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During the earliest years of radio you would have listened to something like that. That is if you were a radio hobbyist who constructed your own crude receiver from the wire and an oatmeal box you would have picked up any number of signals in Morse code from other amateurs. U.S. military and other commercial point to point radio operators voices music and Morning Edition came much later in 1996. Radio was all dots and dashes. But as University of Michigan media scholar Susan Douglas explains then came the audio on tube and that changed everything. The Audi onto which most people haven't heard of was. The precursor to the vacuum tube which of course revolutionized both radio reception and later radio transmission when it was discovered in the teens that the vacuum tube could oscillate as well as receive radio signals so really was the kind of foundational technology first for radio reception and then for radio transmission tubes such as the audio and could transmit and receive voices in music.
But tubes were expensive and unreliable. Fortunately at about the same time someone discovered that a simple crystal could serve as an effective and rugged receiver. There was an explosion of ham operators using these crystals and building their own sets beginning in 1907 and they are model for reception conceptually with the audio onto but very few kids could afford it and so they were really using Crystal detectors and what they began to do was build radio clubs around the country and they were especially prevalent in port cities New York Chicago Detroit Washington D.C. and Baltimore. And by 1910 there were more of these ham operators on the air than there were either commercial operators or military operators. More and more people had radios but the idea of broadcasting had not yet taken hold. Rather radio was viewed as an improved version of point to point wired communication. According to University of Wisconsin media scholar Robert McChesney it was replacing wired communication.
The sickly in those days that might ship to shore communication that's why the Navy played such a central role in radio the first 20 or 30 years in existence because ships used it to stay in touch for sure when they're out in the middle of the ocean. And that was a revolutionary development in these very early days of radio the electromagnetic spectrum on which it operates was a vast unexplored territory. Following the example of the year Marconi the self-proclaimed inventor of wireless to lead the Navy and business users thought of radio as a point to point medium says University of Illinois journalism professor Jerry Landay. His vision was that radio would be used to provide information traffic from ship to shore and back namely by very wealthy people who like to cruise to Europe and back and who wanted access to other people so that there be point to point messages also. He envisions sending news bulletins so that while they were all at sea they would have a sense of the events of the day
so he was really one of the first to anticipate radio as a carrier. News information but on a point to point basis. Secondly it will be used by ships when they were in trouble and that's where his thinking stopped. Meanwhile the growing number of ham radio operators had a different idea. It suddenly dawned on a number of people mostly citizen hams or amateurs. That they could build their own transmitters. They could pick up their fiddles and bows and play or sing or or 8 or invite the neighbors in to do the same thing over their homemade radios while other people listened to it on their homemade radio. In 1900 no laws were in place to regulate who could operate a radio transmitter or what they could do with it while hams were on the cutting edge of what became known as broadcasting. They also soon brought about the first wave of radio regulation says Susan Douglas. They shared homework they share technical information and some of them are
anticipating computer hackers of today especially sought to taunt the U.S. Navy because they didn't like some of the military control of the airwaves and they also like to defy authority and so they would do things like deliberately interfere with naval operators at various naval bases in New York Newport Rhode Island and cetera. They would also pose admirals and announce that some naval ship was floundering at sea and when it sailed into port safe and sound. Of course the military officials were furious. And some of this prankster ism by 910 led military officials to go to Congress and ask that the ham operators be driven out of the airwaves in April 19 12 the ocean liner Titanic hit an iceberg and public perceptions of radio were changed forever in the sinking of the Titanic radio play the roles of both hero and villain if not for the wireless operator on board who broadcast a distress signal. None would have survived. But from the tangle of wireless traffic in the wake of the disaster
someone had assembled the message all Titanic passengers safe towing to Halifax which was printed in The New York Times. Unfortunately says Susan Douglas the message was a pastiche of at least two other messages and it was a great deal of blame placed on ham operators who were thought to have maliciously put together this message that seems not to have been the case but that combined with the enormous amount of interference that the rescue ships confronted when they were trying to signal back and forth to get message messages to the land about who had survived and what was the status of various survivors. Prompted Congress to believe that the hams were now constituting a menace to the airwaves because there are too many of them and there was too much interference. So what happened was there was radio regulation passed in 1900 that required everybody to get a license if they were going to transmit. But it kicked the hams out of the main part of the spectrum which was basically a portion of the EM spectrum that's unused today
and they were kicked down to the short waves which were then thought to be completely useless. But the hams were not about to be shut down. And it turned out that short ways travelled even farther than longer ways on the AM band. Susan Douglas Wood had also began to happen was an experimental transmission of voice and music between one thousand twelve thousand nine hundred seventeen lead to Forrest the inventor of the Audi on cover the nineteen sixteen elections from his experimental station north of New York City where he announced that Charles Evans Hughes had won the election and went to bed. DEFOREST also covered. 916 Harvard-Yale football game. Some music was being sent out experimentally so the hands were beginning to test the airwaves for the transmission of voice and music and as well as to send signals back. Obviously there was enormous concern about how the airwaves were being used during World War One and the government simply shut down all ham operations during this period due to security concerns the US government banned all amateur broadcasting and confiscated
many transmitters but radio expertise was badly needed in the military and thousands of ham operators were given work in the war effort. Thousands more were trained and these young men and they were mostly young men formed what would soon become the first audience for the use of vacuum tubes in the post world war one period in 1900 the ban on private broadcasting was lifted with more people trained in radio technology and thousands of war surplus radio tubes available. Amateur radio experienced its biggest boom for hams. The x ing became a favorite past time. The object was to tune in stations as far away as possible according to Brown University historian Susan Smullyan. The best thing is that they would say their call letters and where they were broadcasting from. So you could hear them and then you could go downstairs. If you're into the house or you go to school the next day and brag that you've heard something from our way that the stage was set for a major shift in thinking about radio radio began as a new and
improved point to point medium. It was then used by amateurs to reach out to distant places to connect with other radio enthusiasms. But now the broadcast era was about to begin. What happens is these guys take with them this interest in talking across long distances into being radio listeners and to being a member of a radio audience which is just beginning to coalesce or to have people who think of themselves as radio listeners. In the early 20 if any single place and time marked the start of the broadcasting boom it was the Pittsburgh radio station KDKA on the member second 19 20. Susan Douglas what happened is that this guy Frank Conrad who was a ham and who had gotten some of the surplus tubes from World War One began sending out what were called Wireless concerts from his garage outside of Pittsburgh and the wireless conferences consisted of the following extremely high tech approach get a pretty crude microphone stick in front of a pretty
junky phonograph and broadcast music out into the air. Well this that became something of a sensation and a department store in Pittsburgh began advertising components to make your own receiver so that you could listen to Conrad's broadcasts. Well the head of Westinghouse not being a fool and Conrad was a Westinghouse employee realized he better get Conrad out of the garage and onto the roof of the Westinghouse plant and bring him into the fold which indeed they did and the inaugural broadcast for what became KDKA one of the most famous stations in America. Was the coverage of the one thousand twenty presidential election returns and the explosion was on. Robert Mayer now a retired University of Illinois professor of economics recalls listening to the election returns on KDKA. I remember listening to the national election returns
in 1920 there were very few radios around there and the only radio that I knew there was a fellow reading rise New York weekly out of the garage and set up folding chairs and a whole bunch of hundred officers. That was that was 1920. The radio craze had begun suddenly says Robert Majed everyone had to have a radio station. You've got a lot of commercial enterprises and start radio stations newspapers car lot of utility. Companies and they would use the radio station not as a commercial enterprise but they would use it almost entirely to do what we call public relations today to spread favorable publicity about their core enterprise and it would not have advertising as a rule on it as we know it today. Department stores and car dealers libraries schools and churches all quickly got in on the radio act. Robert Mayer recalls one of his first radio encounters.
There was a bank there that had a small table radio. They would set bank would set the radio. Kind of a table on the outside their door. And people from town would go and gather it is down the steps. Susan Douglas says educational institutions quickly join the broadcasting boom colleges and universities got involved there was a lot of eager thought that they would be the universities of the air and people would necessarily have to go to university anywhere they could sit in the comfort of their homes and listen to the great lecturers of America and get their courses that way so colleges and universities began to set up radio stations. And this just really exploded between 20 and 22. In fact many of the advances in the science and the art of broadcasting came from the educational sector says Robert much as any educational radio. That was the pioneering of radio broadcasts in the United States I mean in the first few years that's where the action was. And there were other things. But the people who really
ran with it were the people of places like here in Madison and Champaign Urbana and stations associated largely with the major land grant universities the universities that saw their mission of serving the entire population of the state. And that's who ran that in the big stations the major stations started in the early 20s by the colleges but there were hundreds literally hundreds of licenses granted to colleges and universities to do radio broadcasting in the first half of the 1920s. Well before 1921 University of Illinois faculty and students had been experimenting with radio technology Electrical Engineering Professor Hugh Brown supervised construction of a small spark transmitter in his laboratory. In an Oct. 19 21 he received an experimental license with a call letters 9 x J spark transmitters could only broadcast in Morse Code in 9 x J was used mostly for engineering experiments. University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Robert Mayer. It was as experimental as a as the computer started grew
up in the same way that the community that it was. In somebodies laboratory and then British and the operation got too big for that laboratory and they had to provide a space for that sort of thing. Students and faculty in Electrical Engineering had been tuning in Friday night broadcasts from KDKA and that inspired them to build a vacuum tube transmitter of their own. On March 28 1900 to the University of Illinois received a license for the new transmitter with a call letters W r m Hugh Brown told people this stood for we reach millions with a single 50 watt vacuum tube. It's unlikely the signal traveled very far but w r m was quickly seen as a way to extend the university's educational mission says University of Illinois Professor George Douglas author of the book the early days of radio broadcasting. They tried to provide a mix of things and occasionally they would they would get into broadcasting the home football games and so forth. But they almost all of them would try to provide things relating to the.
Kinds of course were they had like they would have agricultural programming. They would have grain prices and things like that. In August 1906 University of Illinois alumnus botia Sullivan donated money for a new radio station in author of his late father. He said the station was to be used as a means of educational aid to the boys and girls of the state of Illinois to whom my father was so endured. Mr. Sullivan's gift included a new one thousand watt transmitter and enough money for a new radio building and tower in December 1906 moved into the Roger Sullivan memorial station at the west end of the line I field on Wright Street in Urbana. The University of Illinois was ready for the educational radio boom. George Douglas now it just so happens that. Or the University of Illinois station had had a plan for those in a big way in that they had a lot of places on campus that they were that were wired for radio so that they could you know from lecture halls and from Smith music all the university
installed underground lines to 27 campus locations. These lines allowed for live broadcasts of classroom lectures by university professors and concerts by university bands and became the University of the air. The mission of the station became to provide education in the broadest sense a mission that carries through today. The one thing that was different in those days from what the mission of oil is today is that they they did try for a while to do something like formal instruction or they would have a professor come in and read a lecture at a certain time. Robert Mayer remembers visiting the station for a live broadcast of the men's glee club. The first time that I joined a group coming over and I think it was probably the first time they come over. Whereas in the spring of 1929 something a lot bigger there than it is today I mean it was more or less
routine lots and lots of things on the radio but that was really quite something we were. Look forward to that. You are very proud of that. Meanwhile the number of radio stations was growing rapidly. Robert McChesney says thousands of radio transmitters began to literally jam the airwaves. There were 90 or 96 channels and the AM band the relevant band in the 1920s for radio broadcasting. And if people use a very low power you could have more than one person using a channel in the country
at the same time. You could have several in fact but the technology wasn't advanced as it is today or would become you know just a couple decades later. So it did put distinct limits on the number of people like a broadcast that was quickly reached by the mid-1920s. This soon led to what became known as chaos of the air. That's the official historical term for the year between 26 and early 27 is the chaos. Of the air period and what happened with an effect the secretary of commerce or the Commerce Department which had sort of been the defacto regulatory body of radio stopped issuing licenses are trying to regulate their way so it's hopeless to force Congress to basically pass a law to sub something up to do the job and do it right. In a 1927 Congress passed the radioactive 1927 which established Federal Radio commission as a temporary body basically to come in and clean up the airwaves assign license to make it clear so it works so people would not have static on the radio
receivers the stations were fighting over signals. But if you get one station for each frequency that they are able to get the radio active one thousand twenty seven created the Federal Radio commission it empowered the FARC to reallocate the airwaves to decide who would be allowed to broadcast. Congress wanted to quiet the chaos and to devise a rational process for issuing licenses. But Jerry Landay says the rationale was never quite clear. The airways by statute in the Communications Act of 1907 is deemed a public resource to be operated Here's the cover to be operated in the public interest. Now nobody however ever defined what that really meant. The FARC would have to deal with competing claims from fowls of nonprofit and commercial broadcasters who wanted their own licenses but added to their claims were those of the newly forming commercial networks says Susan Douglas one of the things that you have happening is NBC is formed in one thousand twenty six. And CBS is formed in one thousand twenty seven and their networks and they're
starting to battle for affiliates. And what they're trying to do is get as many local and regional stations to be affiliates with the commercial networks. So you have that element of competition and of course NBC and CBS have money when you have money it means you have good lawyers when you have good lawyers and experts it means that when you go before the FCC to battle for a license you have an enormous advantage directed by General Counsel. Louis CALDWELL The Federal Radio commission resolved the competing claims by adopting a particular definition of the Public Interest says Jerry Landay. What was done was to call the noncommercial stations propaganda stations. The line was that the international order of Oddfellows or the local library or the unions that ran some radio stations or the municipal were feeding their listeners propaganda. On the other hand he called those stations which were tending to be commercial like WGN Chicago.
GENERAL PUBLIC INTEREST station meaning they were good since broadcasting was beginning to be professionalized it may come as no surprise that licenses were given to those deemed most professional. But Susan Douglas as a result of the reallocation had an unfortunate effect on nonprofit broadcasters. Well they have priced FRC had a not surprisingly corporate bias and gave the best lots on the spectrum to those stations that had the biggest power transmitters and the most money invested in them and what they made labor stations and college stations do is share wavelengths which with each other. So do timesharing and some of the stations were not allowed to transmit at night so as to leave room for some of the other commercial stations. So you see an enormous drop in the number of educational and labor stations between one thousand twenty seven and one thousand thirty four. George Douglas has researched the decline in educational broadcasting during this period.
The educational stations of which there were I think by 1928 there were about 200 of them. They had to take a big cut. And I think by the mid 30s are only about 35 left. The University of Illinois radio station w r m had been assigned to eleven hundred Kill cycles since 1925 with a nine hundred twenty eight reallocation plan w r n became W I L L and was moved to 620 Kulas cycles and ordered into timesharing with W. S. F. L.. The voice of labor in Chicago and JJ d run by the Fraternal Order of moose before. Station manager Joseph Wright could arrange a time division with those stations. He received another telegram from the commission saying it was reassigned again to five hundred seventy CULE cycles and would share time with a. At the University of Wisconsin and PCC of the Chicago Northside Congregational Church immediately three commercial stations
challenge well and applied with the FARC to be placed on the same frequency so well was reassigned. Yet again this time to a frequency of eight hundred and ninety kilo cycles just twenty killer cycles away from the very powerful w l s again was to share time with two other stations. K us d in Shenandoah Iowa and K F and F in for million South Dakota Jerry Landay. You were supposed to share time. With usually a commercial rival commercial rivals took a certain portion of the day and then and then the noncommercial station on the air and usually the hours assigned to the commercial stations where the hours in which most people listen. And ultimately for those stations who lost this game the noncommercial stations the FCC was able to say sorry you're not serving the public interest. Nobody listens to you.
So you had one of these wonderful bureaucratic catch 22 the FRC also limited to 1000 watts of power during the day reduced to two hundred fifty watts at night. The battle for a usable frequency on which to broadcast began to take a toll on oil wells management. Among other things they couldn't afford the process of sending lawyers or legal teams or station managers to spend long hours in Washington D.C. cooling their heels at the FCC and filing document upon documents. To establish their right to a trial in fact Joseph Wright who was the manager of the moment in letters the onerous burden of having to spend money on these. And a lot of states could avoid it. While archives contain a number of personal statements from the time including this one from station manager Joseph Wright. Those of us responsible for the direction of station w i l l have at various times seriously contemplated retirement from the broadcasting game.
This is due soley to the fact that our power limitations so restricted our audience that we felt we could not justify the expenditure of tax money to go ahead with the work even though the total yearly cost of operating the station is absurdly low. Our only problem has been that of making it possible to take to a sufficient number of our citizens. The endless supply and constant stream of educational material and of agricultural commercial and industrial information that is ours to give. Joseph Wright continued to press for a better frequency for W I L L finally in 1035 the Federal Communications Commission which succeeded the FARC granted a license for WRAL to broadcast on five hundred eighty CULE cycles using a directional antenna. This latter requirement was to protect the signal of station B W in Topeka Kansas which already occupied the five hundred eighty channel. Oil remains on five hundred eighty cool cycles today broadcasting at 5000 watts during the day but only 100 watts at night.
One of the amazing chapters in this station's story was that the leadership of radio was able to swim through this mark and the loaded deck and get 580 and win a permanent place on the air. W I L L can now celebrate 75 years of educational broadcasting and public service. It was never guaranteed but those who have worked here those who have supported the station and those who have listened throughout the years have kept it alive. Here's hoping for the next 75. This is MORNING EDITION. Our involvement from National Public Radio News in Washington I'm Carl Kasell. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED I'm Robert Siegel. And I'm Linda Wertheimer. This is FRESH AIR and Terry this is a young five babies MORNING EDITION I'm Craig COHEN Good afternoon and welcome to writing this unless this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on AM 580. I'm Alex Ashleigh. I'm meteorologist at Keys. Well good
morning. To focus but it is David. This is Dave Dickey. I'm Rob show. That's our closing marker report on trials. I'm listening Walter and Vincent. I'm Cheryl Corley and this is Jack right now for not lying. That's J. W r m. And W I L L Urbana the broadcasting service of the University of Illinois the University of the here and by the way. We reach millions.
WILL 75th Anniversary Celebration
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WILL Illinois Public Media (Urbana, Illinois)
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Program Description
Jack Brighton hosts this program, which reviews the history of radio broadcasting and the beginning of WILL's history, on the station's 75th anniversary. Brighton reviews the beginning of radio technology, its acceptance into popular culture, and the University of Illinois's first ventures into the broadcasting world. The program includes commentary from many experts.
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Host: Brighton, Jack
Interviewee: Douglas, Susan
Interviewee: Mayer, Robert
Interviewee: McChesney, Robert
Interviewee: Landay, Jerry
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Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: will_am_971019_75th_anniversary_celebration_dat (Illinois Public Media)
Format: DAT
Generation: Master
Duration: 02:00:00
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Chicago: “WILL 75th Anniversary Celebration,” WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 21, 2024,
MLA: “WILL 75th Anniversary Celebration.” WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 21, 2024. <>.
APA: WILL 75th Anniversary Celebration. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from