Public broadcasting’s birth in the Badger State

The Badger State celebrates 100 years of public broadcasting next year, but this is no ordinary centenary, because Wisconsin invented the medium.

Whether NPR, PBS or anything else, all public broadcasting began in Wisconsin, says Jack Mitchell, principal creator of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and author of Wisconsin on the Air: 100 Years of Public Broadcasting in the State That Invented It.

“I think we are really that significant,” says Mitchell, who headed Wisconsin Public Radio from 1976 to 1997. “I believe that we are the beginnings of the concept of public service broadcasting.”

His new book introduces readers to the personalities, funding challenges, political battles and pioneering technology that gave us the public broadcasting that has enriched generations of listeners.

Radio’s Wisconsin roots

Radio began as an early 20th-century science experiment at the University of Wisconsin, the sole campus of which was located in Madison.

In the 1900s, staff and students in the physics department made their own radio tubes and transmitter. Before government licensing, before power restrictions, they broadcast weather reports from Sterling Hall to farmers and Great Lakes sailors in Morse Code — arguably the first public service broadcasting.

That term was borrowed from agriculture. Before radio, “broadcast” referred to casting seeds broadly, scattering them across a field, rather than planting them individually.

The state radio network’s flagship station, WHA, in Madison, has long claimed to be “the oldest station in the nation,” starting in 1917.

That label depends on how you define “station,” says Mitchell. “It’s certainly not the first. It may be the oldest in the sense of continuing operations. There were others, but they came and went.”

WHA’s first call sign was 9XM. The dots and dashes of those first Sterling Hall experiments soon gave way to voice transmissions, gaining a new but temporary name: “radio telephony.”

World War I brought strict control over U.S. civilian stations, silencing them lest Germany overhear.

But 9XM had a special relationship with the Great Lakes Naval Station. The station received a waiver, allowing it to continue.

The ‘Wisconsin Idea’ meets emerging technology

Looking back, true public broadcasting was the result of coincidence, says Mitchell.

During the Progressive Era of the 1910s, UW developed “The Wisconsin Idea,” the concept that the extension of learning across the state was UW’s reason for being. It was embodied in a slogan: “The boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” This concept emerged just as the physics of broadcasting arrived. Merging the two, Wisconsin radio meant learning. Whether in soil or over the air, growth was an expected result of “broadcasting.”

“I don’t think there’s anybody who thought through it as thoroughly as we did, that early, and we became by far the most important of the university broadcasters in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s,” says Mitchell.

The BBC also has a claim, “but they came frankly after we did. But the philosophies are very similar.”

One unsung hero of that time is UW president Glenn Frank. A young, popular education idealist and magazine editor on the national scene, he lacked a strong academic background. As a result, faculty froze him out. Today Frank is all but forgotten.

“There’s nothing named after him,” observes Mitchell. “Almost every (university) president we’ve had has something named after him, even people who didn’t really do that much.”

Frank served from 1925 to 1937. Initially skeptical, he became the greatest supporter of educational outreach, boosting what later became a full broadcast network: Wisconsin Public Radio.

In those days, besides continuing adult education, programs were often directed right at classrooms, especially in rural districts, teaching subjects such as music and even art.

Television was added to Wisconsin public broadcasting in 1954. Madison’s WHA-TV was only the third public television station in the country. Varied TV programming for schools continued until recently, on a special network feed. But that service was eliminated in Gov. Scott Walker’s first budget.

When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed in 1967, the new organization, based in Washington, D.C., tapped Wisconsin talent for top management, including Mitchell. He formatted and served as producer for NPR’s All Things Considered, the national network’s first news program.

“The thing is, nobody much knew what this new thing ought to be,” Mitchell says of the program, which initially was free-form. “The first few months the program was on the air, there was no producer. It was just sort of catch as catch can. The whole thing was to be creative, loose and different. You can only go so far with that. You need to have some structure and some expectations.”

Distinguished career

Mitchell has received the two highest honors in public radio — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award and the Edward Elson National Public Radio Distinguished Service Award.

Today, he is a faculty member at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Looking back at the rise of public broadcasting, he noted, “The notion of the Wisconsin Idea serving democracy, and making democracy work, was central to it … producing practical information which was very important, certainly to agriculture but all sorts of areas.

“And then general education — liberal arts education — for all. Those were right there at the beginning, and they’re still there, both in radio and TV. I think you can see the roots of public broadcasting today, nationally, in what happened in Sterling Hall in 1917.”

On the Shelves

Jack Mitchell’s Wisconsin on the Air: 100 Years of Public Broadcasting in the State That Invented It, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2016.

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