by Anne Wilder
Ask Randall Davidson about the early days of radio in Wisconsin, and you'll quickly realize that you've found an expert. Davidson, known by Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) listeners as the chief news anchor, is a self-acknowledged "history guy" and the unofficial historian for the network.
""When I got to WHA, I made a point of learning what historic stuff was around," says Davidson, who joined WPR in 1990. "Bit by bit, I started learning about the station and it got to the point that people started asking me questions. My first question was from someone who wanted to know when we started airing the Metropolitan Opera. No one around here knew." So Davidson set out to become the guy who knew.
Davidson's interest in history and expertise in radio broadcasting led him to write 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea, published by The University of Wisconsin Press in January 2007. It's the first comprehensive history of WHAwhich operated under the call letters 9XM from 1914 to 1922and other stations that evolved to become Wisconsin Public Radio.
Throughout the book, Davidson reveals the innovative and sometimes difficult steps the founders took to sustain non-commercial radio broadcasting in Wisconsin, and their commitment to providing useful programming to listeners. WHA was one of the first stations to broadcast live programs from remote locations. This was just one of many ways the station provided services to rural parts of the state, and remote broadcasts were frequently used in WHA's farm and homemakers programming.
Davidson recalls one such remote, the details of which he unearthed during his research. In 1934 Kenneth Gaspen, host of "Farm Program," decided to string a remote line to the swine barn on the UW campus for an on-air demonstration of hog butchering. Davidson says this unique programming would cause "a lot of complaints today." But, he explains, "At the time, it was useful to farmers who had never done it or were rusty at it but wanted to take advantage of the hike in pork prices. The people who tuned in were really pleased. And those who already knew the process said the demonstration was exactly right."
When Davidson set out to write the history of WHA, he knew his research could challenge past claims about the station. He decided to approach the material without any preconceived notions of what history should be told. "I decided I would take the story wherever the research takes it," he says. "If it debunked legends, that would be okay, too. But I was going to document it all."
Davidson worked on the book during his evenings and weekends. "I wasn't using company time to do it. I didn't want people to think that WPR had editorial control over it or that it tells the story that they want told. In fact, the publisher had approached me about getting some grant money from the UW to help fund it and I said I really didn't want anything to impinge on its independence."
In the end, Davidson debunked some major myths, one of them being the claim that WHA is the oldest station in America. "That one has been around for decades," says Davidson, "It's on the historical marker outside of this building [Vilas Hall on the UW-Madison campus]. But I just couldn't find the documents to support it. And it doesn't bother me in the least. I think WHA has enough to be proud of. We certainly are the oldest educational radio station in America."
Davidson points out that Earle Terry, UW physics professor and founding father of the WHA station, never claimed to have started the oldest station in America. "That's really important in my mind," says Davidson, "He certainly would have if he thought it was legitimate. But he was a scientist."
Davidson admits that he found a hero in Earle Terry. "I remember talking to a group of people and I said I'd never in my life had a hero, but now I kind of do. Terry is the hero of the story and, but for him, there would have been nothing for others to build on. It was Terry who sacrificed to keep this place afloat, to keep it from commercial entanglements. I think I would've liked him."
It is likely that Terry would have approved of Davidson, too. Like him, Terry would never have made a claim without proper documentation. And he would have agreed with Davidson's decision to reject funding that could influence the book's content. In the early days of radio, Terry himself rejected funding from the Milwaukee Journal and Sears, Roebuck in order to keep the content and mission of the station free from commercial influence.
"He had a vision that radio should foster understanding and break down barriers," explains Davidson. "The Wisconsin Idea was just catching on at the time the radio station was getting started, and Terry was a true believer, I think. His vision was to use radio for benefit of all. Not for fame for us, not for profit for somebody, not for mass audience, but to benefit all people who decide to tune in. And that's still here. You can't get away from that. That idea that he built back then, there's a continuous line to today. And that to me is the real hub of the story."
Read previous, archived PortalWisconsin.org stories about Wisconsin Public Radio by Randall Davidson: