by Randall Davidson, Wisconsin Public Radio
Much is made about Wisconsin Public Radio station WHA being among the oldest in the country. However, another station in the network is nearly as old, also has a rich history, and is celebrating a birthday this year.
WLBL-AM in Auburndale marked its 80th birthday on February 5. It is the second-oldest radio station in the WPR network and fifth-oldest in the state.
The station first went on the air February 5, 1923, as WPAH in Waupaca. Its first home was a furniture store owned by a man with a passion for the latest gadgetsincluding radio. The public was invited into the store, apparently to sit in the sales floor furniture, and watch the new medium of radio being made. The Wisconsin Department of Markets originally operated the station, with the mission of broadcasting farm market reports and other agricultural information.
But during the evenings, the City of Waupaca booked the programming, which included entertainment shows featuring local talent. In this respect, it was an early example of what's now called community radio.
WPAH was one of the most powerful stations in the country at the time, and some evening programs offered prizes to the most distant listener who contacted the station. WPAH even logged a report from a ship 100 miles off the British coast. One listener praised the station as "the chautaqua of the air," a phrase WPAH appropriated as an unofficial station slogan.
In the spring of 1924, the station moved to studios in the Hotel Whiting in Stevens Point and the call letters were changed briefly to WCP (for Wisconsin the Country's Playground) and then to WLBL (for Wisconsin, Land of Beautiful Lakes). By the mid-1920s, listeners had contacted the station from all 48 states, all Canadian provinces, Puerto Rico and even a town in Mexico. The distant listeners particularly enjoyed the evening entertainment programs, which included a show at midnight on Saturdays called "The Enemies of Sleep."
In 1932, the transmitter was moved northeast of the city to Ellis, and the studios and offices were moved to the Fox Theatre. That summershades of the network to comeWLBL began rebroadcasting some programs from WHA in Madison and, the following year, a broadcast line was installed between the two stations, allowing either to originate programming for the other. Still, WLBL did lots of local programming, and even carried Green Bay Packers games from 1934 to 1938. Since the station didn't usually operate on Sundays at this time, they would sign on at the beginning of the game and sign off at its conclusion.
In 1937, the transmitter was moved to its present location in Auburndale, and in the fall of 1938, the offices and studios moved to the campus of Central State Teachers College (now UW-Stevens Point).
In 1940, the station came up with a clever on-air promotion called "Cheese for Christmas" to test how far the signal reached. They offered a free package of cheese each day for 20 days to the most distant reception report. WLBL managers found they had regular listeners in Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Through the years, the station has offered farm and homemaker programs, classroom instruction for in-school use, Wisconsin sports, government news and a wide variety of music.
Local programming done by the WLBL staff ended in 1950, and the college-produced programs ended a year later. These days, WLBL broadcasts a full schedule of call-in and informational programming as part of Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network. Its frequency is 930 AM, where it's been since the early 1940s. Since February 1996, there has also been a WLBL-FM, serving the Wausau area at 91.9 FM from a transmitter on Rib Mountain. It is a "shared-time" station, and carries the programs from independent public radio station WXPR in Rhinelander part of the time. Wisconsin Public Radio and WXPR jointly built the FM station and are its co-owners.