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As Wisconsin Public Radio celebrates its centennial, a former director, and lifelong fan of the airwaves, looks back.

Radio matters most to me as the days shorten, temperatures drop and snow falls. As a child in the 1950s, I listened attentively to the radio on stormy winter mornings, hoping to hear that schools were closed. I was almost always disappointed, but if there was good news, the radio would deliver it.

To my parents and other adults, of course, wintertime radio offered much more than the possibility of a school-free day. It connected them to a world beyond their home. Radio vaccinated them against cabin fever.

Radio breaks through winter’s isolation in a human and personal way that television and digital screens cannot. When I view a screen, I am a voyeur, watching people who are somewhere else. When I hear a radio, the people are in my space. They inhabit the same room as I do and speak to me directly, like a phone call from a friend.

Perhaps the difference is more real to those of us who grew up with radio, but I suspect that the television and digital generations feel the difference, too.

Most often, we listen to radio alone. My most vivid radio memories are of listening by myself to “The Lone Ranger,” “Suspense” and “The Green Hornet” at our cottage isolated in Michigan’s thumb. To a kid listening alone, nothing was scarier than the haunting voice of the “Suspense” announcer or more exciting than the “Lone Ranger” announcer. They literally took me to other places. The same programs had less impact when I listened back home in Detroit with cars driving by and people going about their daily activities just beyond the windows.

Imagine then, what radio’s arrival in the 1920s meant to most of Wisconsin’s population who lived on farms and in rural areas, often miles from their nearest neighbors. “Friends” – those pioneer Wisconsin broadcasters – came into their living rooms and kitchens. The broadcasters shared useful information and they entertained, but most importantly, they brought companionship. And that companionship was never more valued than in the winter, when farm life became quietest and loneliest. 

I find it very appropriate, therefore, that the “first radio broadcast” in Wisconsin happened on a winter night. While I cannot know for sure, I like to imagine that night exactly 100 years ago as calm and clear but bitterly cold and blanketed with snow, like a picture on a Christmas card.

I do know that on that evening in early 1917, University of Wisconsin physics professor Earle Terry and his wife, Sadie, hosted a group of faculty members and university officials at their Madison home. Once their guests had gathered and, I assume, been treated to refreshments, Prof. Terry placed a phone call to his student Malcom Hanson, who was stationed on campus in the basement of Science Hall.

In that basement room, Terry and his students had built and perfected radio transmitters for seven years. Like many other radio pioneers at the time, they were successfully sending out the dots and dashes of Morse code. Messages understood only by a smattering of ham operators did not satisfy Terry, however. He wanted to reach lots of people. To do that, he needed to transmit voice and music that ordinary people could easily understand and enjoy.

Switching from Morse code to voice and music required vacuum tubes, which Terry and his students had to make themselves. The elaborate process included heating glass to its melting point, blowing it into the desired shape, inserting the necessary electronics and then removing the air in the tube to create a vacuum.

By the winter of 1917, when Terry finally made that phone call from his living room to Malcolm Hanson in Science Hall’s basement, they were confident their device would work. Hanson placed a needle on a phonograph record of “Narcissus,” a popular song of the day. He picked up the sound on a telephone mouthpiece. The vacuum tube-equipped transmitter sent the signal up a wire to the top of Science Hall and then to another wire strung between Science Hall and the chimney of the old university heating plant. From there it passed through the frigid ether to an improvised receiver in the Terry home.

The professor’s guests were not impressed. That same record would have sounded a lot better – and the process would have been much simpler – if he had just played it on the phonograph in the room. The guests did not realize they had experienced history, the start of a 100-year march toward today’s Wisconsin Public Radio and, less directly, the national system of public radio and public television vital to millions of listeners and viewers today.

As a student of history, I would argue that the University of Wisconsin “invented” public broadcasting. I don’t say that because Prof. Terry and his students were necessarily the first to broadcast voice and music. Others were working on that challenge at the same time. I say it because they cared about the impact of what they might broadcast on their contraption. They wanted their device to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals and the communities in which they lived.

Like others on the campus in the early 20th century, Terry had absorbed “the Wisconsin Idea,” which committed the university to serving all the state’s residents, not just students on campus. Terry understood that his station, WHA, could serve listeners in ways never before possible, providing a broad liberal education, a public policy forum and practical information. 

As I listen to Wisconsin Public Radio today, a century after that first broadcast, I still hear the Wisconsin Idea at work.

Programs like “To the Best of Our Knowledge” bring to mind the dream of WHA’s first program director to provide a liberal education to all residents of the state, but to “never sound highbrow.”

When I hear experts, political figures and listeners discuss current issues on today’s call-in programs, I think of the speech professor who insisted in the 1920s that WHA serve as a “forum” where all points of view could receive a fair hearing.

When I hear Larry Meiller’s guests tell how to treat an injury, talk about a prairie restoration or share all sorts of other practical information, I am aware that his program evolved out of farm and home broadcasts, the first regular service from Prof. Terry’s radio station. At the time, 40 percent of Wisconsin farmers and their families were illiterate, but they were fully able to understand what they heard on the radio airwaves.

Larry’s ability to combine warm companionship with practical advice calls to mind Aline Hazard who, starting in the 1930s, presided over the daily “Homemakers” program six mornings a week. For 30 years, Mrs. Hazard greeted listeners with a cheerful “Good morning, homemakers!” They responded with thousands of letters a year. While her program sought a “more beautiful and worthwhile Wisconsin home life,” Mrs. Hazard regarded rural women as more than homemakers. She saw them as interested, too, in self-development, community service and world affairs.

I have a long history with public radio. I was the first employee of National Public Radio and helped put together their still excellent evening news story, “All Things Considered”; after that I was the director of Wisconsin Public Radio for more than 20 years. I’ve written two books about public radio, and remain proud of this excellent network, and of the way it so perfectly embodies the Wisconsin Idea.

I also continue to love the way our radio personalities keep me company every day, just as I was kept company as a boy in Michigan – especially when the temperature drops and the snow falls. ◆

‘Radio Days’ appears in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 2, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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