WOPA: Broadcasting from the Arms
Updated: June 29, 2012 8:44AM
The history of the Oak Park Arms would be greatly diminished without the radio stations that have broadcasted there since the earliest days of the medium.
The hotel became home for several years to WTAY radio (Wireless Tunes Await You) only a year after it opened in 1922, broadcasting “nothing but high class talent” from the Arms ballroom five evenings a week.
Two decades later, William Klein was granted an AM/FM license for the area. He built a transmitting tower on top of the Arms and began broadcasting in 1950 as WOPA (signifying Oak Park Arms), with a general entertainment format featuring big bands performing in the hotel’s ball room along with local news and information.
Klein took on R&B record producer Egmont Sonderling as a general manager and changed the station’s format to include doo-wop, jazz and R&B at night, targeting the largely black audience east of Oak Park. Legendary Chicago deejay Pervis Spann (“Your blues man”) began his career with a late-night shift on WOPA in the 1950s.
Sonderling eventually took over ownership of the stations and tinkered with their formats as FM became more popular during the 1960s. WOPA-AM began to featured brokered foreign-language programs during the daytime and R&B at night. Meanwhile, WOPA-FM became one of Chicago’s first underground progressive FM stations in 1967, before switching to an oldies format, along with new call letters WGLD in 1969, then finding a successful groove in 1973 as WBMX, Chicago’s first full-time urban music station.
Sonderling sold WOPA-AM to the Polish National Alliance in 1987, which dedicated the station to cultivating Polish business and culture in Chicago with the call letters WPNA. After the inroads made by competitor WGCI-FM in the 1980s, he sold WBMX-FM as well to owners targeting an older urban audience with WVAZ.