Visiting the oldest radio station

It was a rainy Saturday morning. I knew a whole lot wouldn’t get accomplished today, so when I was the posting from Wisconsin Public Radio reminding me about their open house that afternoon, it became the perfect opportunity to jump into the car and take a road trip.

And a great road trip it was. After the little over two hour drive from our home in Wausau to the the State’s capital city of Madison, we arrived to sunny skies and beautiful weather. The Wisconsin Public Radio listener appreciation open house was an event full of activities and tours of their studios on the University of Wisconsin Campus.

WPR-Open-House-P1020123But first a little about Wisconsin Public Radio and its place in broadcast history. The State’s radio network made it’s first regular broadcasts in early 1917 by transmitting weather information via morse code from the UW campus. These broadcasts and later ones done in voice that year puts the university’s station, running under the experimental callsign of 9XM, in the lead as the first non-commercial broadcast radio station and certainly one of the first regularly scheduled broadcasts ever. The station received a special exemption to continue broadcasting during World War I and post-war strengthened its ability to transmit a voice signal on a regular scheduled basis. By 1922 experimental station 9XM was given the callsign WHA and continues to this day transmitting on 940KHz as part of the Wisconsin Public Radio Network.

The book 9XM Talking (available on Amazon), by Randall Davidson recounts the fascinating history of public broadcasting from the University of Wisconsin and the creation and growth of Wisconsin Public Radio as a premier radio network is worth the read by anyone interested in communications and radio history.

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Vilas Communications Hall, the home of Wisconsin Public Broadcasting

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WPR studios located on the 7th floor of Vilas Hall in Madison, WI

The open house started off with the tour of the WPR broadcast facilities located on the 7th floor of Vilas Communications Hall on campus. All programming originates from their two broadcast studios, one dedicated to the talk programs for the Ideas Network and the other for music from the News and Classics network. The Ideas Network studio is set up for call-in talk and interview programs while the larger News and Classic studio is configured with CD players, turntables, and a reel to reel deck to play musical selections pulled from their 35,000+ title audio library.

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WPR Ideas Network Studio, where the talk and call-in programming originates. The studio is small but has enough room for host and a few guests.

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The larger WPR News and Classics studio has enough room to host intimate performances, yet its main feature is supplying a variety of music, including classical, jazz, and world selected from it’s 50,000+ title music library.

Programming makes its way to the master control center where engineers distribute it to the 34 stations that transmit the signal statewide. This operations center are receives programming via satellite from other providers such as NPR and the BBC so the WPR stations can provide content 24 hours a day.

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Master Control: the WPR Operations Center. From here content is sent for broadcast from the 35 FM and AM stations in the WPR statewide radio network. Note along the back wall are hundreds of reel tape recording from the network’s long running, and extremely popular program, Chapter A Day. 

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Racks of equipment in the Operations Center. In addition to original programming, WPR also carries content via satellite from NPR, BBC, and other public broadcasters.

Touring the station, not only do you see all the technology required to run a large radio network but also the frugality of being a part of a state agency with limited funding. But what really shows is the sense of the rich history and tradition of Wisconsin Public Radio.

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Nestled between the Science and Education buildings on Bascom Hill, Radio Hall is the original permanent home for WHA/Wisconsin Public Radio from 1933 until moving to Vilas Hall in 1971

That history is evident in the second part of the tour of Radio Hall. Located only a couple blocks away from their current studio, Radio Hall was the home of WPR from the late 1920’s until 1970, when Vilas Hall was completed. Inside the building you see a large mural painted in 1943 by UW Art Student John Stella . (Read more about this amazing mural here)

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Steve Johnston, WPR Chief Engineer, leads a demonstration on Morse Code in front of the Mural painted by John Stella in 1943.

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The day ended with making commemorative T-shirts, courtesy of Artworking- a Madison WI based collective that working with cognitivity disabled artists.

The open house was only a few hours long, but was packed with so much information that we wished we had the entire weekend to absorb it. Being a Wisconsin grad, I always look for any opportunity to head back to the UW campus, and seeing the facilities again and meeting many of the hosts of our favorite WPR programs was a treat.

Many of their programs are syndicated nationwide, so are you a WPR listener? Feel free to leave a comment below.