FAST BACKWARD: Remembering A. J. Wills

Except for a few surviving gray-haired broadcasters in their twilight years, the name A, J. Wills does not ring a bell anymore. He was a former US Army communications man who built the first commercial radio station in Davao City, DXAW, in 1949 using only surplus materials. He lent his initials to the broadcast outfit, with DX, the assigned call letters for Mindanao, preceding it. Aside from his Davao outfit, he also opened a radio station in Zamboanga City.

(This is disputed by the old people who had worked with the Mindanao Broadcasting System founded by Guillermo E. Torres Sr., a pioneering lawyer-certified public accountant, who also established the Mindanao Colleges, now the University of Mindanao, and the Mindanao Times, the oldest running weekly newspaper, now a daily,  in Mindanao.  Torres, a Datu Bago awardee for his pioneering work, was said to have founded DXMC, an AM radio station, in 1946, first as “wirecast” broadcasting only within the campus of Mindanao Colleges whose main campus was along what is Legaspi Street between the old house of his co-investor Pedro Lat, now the Legaspi Suites, and JS Gaisano Mall, now Gaisano Grand, fronting the United Church of Christ in the Philippines or UCCP. Later in the 60’s, DXUM, an AM music station was also established, and much later DXMM, all under the new name University of Mindanao Broadcasting Network or UMBN. I know these facts because I used to write articles about this when I was news director and station manager of DXMC and later Davao chairman of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas. – notes of Antonio M. Ajero, editor in chief)

But the first operational broadcast station was actually opened by the Japanese on November 3, 1943 to intensify misinformation. It relayed the program emanating from PIAM, a radio station broadcasting on the 600 kilocycles or the 500-meter amplified modulation (AM) band, originally known as KZRH. The PI call letters stood for Philippine Islands.

Wills, as a pioneer in radio broadcasting in Davao region, was granted by Congress on June 20, 1952 under Republic Act (RA) 767 “a temporary permit to construct, maintain and operate in the Philippines, at such places as the said grantee may select, subject to approval of the Secretary of Public Works and Communications, radio broadcasting station or stations.”

RA 767 carried two major provisions: First, the exclusive grant cannot be leased, transferred, sold or assigned, and the rights and privileges acquired under it could not similarly be leased, transferred, sold or assigned to any person, firm, company, corporation of other commercial or legal entity, nor merge with any company or corporation organized for the same purpose, without the approval of Congress.

And second, Wills, in operating radio stations, “shall not require any previous censorship of any speech, play or other matter to be broadcast from its stations; but if any such speech, play or other matter should constitute a violation of the law or infringement of a private right, the grantee shall be free from any liability, civil or criminal, for such speech, play or other matter.”

Five years later, the grant was expanded to include television stations. This was made possible with the enactment by Congress of RA 1861, approved on June 22, 1957. Under the expanded franchise, Wills was required to start operation of TV stations by December 31, 1960.

Wills’ two broadcast outfits were later sold to Alto Broadcasting System (ABS). The first television station in Davao City, DXAW-TV Channel 2, was launched in 1967 after the merger of ABS with Chronicle Broadcasting Network (CBN). His legacy would be felt in the next 30 years with the rise of new radio stations in Davao. By 1957, three new stations showed up, namely DXGO (Manila Broadcasting Company), DXGE (Liberty Broadcasting Corporation), and DXRH (Cebu Broadcasting Corporation).

By 1963, the city became host of 10 radio outfits, two of these owned by Wills (DXAW and DXWW). The other stations were DXDC (Radio Mindanao Network), DXLY (Allied Broadcasting Corporation), DXMC, DXUM and DXMM (Mindanao Colleges), DXMT (Manila Times Broadcasting Corporation), and DXRP (Philippine Broadcasting Service). No new radio station was added in the next seven years. By 1969, the newcomers were DXHM (Catholic Media Network), and DXRD (Nation Broadcasting Corporation).

In the 1970 survey of radio listenership in the Davao provinces conducted by Tagum-based, Catholic-run DXCD, it was found out that Mindanao had no less than 61 radio stations, including 14 in Davao City, and two each for Digos and Tagum. It also discovered TV posed no significant competition to radio. The study added:

“Though there are four stations in Davao City and one In Cagayan de Oro, set ownership is small. The number of stations will probably increase more quickly than the audience size, as broadcasters scramble for channel allocations on the limited VHF [very high frequency] spectrum. Lack of electricity and the high price of television receivers are barrier snow, but are problems that will certainly be solved eventually. In any case, within this population where a third of the people have had less than five years of schooling and more than half say they never read a newspaper, radio is the medium of the moment.”

But more than the broadcast outfits that changed the communications landscape of Davao Region, the radio industry produced popular personalities that would become key figures in politics, government, and business. Among those who really made a name were:

ABS-CBN commentator Verulo C. Boiser, who became the first elected governor of Davao del Norte; DXMC broadcaster Zacarias V. Solon, appointed member of the provincial board of the undivided Davao province; broadcasters Valentino “Tenny” Banzon, the first broadcaster elected as city councilor; Alfredo and Antonio Vergara, Leonardo “Happy LA” Avila III and Mabel Sunga-Acosta, Davao City councilors when Davao City was divided into three congressional districts;  MBC-DXRH anchorman Alex Roldan, Davao del Norte provincial director, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG);

Radio commentator (DXDC, DXRH, DXUM, & DXOW) Juan Porras Pala, Davao City councilor; ABS-CBN TV reporter Al Ryan Alejandre, Davao City councilor; ABS-CBN and GMA-7 newscaster Leonides Villareal, Davao City press secretary and Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) director; DXGO and GMA-7 analyst Nelson Cañete, Region XI director, National Telecommunications Commission (NTC); DXUM newscaster Enrique Cayudong, DILG assistant secretary; Miguel Balbin Sr., presidential honoree, Apolinario Mabini Awards; DXUM reporter Israelito Torreon, Davao del Sur Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) president; and DXUM reporter Jenielito Atillo, Region XI spokesman, Department of Education.