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College Radio's Hidden History

Radio's Hidden Voice

In light of the 70th anniversary of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System’s (IBS) annual conference last weekend, it’s a good time to reflect on the college radio pioneers who rarely get mentioned in radio history discussions.

My fascination with the early days of college radio began when I started diving into the history of the radio station at my alma mater, Haverford College. Although Haverford’s first radio station, WABQ, drew much press and attention during its short run from 1923 to 1927; few people outside of the college are aware of the triumphs of this student-built station that was for a time the most powerful college radio station in the United States.

So, it was with great interest that I sought out Hugh Richard Slotten’s 2009 book Radio’s Hidden Voice: The Origins of Public Broadcasting in the United States.

In the book he points out that,

“Radio stations at universities were particularly important because they pioneered some of the earliest experiments with radio in the United States and they played a key role in the establishment of an alternative, noncommercial, public service model for broadcasting.”

Also of interest to me is Slotten’s acknowledgment that college radio faced competition from commercial stations way back in the 1920s. He writes,

“As early as 1922, President Jardine at Kansas State College wrote to a colleague about his fears that commercial interests were actively ‘trying to eliminate’ college radio stations.”

It’s not surprising, considering the huge growth of radio in the United States in 1922. According to Slotten, on January 1, 1922 there were only 28 licensed broadcast stations in the U.S. This number soared to 570 by December 1, 1922.

In the book, there’s a big emphasis on the importance of stations at land-grant universities, many of which offered extension courses and home study courses over the radio airwaves (particularly in the 1920s) for residents in rural areas. Slotten points out that by the late 1920s there was even more competition for space on the radio dial and that many stations were forced to share frequencies and commercial stations seemed to be favored in the Federal Radio Commission’s decisions surrounding assignments.

In order to gain more insight into his research into the early days of educational radio in the United States, I spoke with Hugh Slotten over email. In our conversation he talks about how he became interested in college radio, explains why much of college radio’s early history has been unwritten, and offers up his take on why pinpointing the “first college radio station” is such a challenge.

Jennifer Waits: When did you begin researching the history of radio and what sparked your interest in educational radio?

Hugh Slotten: I especially got interested in the history of the early university stations after I wrote my first book on broadcasting.  That book dealt with technical standards and the role of engineers in the early regulation of radio and television.  I realized while doing the research for that book of the importance of these early university stations.  It seemed clear that there was an important early history that needed to be uncovered.  It was also clear that their history was tied closely to the early history of government policy.  Because I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a graduate student, I was also aware that these stations were some of the first in the country (WHA at the UW-Madison).

Jennifer: I’m amazed that you’ve uncovered so much about the early days of educational radio. Why do you think this history has been largely unexplored?

Hugh: I think it has been ignored especially because the winners in the battle that occurred early on (between the large commercial networks and the small, noncommercial stations) have tended to write the history.  The standard histories have focused on the winners, who portrayed the “American System” of commercial radio operated by large networks as inevitable (the best system possible).

The records of most of the earliest stations have also been lost (in general).  But I was able to find much information in university and college archives about the educational stations.  This wasn’t easy, so that would help explain why the early history of these stations has not been explored.

Jennifer: There’s a great deal of conflicting information about who can rightfully claim to be the “first” college radio station in the U.S. In your opinion, which station was the first?

Hugh: It depends on the criteria you use to figure this out.  They didn’t give “broadcast” station licenses until after WWI.  There clearly were experiments going on as early as the late 1890s with radio or wireless at universities (wireless telegraphy).  The federal government didn’t officially start to keep track of stations until 1913.  People were operating “stations” at universities and colleges before then but they were more like amateur operators (and not voice transmissions expect for a few exceptions).

The first licenses were not for “broadcasting” because this didn’t exactly exist as a separate concept until after WWI.  I had a researcher look up all the university and college station licenses from before WWI and 1920 (published in an official register starting in 1913) …Interestingly, one of the earliest licensed stations at a small college was a station at Beloit College.

The University of Wisconsin was one of the first university stations to broadcast voice transmissions.  It also continued to operate during WWI (the other ones were forced to shut down).  I think that is why it claims to be the earliest continuously operated broadcast station.  But you see that it depends on the specific criteria you use.

Chess Match at WABQ in the 1920s Photo courtesy of Haverford College Archives, HCHC photographs

Jennifer Waits: Why do you think that land-grant university stations were “more important” than stations at other types of universities?

Hugh: Most of the earliest stations were at the larger state universities.  During the 1920s when “broadcasting” took off, things were different (lots of smaller schools had stations too).

I focused on the state university stations especially in my book, but I think more could be done with the stations at smaller schools and private universities.  The state university focus on extension education (especially using radio for agricultural extension) is very important.  It provides a larger justification and a larger source of support for these stations (state support).

Jennifer: Your book is concerned with educational radio being a precursor to today’s public broadcasting in the United States. From that perspective, how do you feel about the trend in recent years for some independent college radio stations to turn more and more of their day over to programming from public broadcasting companies?

Hugh: Actually, I wasn’t aware of that.  I know there has always been a tension been smaller independent, noncommercial stations and stations connected to the national public broadcasting system.  Local interests clearly suffer when national networks became dominant, but I know that it has always been difficult for small, independent stations to survive.  Your discussion of the recent history of the Haverford station seems to underscore this problem.

Jennifer: I’ve been doing a lot of research about the history of college radio at Haverford College. From what I’ve read, their station was unique in the 1920s in that it was built entirely by undergraduate students. They ultimately sold off their station at the end of 1926 to a commercial station in Philadelphia. Have you run across similar stories of stations from the 1920s that were student endeavors?

Hugh: Students played important roles at all of these stations (larger state universities too).  But at the state universities, faculty always seemed to have oversight.  Often, the stations were tied to existing extension divisions too.  Your research on the Haverford station seems to show that the smaller colleges were a bit different–faculty and staff did not seem to have as much oversight (students seemed to be more independent).

Jennifer: Have you ever been a college radio DJ?

Hugh: No.  I went to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana (another Quaker school).  My brother was a DJ there in the early 1980s, but I wasn’t.

Jennifer: Are you a fan of college radio today? What are your favorite stations?

Hugh: Since I’m in New Zealand, I don’t get to listen to stations over the air in the US (although I am in the US fairly often).  I do listen on the internet sometimes.  When I’m back in the US, I’m usually either in Washington, D.C. doing research or visiting relatives in Carlisle, PA.  In Carlisle, I do listen to the Dickinson College station sometimes.  Also, the Messiah College station is available, and I also enjoy hearing that station.

Jennifer: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your radio research?

Hugh: I did see your discussion of the early years of the Haverford station.  That was very interesting, especially about the international chess playing, which I didn’t know about.  Here is a link to a great early photo of students at Radcliffe using a radio station (or radio equipment)…It does show that some women were involved in this early period (1922).

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One Response to College Radio's Hidden History

  1. Linda October 13, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    We are doing a PR plan for a college radio station as part of a Public Relations class at Cal-State University San Bernardino. Your article is good information. Any suggestions you have are appreciated.
    Thank you

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