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  • 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea
  • Cliff Doerksen (bio)
9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea. By Randall Davidson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007. Pp. xv+405. $34.95.

"9XM" was the call sign of an experimental radio transmitter licensed to the University of Wisconsin in 1914. In January 1922 it was recategorized as a broadcasting station—one of only four at the time—and renamed WHA. The first of more than 120 radio stations established by educational institutions during the initial broadcast boom of the 1920s, it was also one of the few of its kind to survive the 1930s, when most of the others succumbed to economic starvation and the pro-commercial bias of the Federal Communications Commission. Having survived the general extinction of early nonprofit broadcasters, WHA went on to serve an important role in the birth and growth of the current national public radio system.

The author of this book, Randall Davidson, has been variously employed as a producer and news anchor at WHA since 1990. A dogged researcher, he has plainly done due diligence to an impressively large source base, and on that level his book is a welcome contribution to the historiography of early American radio, in which the doomed college stations of the 1920s have been extensively eulogized but never described in any detail. Analysis will have to wait for another day, however, because Davidson's agenda is narrowly descriptive and—there is no kinder way to say it honestly—deeply parochial. The closest he comes to an overarching argument is an evaluation of WHA's contested claim to being the first broadcasting station [End Page 503] in America. Davidson demonstrates admirable impartiality in ruling against his employer on a technicality, but he would have done better to acknowledge the essential sterility of this unending controversy, which should have ended with R. Franklin Smith's conclusively inconclusive analysis of the problem back in 1959 (which Davidson cites but does not heed).

While his prose style is perfectly lucid,Davidson is the kind of historian who loves his facts for their own sake, and that sort of antiquarianism rarely makes for easy reading. To cite a random but representative example, his description of how WHA's first studio was later subdivided into two offices and a storage closet today numbered 1500 through 1502 could have been tucked away in a footnote, if not dropped entirely.

Regardless of these flaws, 9XM Talking definitely merits scholarly attention for two related reasons. First, it serves as a catalog for what may prove to be the single richest source base left behind by a pioneering radio station. In addition to the extensive troves of administrative paper, Davidson indicates that practically every talk broadcast by WHA in the 1920s is extant on paper, and that many programs broadcast after 1935 have been preserved on transcription disks. Second, the book yields unparalleled insight into the daunting challenges faced by pioneering educational broadcasters, even within their home institutions. Throughout most of the 1920s, for example, WHA owed its continued existence to the self-sacrificing enthusiasm of just two men, physicist Earle Terry, who came very close to giving up on the station in 1928, and his young assistant Malcolm Hanson, whose obsession with the station ironically led him to fail out of the electrical engineering program. In addition to facing often shaky administrative support for the station, Terry and Hanson had to contend with "the unwillingness of some faculty members to actually speak on the air, as they considered radio to be undignified" (p. 46). Thirty-five speakers from twenty different university departments lectured into WHA's microphone in 1923, but of these only a professor of physical education was willing to appear more than once.

In sum, this is not, at least by academic standards, a distinguished book, but it does open a window onto a subject that has been left in the dark too long by historians. And if other educational stations have left behind even a fraction of the archival treasure that Davidson has found at the University of Wisconsin, then further work on this neglected part of the field of radio...


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