Public Radio and the Wisconsin Idea

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the April 2007 issue of The Valley Scene

With Wisconsin’s AM and FM radio dial dominated by vapid, advertiser driven drivel ranging from angry right wing call-in shows to pre-recorded classic rock, the importance of non-commercial programming has never been greater. But because we grow up with commercial garbage dominating the airwaves, and because a meaningful unit on broadcast history is absent from most school curricula, the majority of Wisconsinites aren’t aware of our state’s role in the development of educational radio.

Randall Davidson

Teaching about the honorable history of educational radio in Wisconsin is now much easier thanks to a recent book by Wisconsin Public Radio’s Randall Davidson. 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea (The University of Wisconsin Press) provides an in-depth and enjoyable examination of the topic. Davidson, WPR’s chief announcer and unofficial historian, has Fox Valley roots as a Neenah native. He attended UW Oshkosh where he worked at the campus station WRST, and also did radio sportscasting in Appleton. He’ll be returning home to talk about the book at the Neenah Public Library on Monday, April 2 at 2 p.m.

I asked Randall why he wrote the book. “The project came to me in an odd way,” he said. “In 2002, WPR host Jean Feraca took a year off to write a book, and she mentioned to the people at UW Press that there was the guy at WPR (me), who knew a lot about the history of the network. They asked her to approach me about the possibility of writing a book on the topic. I’m glad I was able put this story into print. The history of WHA and the network is an important one.”

In the early 20th century, the driving forces behind Madison’s 9XM/WHA were professor Edward Bennett of the electrical engineering department and physicist Earle M. Terry. Bennett experimented with wireless telegraphy and in 1914 received an experimental wireless license from the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Navigation. Terry, the “founding father” of the radio station, worked with a “wireless squad” of physics and engineering students to get the station on the air. Terry also had a keen understanding of how private funding could undermine the ability of a radio station to serve the public interest. As early as 1922, he resisted an attempt by the Milwaukee Journal to become WHA’s chief financial sponsor.

Terry’s insistence that WHA retain its status as a public entity is what makes early broadcasting in Wisconsin so unique. The “Wisconsin Idea” guided the early radio pioneers. According to Randall Davidson: “The Wisconsin Idea drove everything that WHA did in the earliest days. The ‘Idea’ was articulated in the early 1900s and is the notion that the university should serve all of the state’s residents, not just the students. This idea was an exciting concept on the Madison campus during the years that radio was being developed and influenced programming decisions. The station broadcast the weather and markets for the benefit of farmers, adult education programs, information for homemakers, programs for school children, political candidate forums, and more. Another endeavor that dovetailed nicely with the Wisconsin Idea is the university’s Extension Division, which as today’s UW-Extension is one of the agencies overseeing Wisconsin Public Radio.”

WHA invented “distance learning” before anyone knew what distance learning was. Beginning in the 1930s, the “Wisconsin College of the Air” presented university-level material for adult listeners. The courses were free and, while not offering credit, did award certificates of achievement to students who passed optional exams at the end of a 30-week session. Though WHA’s broadcast schedule was creative, Davidson argues that Wisconsin’s “other” early AM station, WLBL (“Wisconsin, Land of Beautiful Lakes”) in Stevens Point, “was equal to or slightly ahead of WHA in some programming innovations.” Davidson’s writing about WLBL is particularly significant and noteworthy because the fact that an educational institution did not own the station usually omits it from mention in discussions of the history of educational radio.

Davidson told me that the most important thing we should know about the history of educational radio is that it almost did not survive competitive and financial challenges in the 1920s and 1930s. There are no reserved AM frequencies for educational radio (like there are in the FM band 88.1 – 91.9). “As a result, a college or university that had an AM educational station could sell it to a commercial operator, and many did, particularly during the Depression,” he said. “Of the 202 AM radio stations licensed to educational institutions in the 1920s, only 26 remained in operation as non-commercial educational outlets by the end of 1933: the rest were sold or went off the air. Very few survived to the present day to become ‘public’ radio stations: WPR stations WHA-Madison and WLBL-Auburndale are two of this small group.”

Randall Davidson is optimistic about the future of educational radio in our state. He believes that “high-quality, non-commercial programming which is intelligently presented will always find an audience.” With the Bush Administration budget proposing to cut federal support for public broadcasting by 25 percent, it is crucial that the modern audience fight for that future in the spirit of the broadcast pioneers of the 1920s and 1930s. Commercialism couldn’t destroy educational radio then; let’s make sure commercialism doesn’t destroy it now.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.