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In Wisconsin, WHA Celebrates 100 Years Of Broadcasting

Jun 3, 2017
Originally published on June 3, 2017 8:35 am
Copyright 2017 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit Wisconsin Public Radio.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the oldest radio stations in this country celebrates its 100th birthday this year, Wisconsin Public Radio on WHAA. WHA AM helped develop the framework for the public radio system we're familiar with today. So we asked WPR's Maureen McCollum to tell us about her station's legacy.

MAUREEN MCCOLLUM, BYLINE: By the second decade of the 20th century, a lot of people were experimenting with wireless radio transmissions, though most of it was in Morse code. But in early 1917, University of Wisconsin physics professor Earle Terry wanted to try something else - broadcasting audio.

RANDALL DAVIDSON: He'd been working with the technology and knew what a big deal this was, what its value was.

MCCOLLUM: Former Wisconsin Public Radio host Randall Davidson wrote a book on the history of the station. He says Professor Terry invited the who's who of Madison over, turned on the radio in his living room while a colleague on campus dropped the needle on a version of this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHELBERT NEVIN'S "NARCISSUS")

DAVIDSON: I think the other academics that were with him, even people in his department, didn't realize what an important thing this was to be able transmit sound.

MCCOLLUM: Even though this was one of the first over-the-air broadcasts of audio, most people didn't see the use. The few who had radios at the time used them to receive time checks and weather forecasts via Morse code.

DAVIDSON: So people would tune in to get these time signals to synchronize their watches and clocks and so forth. And then you could tune down and get the weather forecast. And that's pretty much your broadcast listening for the day.

MCCOLLUM: It was mostly farmers who were deciphering these Morse code signals from a handful of stations in the Midwest. Most stations went dark during World War I. But what became known as WHA continued broadcasting for the military in Wisconsin. In 1921, three years after the war ended...

DAVIDSON: We started doing a regular daily broadcast over the noon hour of weather and farm markets.

MCCOLLUM: These audio reports lasted for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's 12:30. The College of Agriculture presents the midday farm program.

MCCOLLUM: Here's an example from 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We wouldn't be surprised to see robins with earmuffs or a tulip blossom filled with snow today in Madison or anywhere in Wisconsin, for that matter, on this cold, damp and undecided May Monday.

MCCOLLUM: In the 1920s and '30s, commercial radio stations across the country were playing music, drama and public affairs programs. But as a noncommercial station, WHA had a specific educational mission and drew on the university's resources to create shows like the "Homemakers' Program."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOMEMAKERS' PROGRAM")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Today, we have with us in the studio an authority on one of Wisconsin's most important products - cheese.

MCCOLLUM: WHA managers took that mission a step further after hearing children's programming on Chicago's NBC station. They created "Wisconsin's School Of The Air."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "WISCONSIN'S SCHOOL OF THE AIR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That gay little tune, boys and girls, is the one that you're going to look forward to each week.

MCCOLLUM: Kids sketched with "Let's Draw."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LET'S DRAW")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I want you to remember real hard and draw for me a picture of the funniest thing that happened to you last summer.

MCCOLLUM: They got creative with "Let's Write."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LET'S WRITE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Today is cat day. Well, you might say today that cats are our pur-puss (ph). (Laughter) You'll pardon the pun, won't you?

MCCOLLUM: Sure. It was cheesy. And sometimes it could be a bit boring. But WHA along with stations in Ohio and Iowa were considered innovators, says Josh Shepperd. He's an assistant professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and the director of the Library of Congress's Radio Preservation Task Force.

JOSH SHEPPERD: They started to make program transcriptions, they called them. Basically, they pressed records of programs. And then they would distribute them. So most of the best programming came out of Wisconsin because they actually were trying to match commercial aesthetics.

MCCOLLUM: Shepperd says these educational radio programs are precursors to what would become public radio. And one of the students singing and drawing along with WHA in his tiny country school in Madison was Bill Siemering.

BILL SIEMERING: Twice a day, the teacher would turn on the radio, and we would listen to the "Wisconsin's School Of The Air." So I learned art, music, nature studies, social studies, science all by radio.

MCCOLLUM: This had a huge impact on Siemering. He eventually went on to work at WHA in the 1950s. After that, he helped shape the sound of National Public Radio as its first program director in the 1970s.

SIEMERING: Really, from the very beginning, it was the idea of using radio for social good.

MCCOLLUM: Siemering gives a lot of credit to WHA for helping shape his philosophy at NPR. For example, he put women on the air - a rarity on the national level but common in Wisconsin.

SIEMERING: And, of course, we had a conversational style. It wasn't necessarily the voice of authority from New York - the white male. It would speak with many voices in many dialects to be inclusive.

MCCOLLUM: Another WHA employee, Don Voegeli, even composed the All Things Considered theme on a synthesizer in his Madison office.

SOUNDBITE OF DON VOEGELI'S "ALL THINGS CONSIDERED THEME")

MCCOLLUM: It's come a long way from this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHELBERT NEVIN'S "NARCISSUS")

MCCOLLUM: But maybe not. For NPR News, I'm Maureen McCollum in Madison, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHELBERT NEVIN'S "NARCISSUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.