Celebrating 100 years: How Wisconsin Public Radio began, and became a national model
Wisconsin Public Radio co-founder and UW-Madison physics professor Earle M. Terry in his radio lab
In 1917, a small group of Wisconsinites gathered at the Madison home of University of Wisconsin Physics Professor Earle Terry to witness the launch of public broadcasting in the state.
There was no fanfare; there were no crowds, just a small group of scientists and students who were committed to using new technologies to enhance life across the state—a commitment that remains at the heart of everything Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) do to this day.
“By all accounts, we’re the oldest public radio station in the nation and one of the oldest continuously broadcasting radio stations of any kind in the country — we’re even older than the BBC,” noted Mike Crane, director of WPR. “When Terry demonstrated voice and music broadcasting in 1917, he was really introducing a significant change in how the world would share information and connect, and it continues to be life changing to this day.”
The history of public broadcasting in the state is really two stories: one of technological innovation and one of program innovation.
While UW professors and students were developing the transmitters that would make radio possible—crafting fragile vacuum tubes by hand in the lab—educators at the recently established UW-Extension Division were wondering if this new technology could help the state’s mostly rural families improve their lot in life.
“When our founders decided what they should broadcast first with the new wireless technology, what did they choose? The two things that would benefit the most people in Wisconsin—weather forecasts and crop prices,” Crane says.
Among many broadcast “firsts,” WPR was the first station in the nation— public or private—to offer regularly scheduled weather forecasts.
The very first one was transmitted, in Morse code, Dec. 4, 1916 from 9XM, the predecessor of WPR, by Terry from a makeshift studio in the UW-Madison’s Science Hall, from equipment he and his students had built. Wireless technology was cutting edge at the time, and few people had radios. To help grow the audience for their broadcasts, the university offered instructions and diagrams to help beginners construct a receiving set. They were soon flooded with requests for information.
Professor Terry experimented with broadcasting sound (not just telegraphic signals in Morse code), and in 1917 invited friends to his house to hear a special transmission of music. By 1921 the 9XM station had a schedule that included weather, music and farm reports, broadcast by voice.
“Public service was really the foundation of those early innovations and it still drives everything we do on air, online and in communities across the state,” Crane says.
Wisconsin’s model led national public broadcasting
The vision of extension education was instrumental to developing the public media values Wisconsin audiences still experience, according to UW-Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen.
“The weather might not seem like a big breakthrough, but for farmers at the time, access to scientific forecasting was game-changing, and data on crop prices leveled the economic playing field, putting them in a better position to profit in the open market,” she says.
The collaboration between public broadcasting and public instruction in Wisconsin expanded in the 1930s when WPR launched educational School of the Air programs to serve the more than 4,000 one-room schoolhouses in the state. Programs like “Let’s Sing,” “Let’s Draw,” “Afield with Ranger Mac” and “Rhythm and Games” engaged students and saved schools and the state money by providing urban and rural schools access to free, high-quality instruction that met state standards.
The innovations continued as College of the Air programs were designed for adults unable to afford tuition during the Great Depression, and a host of home economics and farm programs were created to benefit Wisconsin’s mostly rural families. Traditional topics, such as economics, science and literature, were taught on the radio, alongside practical instruction in family health and even typing.
As Jack Mitchell’s book Wisconsin On the Air notes, Terry’s radio experiment blossomed into a pioneering endeavor to carry out the “Wisconsin Idea” promise to share the university’s knowledge to all state residents, a principle that still guides Wisconsin public broadcasting.
With the arrival of television in 1954, Wisconsin Public Television embraced WPR’s educational mission with original and award-winning children’s programs. This all happened even before the advent of PBS.
“There was a lot of important, early work here that people might not know about,” notes Jon Miskowski, director of WPT. “The Friendly Giant, which became our first national show in the 1950s, changed many families’ understanding of what television could do.”
The program, hosted by WPR’s Bob Homme, became a national model for educational television and was beloved by children across the U.S. and Canada for decades.
In 1967, 50 years after the launch of Wisconsin public broadcasting, the U.S. Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which a few years later created PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and NPR (National Public Radio). Both organizations turned to Wisconsin for direction.
NPR hired Bill Siemering, who worked at WPR while in high school and college, as their first program director. Siemering, who went on to win a MacArthur Genius Grant for his lifetime of work in educational radio around the world, wrote the NPR charter and helped create the organization’s first national news program, All Things Considered” with WPR alum, Jack Mitchell.
And that famous All Things Considered theme song? It was written by WPR’s Don Voegeli here in Wisconsin.
Don Voegeli, WPR’s long-time musical director, also wrote the theme song for NPR’s All Things Considered and many other songs used by public radio stations around the U.S.
Expanding the network
In the 1970s, the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board was created to ensure that communities across the state had equal access to the early learning and general educational content on public television.
Part of that mission requires maintaining the network of broadcast towers and technology around the state. In addition, “our focus has been on supporting compelling educational content for public, private and home-schooled children in the state,” says Gene Purcell, executive director of the ECB.
And, like radio and television, some of the ECB’s work has served a national audience.
“For decades, WPT and the ECB have gone beyond broadcast to help teachers teach and students learn with original, Wisconsin-focused, proven educational content,” Miskowski says. “We’re excited about what we’ve been able to do online, and now we’re exploring virtual reality for education.”
WPR’s program “Afield with Ranger Mac” with Wakelin McNeel (center) taught students across the state in the 1930s and 40s, and was one of several groundbreaking instructional programs that helped schools across the state.
Over the years, as WPR and WPT built a statewide network of stations to ensure equal access to information and education, they also connected the state like never before. Those connections and a belief that Wisconsinites should also talk to each other, led to the creation of the Ideas Network in the 1990s, and its news and talk radio services.
That expansion included placing news bureaus across the state in the mid 1980s with UW-Stevens Point among the locations. In 1994, the bureau moved to UW-Marathon County in Wausau with the goal of creating a full-fledged regional office to support full-time news production, local programming and community outreach.
With the growing popularity of the Ideas Network, many Wausau area residents voiced concerns about reliable reception. Among them was community philanthropist and retired ECB board member Doris Ullrich of Wausau. The closest Ideas Network signal was AM 930 Auburndale. While reception was good during the day, its license required it to go dark after sunset at the time.
“You could be listening to an engaging conversation and the station would sign off in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes as early as 4:15 pm in the winter,” says Rick Reyer, central regional manager of WPR. “One late afternoon I received a call from Doris inviting me to her home for lunch to talk about the issue. She wanted to know what she could do to help.”
Shortly after that conversation, WPR found and applied for an available FM frequency in Wausau. But Rhinelander’s independent public radio station WXPR also had applied for the frequency to expand its reach into Wausau. Both organizations were left with the choice to fight it out and let the Federal Communications Commission decide, or work out a compromise.
That’s when Ullrich stepped in. Being a supporter of both WPR and WXPR, she was less interested in what would be the best deal for either station, but what was best for the community.
Ullrich invited leadership of both stations to sit down at her table and broker a deal. Wisconsin Public Radio and WXPR would share the 91.9 FM frequency based on an agreed schedule: WPR’s Ideas Network during the day on weekdays and Sunday nights; WXPR weeknights and most of the weekends.
“With her wry smile, Doris basically told us we weren’t leaving until we had an agreement,” Reyer says. “It certainly helped that she invited community leader Stan Staples and Congressman Dave Obey to the conversation as well.”
Since then, WPR has enhanced its Ideas Network reach in the region with 89.1-Adams/Wisconsin Rapids, 99.1-Stevens Point, 100.9-Marshfield and 89.9-Rhinelander/Eagle River.
Before the web and social media, the Ideas Network gave Wisconsinites the opportunity to share their own knowledge and to question experts, researchers, government agencies and elected officials about their ideas. The network continues to thrive today because it still provides a civil forum where issues and ideas are analyzed without litmus tests and rancor.
New technologies, same principles
In the WPR studios at Radio Hall in the 1940s.
Even as they celebrate their first 100 years, WPR and WPT are working for the future as well.
Whether it’s mobile apps and video on demand or podcasting and virtual reality, WPR and WPT continue to embrace new media technologies to ensure that their groundbreaking educational, cultural and news content will serve Wisconsinites for generations to come.
“We’re building on our history of innovation to provide the news and information Wisconsinites need to make their own lives, businesses and communities better,” Crane says. This effort includes recent additions to the news team and the website WisContext.org, a digital-first collaboration between WPR, WPT and UW-Extension.
A lot has changed in the past 100 years, but according to Crane, WPR and WPT’s guiding principles have not. “If there’s anything I would want Wisconsinites to know about us, it’s that we remain committed to always reflecting Wisconsin’s diverse perspectives, experiences and cultures of today and tomorrow. The people of Wisconsin are the thread running through everything we do. Their hopes and needs bind our past, present and future together.”
WPR and WPT are celebrating 100 years of public broadcasting in Wisconsin with a series of special events around the state, special broadcast promotions, and a centennial microsite that includes an interactive timeline with historic photos, audio and video. There’s also a section where listeners can share their own stories. Visit wpr.org/100 to learn more.