How Rural Listeners Caught a Wave

Since the first AM broadcast 90 years ago, rural Americans have drawn entertainment, weather forecasts, farm-price news, and more from radio. As with the Internet, early adoption rates were uneven across the country.

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By most accounts, this month marks the 90th anniversary of AM “commercial” radio in the U.S. The election night report of Warren G. Harding’s presidential win over James M. Cox on KDKA – then just outside of Pittsburgh – was carried on the country’s first commercially licensed station November 2, 1920.

AM radio was one of several technological waves that swept across rural America during the ‘20s. Along with agricultural mechanization and the automobile, radio changed rural America. It linked city with countryside and rural communities with themselves.

By mid 1926, the government reported more than 500 stations owned by individuals, small businesses, churches, educational institutions, and major corporations like Westinghouse, RCA, General Electric, and Sears-Roebuck. By World War II, the number surpassed 940. As with the Internet today, radio adoption was uneven, based on geography, income, and race. A 1930 Census map shows clear distinctions, with higher ownership in the Northeast and North Central U.S., and on the West Coast, especially in California.

Rural radio ownership increased rapidly. The first AM receivers, battery-powered, didn’t need an electrical grid. In his 1929 book Small Towns: An Estimate of Their Trade and Culture, University of Missouri rural sociologist Walter Burr noted that 62,000 Missouri farm homes had radios by 1928, representing a $6-million expenditure on receivers. Radio brought the big city into rural homes by choice. Though a costly investment for farmers, radio provided ready access to market prices and weather “prognostications.” Almost half of the farm families Burr surveyed reported listening to at least two radio agriculture lectures each week, and about a quarter of listeners tuned in every day. Meanwhile, some 90,000 Missouri farm homes were without radios.

U.S. Census Bureau
Census map from 1930 shows radio ownership across the United States, with wide differences between the North and South.

Radio also challenged traditional rural life. In A Study of Rural Society: Its Organization and Changes (1935), J.H. Kolb of the University of Wisconsin and Edmund deS. Brunner of Columbia University discussed competition between rural churches and evangelical broadcasts. Radio also provided entertainment, plus advertising for local, regional, and national products.

Kolb and Brunner cited business surveys to show radio’s influence on musical tastes and buying patterns. The Women’s World found that more than 50 percent of the women surveyed, both rural and urban, listened to morning programs. Women’s World suggested that radio broke down isolation and also brought national news into rural homes. Some big-city stations targeted rural tastes: Country music has roots in programs such as the Barn Dance (1924-1960) on WLS, Chicago (the “Prairie Farmer Station”) and Nashville’s Grand Old Opry (1925- ) on WSM.

My father, Neil Collins, worked in radio before and after World War II. He did public relations broadcast work for the National Association of School Administrators, which included rural areas, and for the National Poultry Congress. These contracts eventually led him to a short stint as program director for WDZ, then in Tuscola, Illinois, in 1939. The station, which first went on the air in 1921, later called itself “the buckle of the corn belt.”

If I understand correctly, Dad, then age 23, got into trouble for keeping the daytime-only station on the air into the evening to broadcast news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939. In mid-September, his brash memorandum to WDZ’s management documented broken promises and poor working conditions. He also explained “I found it impossible to learn agriculture rapidly enough to become of service to the station. This position … required a man conversant with all phases of agriculture, as the station is located in the smallest community in the United States having a radio transmitter. It appealed entirely to the farmer, and I was educated in city methods of operation.” As to his departure, Dad wrote, “The severing … was by mutual consent.”

Courtesy Timothy Collins
Wings Over Jordan, a choir from Cleveland, broadcast live over the radio each Sunday and toured the nation singing spirituals. This is the group’s songbook of 1939.

Soon after leaving WDZ, he took a job as publicity and road manager for the Wings Over Jordan Choir, a Cleveland-based African-American group with a nationwide Sunday morning slot on CBS via WGAR. Reflecting the times, the group sang Negro Spirituals, songs that had originated in the rural South, and introduced the nation to prominent Black leaders who addressed race issues to new audiences, black and white alike.

The ground-breaking program was accompanied by nationwide tours that included New York (Harlem) and Los Angeles (the Hollywood Bowl). From December 1939, to August 1941, my father visited about 400 stations nationwide to make tour arrangements, including finding accommodations for the choir in the segregated South. After the advance work, he doubled back to meet the choir to reconcile concert proceeds, which were shared with local sponsors, often churches. He called it “a tour of the United States for a young man, expenses paid.”

Long before Dad became involved with radio, the medium had become a multi-million-dollar industry that complemented motion pictures and theatre, including vaudeville. It gave stars a new outlet on radio networks with urban broadcasting hubs such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Programming quickly evolved to include comedy, variety, soap operas, and drama. Many programs had rural settings, complete with stereotypes of farmers and life in rural towns.

To make the growth of radio more orderly and to widen access, early in the 1920s the Commerce Department designated three AM frequencies to only one station each, two for entertainment and one for crop and weather information. “Clear channels” reached rural areas without local stations. By the end of the 1920s, more than 50 clear channel frequencies allowed powerhouse stations like as WLW, Cincinnati, and WHO, Des Moines, to serve their cities and distant rural areas, too.

The federal government smoothed radio’s adoption by imposing order on the marketplace of radio frequencies and guaranteeing accessibility to information, news, and entertainment. Private capital built the broadcasting infrastructure, but the government protected the airwaves for everyone through licenses that assured public service.

The ready adoption of radio in large areas of the country suggests that then, as now, rural residents were hungry for information. Radio fed them and changed rural America in ways no one ever foresaw. 

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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