasting stations on the air.

John Leitch was active with IESC, the International Executive Service Corps, a New York City based non-profit that relies on retired businesspeople to help companies in under developed countries.

Broadcasting Magazine quoted John Leitch as saying:

I have worked always… to provide the best possible listener circulation… by use of modern equipment, the best studio facilities that the art permitted and maximum transmitter powers allowed by the FCC.

It has been a rare privilege to have been associated with radio from the cat-whisker days to the present time, with thousands of stations and millions of receivers; and with television from the ‘dim picture days’ of the rotating scanning disc to the international dissemination of the fine lines of ‘Telestar.’

Long time WCAU tech Charlie Higgins e-mailed:

He was very strict but very fair. No one ever addressed him other than Mr. Leitch with the exception of several Techs who knew him when they were shipboard radio operators and he was a Radio Inspector for the Federal Radio Commission. They were the only ones I ever heard call him Jack. Not even the Ass't. CE, George Lewis, addressed him that way.

...a Watch List is what a schedule (of shifts) was termed at WCAU. I suppose this harkened from the fact that Mr. Leitch was a Navy officer. You always "stood a watch."

When he wasn’t tinkering with electronics, he loved gardening (he owned 7 acres of land in Glen Mills, PA), plays golf, he an interest in boating and goes yearly to the Caribbean and Jamaica. He was married on December 14, 1946 to Philadelphia broadcaster Rhona Lloyd. The couple had two children, John and Alan.

Note: John's wife, Rhona (who was born in Canada) was a script writer at WFIL Radio in 1939, but had worked at WCAU six years earlier. As a joke, several people at WFIL thought they would have Rhona take an audition for an announcer's position. However, it happened that a sponsor (Dolly Madison Ice Cream) heard her and she became a spokesman for the company's products. She moved to her women's feature to WCAU Radio during the Second World War and when Leitch returned from the war, the two started dating.

From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Text compiled, researched and written by Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson
Top Photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member Allen Murphy
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