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Old time radio. Photo: J. Waits

Investigating Some Contenders for the Oldest Women’s College Radio Station

A few days ago I learned about a documentary about the “first all-woman radio station,” a commercial country station WHER which launched in Memphis in 1955. Of course it piqued my curiosity, not only because it sounds like an intriguing station, but also because I’m aware of college radio stations at all women’s colleges that launched prior to that date.

And then scholar Christine Ehrick pointed out that an all female radio station, Radio Femenina, launched in Uruguay in 1935, so clearly all-female radio stations have a much richer history than one would think based on the marketing of WHER in the 1950s. This whole discussion of which was the first women’s radio station reminded me of a piece that I wrote about women’s college radio as a Radio Survivor Bulletin exclusive back in July, 2015. I also delved into this topic on Radio Survivor Podcast #10. For those that missed it the first time around, here’s my discussion of some contenders for the “first women’s college radio station.”

While doing some research I came across another “oldest college radio” station claim, this time related to all-female stations. The quote, found within someone’s online bio, refers to Mt. Holyoke’s radio station WMHC as “the oldest college radio station in the country operated exclusively by women.” The WMHC website also states that it is “the oldest radio station operated by women.”

Over the years I’ve seen several women’s colleges lay claim to having the oldest college radio station, so I decided to dig further. The Mt. Holyoke Alumnae Association website contains the statement that WMHC is “the third-oldest college radio station in the country-and the first women’s college station” and also mentions that some of the station’s original equipment was from 1951, the year that the station was supposedly founded.

From my own research, I know that there were women’s college radio stations prior to 1951, including one built in the 1940s at Bryn Mawr College (WBMC). A number of women’s colleges were early members of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System (IBS), which was instrumental in providing support to campus-only carrier current stations. Member stations included Pembroke College (beginning in 1940), Barnard College (beginning in 1941), Bryn Mawr College (beginning in 1945), Radcliffe College (beginning in 1943), Stephens College (beginning in 1944), and Wellesley College (beginning in 1940). It’s unclear if all of those schools built stations, but by becoming members of IBS, it shows that there was at least interest in radio at women’s colleges in the 1940s.

Today, no fewer than three radio stations claim to be running the oldest college radio station at a women’s college. They include:

From these dates, it appears that Wellesley College has one of the oldest still operating, women’s college radio stations. Back in 2012, I wrote about the history of WZLY and in that same piece gave some back story on radio at Smith College as well. I hadn’t run across anything about Mt. Holyoke’s station at the time, but after digging around, I found some great photos of the early days of radio at Mt. Holyoke College, including one from around 1950.

These early women’s college radio stations from the 1940s and 1950s weren’t the first, either. As I wrote in the Radio Survivor Bulletin, the short-lived radio station WDAA was run out of the all-girls finishing school, the Ward-Belmont School in Nashville, Tennessee, beginning in 1922. And in 1925, Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri launched radio station KFRU which existed on campus for nearly a decade, followed by an FM station in 1965. Additionally, women from Bryn Mawr College were involved with the operation of the Haverford College radio station WABQ since its launch in 1923 and a separate station was built at Bryn Mawr in the 1940s (that station went off the air in 1960).

Do you know of other contenders for the title of the “first women’s college radio station?” If so, please share the details in the comments.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the July 30, 2015 Radio Survivor Bulletin. Subscribe to the free weekly Bulletin here.

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