by Randall Davidson, Wisconsin Public Radio
It has long been the purpose of public broadcasting not only to entertain, but also to educate and enlighten. What started as a limited test at public radio station WHA in the 1930's turned into a widely used array of programs listened to by thousands of Wisconsin students over the years. Here's a look down memory lane to see how it all began.
Madison radio station WHA had already been on the air for about ten years when an experiment arose to see if radio could be used in education. In 1930, WHA tried teaching music and current events to grades 6 through 8 in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week music program was taught by Professor Edgar B. "Pop" Gordon, who had been offering a music appreciation program on WHA as early as 1922. The trial was a success and stirred considerable interest from around the country, including a mention in the New York Times. Plans were made to incorporate classroom instruction as a regular part of the WHA schedule for the following year.
The Wisconsin School of the Air debuted the week of October 5, 1931, on WHA. Programs each weekday were designed for use in school classrooms around the state. It was thought the programs would be of particular value to the rural one-room schools in the state, numbering over 6,500 at the time. The programs were developed with the assistance of the state Department of Public Instruction and teachers from the Madison Public Schools. Topics included government, Wisconsin history, children's stories, music, art, nature, health, safety and literature. For the first semester, WHA reported 10,850 regular listeners. By the end of the second year, the regular audience had increased to 23,000 pupils.
After WHA was connected to WLBL in Stevens Point in 1933, the programs could be heard by more of the state--70,000 students were using the classes in 1938. The development of the statewide network of FM stations between 1947 and 1952 further expanded listenership. In 1960, over 289,000 students were using the programs-more than 26 times the number from that beginning semester! For each program, teachers were offered study guides, and schools were encouraged to purchase better quality radio receivers made available through educational suppliers.
Inspired by School of the Air, programmers the following year debuted the "Wisconsin College of the Air." Its current incarnation, "University of the Air," can still be found on the WPR lineup, Sunday afternoons at 4:00 p.m.
Today, almost all the School of the Air offerings have been replaced by a relatively standard, modern public radio format. The last remnant of Wisconsin School of the Air is "Drop Everything and Listen," with weekly installments featuring three or four short musical selections grouped around a theme. True to the School of the Air tradition, they are designed for teachers to use in classrooms.
Some of the best-remembered programs over the years include:
Journeys In Musicland: Edgar "Pop" Gordon presided over this program through 1955. Students around the state would sing along with the program, using songbooks mailed to the school from WHA. After his retirement, the program continued under the title "Let's Sing." The final hosts of the program were Norm Clayton and Lois Dick, with piano accompaniment from WHA music director Don Voegeli (who later wrote the theme for NPR's "All Things Considered"). Listen to a clip of this program.
Let's Draw: begun in 1936 as a follow-up to an earlier art appreciation class, with host James Schwalbach. Early in the series, students would mail their artwork to Madison, where it would be graded and returned. When the program was tried on WHA-TV in 1954, the instructors were surprised to find that the art done by radio students was superior to the art submitted by TV viewers; the radio students used their imaginations, while the TV viewers were more likely to copy what they saw on screen.
Afield With Ranger Mac: Wakelin McNeel was "Ranger Mac" in this program about nature that began in 1933. After his retirement in 1954, the program continued with the title "Wonderful World of Nature" with Robert Ellarson. Listen to a clip of this program from the late 1940's.
Rhythm and Games: Mrs. Fannie Steve hosted this program of music and activities designed for use by preschoolers and kindergartners. Listen to a clip of this program from 1951.