Wisconsin on the Air: 100 Years of Public Broadcasting in the State that Invented It

By Jack Mitchell

Hardcover: $24.95


240 pages, 57 b&w photos and illus., 6 x 9 ISBN: 978-0-87020-761-7


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Peek behind the microphones of Wisconsin Public Radio in this history of public broadcasting. The new Wisconsin Historical Society Press broadcasting biography deftly maps the nation's 100-year journey, begun in 1917, by charting the transmissions and transitions of the Wisconsin broadcasters who invented and transformed the media.

Author Jack Mitchell, who developed National Public Radio's All Things Considered before becoming the head of Wisconsin Public Radio, centers this public broadcasting history around the implementation of the "Wisconsin Idea" philosophy that drove its development and still sets its course. Along the way, Mitchell introduces readers to the personalities and philosophies, funding challenges and legislation, and original programming and pioneering technology that gave us public broadcasting.

For media review copies, to interview the author or for additional information, contact the Society Press marketing office at whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

Jack Mitchell, PhD, led Wisconsin Public Radio from 1976 till 1997, initiating the transition from educational radio to WPR. Mitchell was the first employee of National Public Radio, where he was instrumental in developing the groundbreaking newsmagazine All Things Considered. He 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. Mitchell joined the faculty of the UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1998. He is the author of "Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio."

Interview with Jack Mitchell

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Wisconsin on the Air?"

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the first “broadcast” of voice and music by station 9XM, which became WHA. While many recognize WHA’s longevity, too few understand its significance as the American pioneer in not-for-profit public service broadcasting. I wanted to make sure that significance was not overlooked in the birthday celebrations.

WHS Press: What one part of the story in particular that seems the most pivotal or historically significant?

The early 20th century progressive movement forged a unique partnership in Wisconsin between the university and state government to promote the public interest over what was perceived as “concentrated wealth.” It was called “The Wisconsin Idea.” It inspired the state and university to fight for a place on the radio dial for not-for-profit public service broadcasting, and to build the country’s only state owned, university programmed radio system.

WHS Press: What is the Wisconsin Idea and why is it so pivotal to the history of Wisconsin public broadcasting in particular and public broadcasting in general?

The Wisconsin Idea began with the progressive philosophy that the state should protect its citizens from abuse of powerful monied interests. Another strand of that idea saw the University of Wisconsin extending its “benevolent influence” to people throughout the state. These radical ideas justified a government owned broadcast system to foster education, cultural enrichment, and democratic participation, none of which ranked high in the priorities of profit-driven broadcasters. Wisconsin’s concept ran counter to the commercial broadcasting monopoly in most of the nation, but eventually gave rise to our national systems of public radio and public television.

WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from writing this book?

The physicists and engineers whose experiments created the apperatus for broadcasting understood the implications of their inventions for society as a whole. From the beginning, they saw that “broadcasting” could be used for the social good. Physicists and engineers envisioned “public broadcasting” before the philosophers and social scientists did.

WHA’s leaders desparately wanted to build a high power AM station to serve the state. They turned to FM only after their AM plans were thwarted. The FM band was relatively open for educational broadcasters because commercial broadcasers had little interest in using it.

Wisconsin residents voted overwhelmingly in a 1954 referendum not to build a statewide television network. Fifteen years later, the legisture created one without going back to the electorate.
WHS Press: What are the ways in which this story is a uniquely Wisconsin story?

In what ways does it tell a national story? No other states embraced progressive policies as extensively as Wisconsin early in the 20th century. No other university embraced public service as thoroughly as the University of Wisconsin. Therefore, no other state built a system of educational radio as extensive as Wisconsin. These were Wisconsin Ideas.

Nonetheless, other states and other universities embraced more limited progressive reforms, university service, and public service broadcasting. For them, Wisconsin was something of a model. Fifty years after 9XM (WHA) first broadcast voice and music, the public broadcasting act of 1967 created a national system of public service radio and television.

Were there any parts of the story not featured in the book that you wish you could have included? I was not able to mention, let alone provide detail, on the many programs, large and small, that listeners and viewers have loved. Audience members have embraced a wide variety of programs and personalities over the past hundred years. I wish I could have brought back more of those broadcast memories and expanded on them. Wisconsin on the Air concentrates on the big picture, the “why” of public service broadcasting in Wisconsin, at the expense of the individual experiences listeners and viewers remember so fondly.

WHS Press: How was writing this book a personal experience?

I have been associated with public broadcasting in Wisconsin for almost half of its 100 year history. Even when I was away at the BBC in England and for years at NPR in Washington, I was always comparing those institutions with their older cousin in Wisconsin. When I came back to the state to head public radio here, I knew that I had to thoroughly understand the history and purposes of “the oldest station in the nation” before I could help move it forward. This book allowed me to pull all of those experiences together along with my academic background. In a sense, I have been working on this book for nearly 50 years.

WHS Press: What is your favorite snipit or surprising detail from the book?

The most important detail is probably one I uncovered back in the 1960s when I was doing research for my dissertation. I came across the report of the Newspaper Conference of 1912 held at the University of Wisconsin. It was called “Commercialism and Journalism” and discussed the need for not-for-profit alternatives to commercial newspapers. That report shaped all my subsequent thinking about the role of not-for-profit media, particularly in Wisconsin. Only a couple of paragraphs in the introduction to Wisconsin on the Air deals with that conference, but, in a sense, the whole book does.

WHS Press: Will there be another 100 years of public broadcasting in Wisconsin?

Broadcasting, commercial and public, will likely disappear at some point in the next century. On-line delivery is already important and will likely replace over-the-air broadcasting altogether. And who knows what technology will replace that? Whatever the delivery system, however, I believe society will always need not-for-profit media available to all and devoted to serving the public interest. Whether society as a whole – or enough individuals – will recognize that is an open question. Perhaps Wisconsin on the Air will help spread the word.

WHS Press: Can you name one individual who was most important in forging Wisconsin’s unique history?

While it is tempting to name H.B. McCarty and Harold Engel as the two individuals who dedicated their careers to building radio and television in the state, I think Professor Henry Ewbank of the old speech department may be the indispensable personality. He led the university’s radio committee in the 1920s in its ultimatum to the university president to either support WHA or kill it. Twenty years later, he helped create and chaired the State Radio Council that built the state radio. He chose McCarty to lead the enterprise and mentored him throughout. And perhaps most important, he provided the philosophical direction for the entire enterprise, particularly the role of public broadcasting as central to the democratic process.