WSUI's radio days:
80 years on the air

[as of April, 1999]

by Sara Epstein

from FYI—a University of Iowa newsletter

Station employees Bob Buckley and Bob Pfeiffer produce a news segment in Old Gold Studio, located in the 1939 radio addition to the Engineering Building.

When injuries suffered in World War I prevented a young Burlington, Iowa soldier from returning to Iowa City to finish school, WSUI AM-910 was able to provide enough course credits for the student to earn his degree. In fact, the University station, which celebrates 80 years this year, is considered the first educational radio station west of the Mississippi River.

As one of the nation's 100 oldest radio stations, WSUI was a pioneer in radio broadcasting. Besides being among the first stations to broadcast courses on the air-ranging from psychology to speech to radio broadcasting-it was also the first to broadcast from outside the studio and the first to broadcast play-by-play sports.

What began in the basement of the Physics Building with a 10-watt transmitter and one employee has blossomed into 5,000-watt organization housed in its own digs on South Clinton Street with a staff of more than a dozen. Though it has ceased to offer instruction on the air, the station continues to provide hands-on experience for students in broadcasting and to provide area listeners with informative programs from National Public Radio (NPR).

Although the University had spent several years experimenting with radio broadcasting, it wasn't until 1919 that it adopted a regular schedule of educational programs and lectures. The experiments[1], using Morse code, could be heard in each of the United States, every Canadian province, as far south as the Canal Zone, and on board ships off the east and west coasts. When the station received its official license in 1922, it was referred to as WHAA. (The call letters WSUI-ideal because they represented the initials of the State University of Iowa, as the UI was then known-were being used at the time by a ship off the east coast. It wasn't until 1925 that the station was awarded the prime letters.)

The WHAA studio, pictured here in 1924, was located in the attic of the Engineering Building. At the time, UI graduate Carl Menzer virtually ran the station by himself, doing all the program directing, producing, and announcing, as well as all the mechanical repairs.

While the role of radio in American life has shifted over the generations, WSUI's audience has continued to grow, says John Monick, director of broadcasting services.

"It used to be that a family would gather in the living room to listen to radio programs, but now it's very much a secondary activity," he says. "Listening to the radio is something you now do while brushing your teeth or driving to work. It makes drudge-filled activities more fun.

Left: Jack Drees reads sports headlines. Drees, a UI basketball player in the 1930s, went on to do play-by-play radio coverage of the Chicago White Sox and eventually became a sportscaster for CBS Television.

Right: It's been more than 50 years since WSUI had a staff organist on hand to provide musical interludes between programs. The organist is Elaine Blair.

"The big change in radio was the introduction of television-that's when radio began formatting itself much more narrowly, but by that time educational radio had already declined in use," he adds. "Now, WSUI is more of an extension of the resources and ideals of the University-that's where NPR fits in."

The station's relationship with NPR began more than a generation ago when it became an NPR member station, and WSUI initiated the service with coverage of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the nation's involvement in Vietnam.

"We've had a role in national radio that is much larger than the size of our listening audience would indicate," Monick says.

Local broadcasts from the Iowa Forensic Union, the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, and Prairie Lights Books have helped maintain the station's solid listening base, says programming director Dennis Reese, but NPR is largely responsible for increasing it.

"NPR continues to be a valuable commodity-it's The New York Times of the air," Reese says.

While WSUI's listening audience is relatively small compared to commercial stations-the signal spans a 150-mile radius during the day-Reese says he receives about 10 to 15 letters a year from residents of Scandinavia who have enjoyed an occasional evening broadcast from the station.

"Signals do weird things at night. The ionosphere, or upper atmosphere, becomes active, and AM radio waves are bounced all over," he explains, adding that states as far away as Washington and Florida have picked up WSUI's signal. "I get a huge kick out of those letters. I always write them back and include a program schedule."

With no commercial advertising, the station is dependent on University funding, private gifts, and government grants. Despite static University resources and federal support continually coming in waves, Monick says the station is in good shape. However, to ensure a steady flow of funding, Monick has recently hired a marketing director.

"We've had a long, illustrious past. Now we're doing things to ensure another 80 years," Monick says. "The next decade looks bright."

by Sara Epstein


More WSUI history »

[1] Editor's note: The 9YA early Morse Code experiments were conducted 1911 to 1917. ("[A]ll amateur and commercial use of radio came to an abrupt halt on April 7, 1917 when, with the entrance of the United States into World War One, most private U.S. radio stations were ordered by the President to either shut down or be taken over by the government, and for the duration of the war it became illegal for private U.S. citizens to even possess an operational radio transmitter or receiver." Normal radio communications resumed in 1919.— Thomas H. White: UNITED STATES EARLY RADIO HISTORY, Section 13)


This is a JustWord website—not controlled by the University of Iowa or Iowa Public Radio.