WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea
Publication Year: 2006
These words crackled in the headphones of crystal sets around the country in 1921 as the University of Wisconsin radio station 9XM began its regular schedule of voice broadcasts. Randall Davidson provides the first comprehensive history of the University of Wisconsin radio station, WHA; affiliated state-owned station, WLBL; and the post-World War II FM stations that are the backbone of the network now known as Wisconsin Public Radio. 9XM Talking describes how, with homemade equipment and ideas developed from scratch, 9XM endured many struggles and became a tangible example of "the Wisconsin Idea," bringing the educational riches of the university to all the state's residents. From the beginning, those involved with the radio station felt it should provide a service for the practical use of Wisconsin citizens.
The book's informative chapters cover the programs that allowed the medium of radio to benefit farmers and homemakers, to bring world-class educators into isolated rural schoolrooms, and to teach people all over Wisconsin everything from literature to history to touch-typing, long before anyone came up with the term "distance learning." Davidson concludes by discussing the claim that WHA has to the title "Oldest Station in the Nation." This groundbreaking book is based on archival materials dating back to the 1900s and includes dozens of historic photos and illustrations, many of which have never been published before.
Winner, Book Award of Merit for best Wisconsin history book, Wisconsin Historical Society
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
This book covers a topic that has received relatively little serious attention: the history of educational radio. While several books on early radio networks and some pioneer commercial broadcast stations have appeared, it is rare to find historical works on non-commercial “educational” radio stations, which typically were run by colleges and universities in the early days. Commercial ...
Prologue: Voices through the Air: A Brief History of Radio
Like many modern devices, radio had no one “inventor.” Rather, radio broadcasting is an innovation, combining individual technologies and concepts from numerous scientists, inventors, hobbyists, companies, and educational institutions. As historian E. P. Shurick put it, radio is “an industry that hatched from a thousand eggs.”1 Some technology used by radio can be traced to inventions of the 1800s. ...
1. Early Wireless Experiments at the University of Wisconsin, 1909–16
In the decade before World War I, experimentation with wireless telegraphy was underway at many U.S. colleges and universities, including those in Wisconsin. Beloit College in far southern Wisconsin began experiments with wireless in the summer of 1908. Less than a year later, on May 8, 1909, Charles Culver, a Beloit physics professor, performed a public demonstration in Beloit ...
2. Early Broadcasts from 9XM, 1916–17
As experimentation with wireless telegraphy continued, two views emerged as to how the technology could be used. The majority opinion, held by industry and the government, was that it would be useful only for point-to-point, private communications. Business people and government officials envisioned its use for the military, maritime applications, and in other instances where ...
3. Wartime Radio Experiments at the University of Wisconsin, 1917–18
With the entry of the United States into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order shutting down all wireless stations in the country, including radio receiving sets. The fear was that the long-distance capability of wireless telegraphy could result in Germany gaining some vital information by monitoring U.S. wireless traffic. This was a genuine concern: in 1915 a ...
4. Telephonic Broadcasting by 9XM, 1919–20
After World War I ended on November 11, 1918, work at the Wisconsin radio operation continued, benefiting from the research performed during the conflict. However, the general ban on civilian wireless activity remained in effect for six months, keeping everyone not previously affiliated with government projects off the air. This brief period afforded the University of Wisconsin ...
5. Regular Voice Broadcasts on 9XM, 1921
Regularly scheduled programming began on 9XM on Monday, January 3, 1921, providing the weather forecast by both voice and Morse code at 12:30 p.m. six days a week. Records of the weather bureau show that these were the first voice broadcasts of weather in the United States.1 Only three weeks earlier Terry had been telling interested people that when the telephonic service ...
6. WHA Begins, 1922–29
On January 13, 1922, the new broadcasting license for the radio station at the University of Wisconsin took effect. The license assigned the station the call letters WHA, which remain to this day. On the same day the federal government issued a license for station WLB at the University of Minnesota, now KUOM-AM. These two licenses were the first in the new “limited commercial ...
7. WHA Comes into Its Own, 1929–30
With the death of Earl Terry, Edward Bennett of the electrical engineering department found himself assigned to take Terry’s place as WHA’s manager. Fourteen years earlier Bennett had allowed Terry to “borrow” his experimental radio license 9XM for the physics department’s wireless operation. Bennett, along with speech professor H. L. Ewbank of the University Radio Committee ...
8. The WHA–WLBL Merger, 1930–31
Throughout the mid-1920s WHA in Madison and WLBL in Stevens Point operated independently and paid little attention to each other. On May 31, 1927, General Order #11 of the Federal Radio Commission reallocated radio station frequencies, and WHA found itself assigned to 940 kHz and ordered to share time on the frequency with WLBL. Sharing time with another noncommercial ...
9. More Hours on the Air, 1930–33
While the debate about consolidating WHA and WLBL was underway, improvements and innovations continued at WHA in Madison. In late August 1930 WHA managers received a letter from WIBA in Madison. The commercial outlet wanted to install a line between the stations to allow WIBA to carry some WHA programs. It was especially interested in the Homemakers’ ...
10. More Challenges from Commercial Stations
From radio’s earliest days through the early 1930s, educational stations were at a disadvantage in the broadcast marketplace. With no channels reserved for educational broadcasting, commercial broadcasters coveted their frequencies and argued before the Federal Radio Commission that the educational stations were not making full use of their spots on the dial. During the Depression ...
11. The Political Education Forum
Early in the history of WHA, the staff wanted to present political material over the air. The university leadership was nervous about this and delayed implementation of the ideas for many years. Still, WHA and WLBL were pioneers in developing radio as a tool to keep the electorate informed about the workings of government, and innovators in using radio during election campaigns. ...
12. A New Home, 1933–36
By the early 1930s the WHA schedule had grown to the point that the Sterling Hall studio was no longer efficient. Proposals to move to Music Hall and to a site near Camp Randall had not worked out, and the radio station and the physics department were finding it increasingly difficult to coexist. The anteroom of the WHA facility was still being used to teach a physics course ...
13. Budget Woes and New Programs, 1935–41
Throughout the early 1930s WHA never appeared in the university budget; its funding came directly from state government through its Emergency Board. Some observers have maintained that this was an asset, because it focused attention on the radio operation. University president Glenn Frank assumed this situation would continue: the Emergency Board had provided funds for the ...
14. The War Years and After, 1942–47
The entry of the United States into World War II changed the programming on WHA, with about a fifth of its airtime devoted to various governmental agencies and the war effort. The station also aired more than sixty spot announcements a week about salvage, rationing, recruiting, price controls, and other issues related to the home front. Some programs done locally with members ...
15. The FM Network
Through the 1930s and the war years, WHA and WLBL faced two problems, both peculiar to AM broadcasting. One was their daytime-only authorization. Staff members at WHA truly wanted to provide more adult education but were unable to broadcast in the evening when working people would be able to listen. The other problem was finding a way to efficiently get the broadcast ...
16. From Educational Radio to Public Radio, 1947–70
As the state network of stations grew, so did the staff and number of programming innovations. In the fall of 1947 a new position was added to the station staff as Roy Vogelman became WHA’s first news director. He had been a student announcer since the late 1930s and a staff member since 1943, serving as chief announcer and later news editor. On October 1 he submitted his ...
17. The Era of Public Radio, 1971–78
In 1971 WHA and the state FM stations signed up for a new program service called National Public Radio. Since the 1930s the educational stations in the United States had hoped for some sort of network like those enjoyed by their commercial counterparts. NPR began its live programming service on May 3, with a ninety-minute afternoon newsmagazine called All Things ...
18. WPAH/WLBL, the Other State Station, 1923–51
The Wisconsin Department of Markets got involved in radio when it began providing market information to 9XM in Madison on September 19, 1921. Agency personnel were enthusiastic about the potential use of the medium in delivering market information. Staff members reported that more than twelve hundred “stations” (radio receivers) were using the daily Madison market broadcasts ...
19. The Farm Program
Since its first experimental broadcasts as 9XM, the staff at the University of Wisconsin station had sought to serve the state’s rural residents with useful programming and live up to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea. The earliest telegraphic transmissions from 9XM included the weather forecast (1916) and market reports (1919), both of which were designed to be of use to the state’s ...
20. The Homemakers’ Program
WHA’s service to rural Wisconsin was not limited to farmers. Service to homemakers was also a function of the university’s Extension Division and was considered as a potential topic for the radio operation. In mid-1922 the new noontime educational broadcasts and those on Tuesday evenings began offering many topics, some of interest to homemakers. The second week of evening ...
21. The Wisconsin School of the Air
Early in the station’s history WHA staff members had envisioned using radio to provide educational instruction to schools. Earle Terry had mentioned in correspondence plans to develop programs for schools, perhaps in association with local Parent-Teachers’ Associations. Other university-based radio stations had experimented with programs to be used in classroom instruction. Among the earliest was KSAC at Kansas State ...
22. The Wisconsin College of the Air
From the earliest days, those involved with WHA had hoped the station could present the educational riches of the University of Wisconsin over the air. The first attempts were Edgar Gordon’s music appreciation program in 1922 and the broadcast of various educational topics that began later that spring. However, as early as 1924 both Earle Terry and William H. Lighty were skeptical ...
23. Chapter a Day
The legend goes like this: one day in the late 1920s WHA staff members in Sterling Hall were in a panic as broadcast time approached and the scheduled guest had not appeared, which sometimes happened. The announcer on duty reached into his satchel for a book he had checked out of the library and simply read it on the air to fill the time. Listener response as to what happened ...
24. To Today, 1979–
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, WHA and the state stations moved more toward NPR programming. In January 1979, the organizational title Wisconsin Public Radio was adopted, a more marketable name than state stations, Wisconsin Educational Radio Network, or Wisconsin State Broadcasting Service. Two major developments occurred in late 1979. On November 5 National ...
Postscript: The Oldest Station in the Nation
This work would not be complete without addressing WHA’s claim as “the oldest station in the nation.” The claim is often repeated, and it was made early in the station’s history. In 1927, a newspaper report headlined “U.W. Station Nine Years a Broadcaster” said the station had “begun its programs in 1919.”1 In 1938 the publication Education by Radio also named 1919 as the start of ...
Appendix A: 9XM/WHA Time Line
Appendix B: WPAH/WCP/WLBL Time Line
Appendix C: FM Network Time Line
Publication Year: 2006
OCLC Number: 826515869
MUSE Marc Record: Download for 9XM Talking