Broadcasting the Wisconsin Idea: A Local History

It’s hard to believe now, especially in light of the global cultural phenomena that was the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial, but it’s been more than a decade since the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its 2005 choice for word of the year, and announced that the word would shortly be added to the next online update of their dictionary.

Podcast has quickly gained a hold in our contemporary lexicon. In part, the word’s rapid adoption can be explained by its having been bootstrapped onto an already familiar idea, that of the broadcast. For people first exposed to the word after June 2005, when Apple built its first directory of podcasts in their online music store, the word has always had something of an obvious, self-explaining quality. If you were trying to tell your grandmother what a podcast was, you wouldn’t have to do much more than say, “oh, you know, Grandma, a podcast is just a radio broadcast that you can listen to on your iPod whenever you want.” If any further explanation were needed, it’d be of the whole iPod business—after all, even your great-grandparents likely knew what a broadcast was.

What’s most striking about this response to one of the most quintessentially “modern” words is how it conceals the etymological roots of broadcast itself—the word that it depends upon for conveying the kernel of its own meaning. Today, “broadcasting” has been so thoroughly naturalized into our cultural context that most Westerners hear the word and think pretty much exclusively of TV or radio. Such a media-inflected usage of the word obscures its origins, however, which are agricultural rather than digital, and hand-powered rather than driven by electricity.

The Etymology of Broadcasting

Just as the word “podcast” would have been baffling, even nonsensical, to most English speakers as little as a dozen years ago, so too was there a time when that would have been the case with “broadcast.” The word broad-cast first entered the English lexicon in the mid-eighteenth century, and originally meant to scatter seeds widely by hand, a widespread and ancient enough agricultural practice that it could figure prominently in Jesus’ well-known Parable of the Sower. For well over a century after the word was first used in English, unless you were speaking figuratively, to speak of a person (or machine) broadcasting could only mean that you were throwing seeds in a relatively wide swath about yourself as you walked or were pulled behind a plow. If seeds were abundant, and germination rates uncertain, broadcasting would have been a quick and relatively efficient way of seeding a plot of earth—you didn’t know exactly which seeds would sprout, or where precisely, but those wouldn’t have been the most important things to someone who used this mode of sowing.

An early broadcaster, as portrayed in the 1888 painting <em>Sower at Sunset</em>, by Vincent Van Gogh. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

An early broadcaster, as portrayed in the 1888 painting Sower at Sunset, by Vincent Van Gogh. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

When radio transmission technology was first being developed in the early years of the twentieth century, science communicators and radio enthusiasts began the familiar process of seeking effective metaphors to describe a technologically novel practice to a lay audience who, though curious, was largely unfamiliar with the underlying mechanisms at work. Because metaphors frequently connect some familiar action or concept with something we are only beginning to grasp, they structure much of our thought and experience, providing provisional bridges between old and new knowledge. In fact, the English word metaphor itself is derived from the Greek μεταϕορά, a word which described the action of carrying or transferring something and which also implied some aspect of change or transformation. In their search for an appropriate metaphor for radio signal transmission, a practice in which the transmitter sends a strong signal out in all directions with no clear idea of who is listening to their signal, or where those listeners might be, just the hope that somewhere their message might find a receptive ear, the community began to agree (in the early 1920s) on the use of the words “broadcast” and “broadcasting.” By 1924, the complementary terms “narrowcast” and “narrowcasting” had also entered into general parlance, though they would never be as widely used as “broadcast.”

We can look to the early twentieth-century print record to see just how this metaphorical transfer of meaning from agriculture to radiotelephony happened. The first documented use of broadcast in this new technological context was in an April 1921 article in Discovery, an English popular science periodical. In describing Guglielmo Marconi’s experiments with wireless radio transmissions from Poldhu Point in Cornwall, England, the author of that article wrote: “The station at Poldhu is used partly for broadcasting Press and other messages to ships, that is, sending out messages without receiving replies.” Note how the author indicates his audience’s likely unfamiliarity with this novel use of “broadcasting” by following its use with a clarifying definition.

Consider this simple nGram showing the relative usage of the words “broadcast,” “broadcasting,” and “broadcaster” in Google’s large corpus of English language books published between 1880-2000:

Google nGram showing relative frequency of 'broadcast', 'broadcasting', and 'broadcaster' in English language books published between the years 1880-2000

Compare this to a similar nGram for the word “radio,” and you’ll see how the development of radio corresponds with a relative explosion of the circulation of the phrase “broadcast,” which had previously enjoyed a steady niche role as a description of a agricultural sowing practice and the occasional figurative usage to describe a person broadly disseminating their words or ideas as if they were seeds:

Google nGram showing relative frequency of 'radio,' 'broadcast', and 'broadcasting' in English language books published between the years 1880-2000

Broadcasting, Agriculture, & The Wisconsin Idea

In the early twentieth century, when Marconi and others were inventing the technology that would make the transmission of wireless audio possible, Wisconsin was both very much a state dominated economically by agriculture and a place where an ambitious, highly progressive, and historically significant approach to legislation and education now known as “The Wisconsin Idea” had come into being. In its most basic form, “The Wisconsin Idea” encapsulated the state legislature’s experimental, progressive approach to addressing the pressing social and political problems of the era. In his introduction to The Wisconsin Idea, the 1912 book by the Progressive librarian Charles McCarthy that first gave this approach its name, Theodore Roosevelt (then running for a second, non-continuous term as President, this time as a representative of the Progressive or Bull Moose party) offered about as good a summation of the “Wisconsin Idea” as can be attempted in a single sentence. McCarthy wrote that the state had “become literally a laboratory for wise experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.” One of the crucial features of this effort was financial and legislative support for a robust university extension program, which was created as a division at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1906.  The extension program’s mission was to produce and distribute practical knowledge to Wisconsin citizens in all walks of life, and its champions, like UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise and Robert La Follette, who served as the state’s governor before becoming a US Senator, saw it as deeply connected to the larger “Wisconsin Idea.”

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Wisconsin was the site of some of the first experiments in radio transmissions as well as the place of origin of what was almost certainly the first regular educational programming transmitted via radiotelephony. University of Wisconsin scientists and educators, many of whom had been active in exploring radio transmissions as a way to communicate coded information during wartime and were already committed to a large, active extension program, were among the first in the United States to see in radio technology the potential for a powerful new way to deliver educational materials and relevant news for farmers and other listeners spread throughout the state.

An early photograph of the 9XM radio station in the basement of Science Hall. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.

An early photograph of the 9XM radio station in the basement of Science Hall. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.

The first experiments with radio broadcasting in Wisconsin were conducted by Professor Edward Bennett, an electrical engineering professor, who set up a wireless telegraphic set on campus and secured an experimental license with the call sign 9XM in 1914. Shortly thereafter, Bennett agreed to transfer his license to the University of Wisconsin for use by the physics department, where experimentation was largely undertaken by Professor Earle Melvin Terry and “the wireless squad,” a small platoon of student volunteers, many of whom would go on to accomplish major things in the field of radio engineering.  One of them, Malcolm Hanson, would later serve as the chief radio engineer for Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s pioneering expedition to Antarctica. Another, Cyril Jansky, directed the first state-funded radio broadcasting station west of the Mississippi (9XI at the University of Minnesota) before embarking on a long career as the head of a prominent electronic engineering and consulting firm. At the time, the work being conducted at Madison was so novel that there were no commercially produced vacuum tubes sufficient to their purposes, which meant that Terry and his students made their own vacuum tubes in the University’s glass-blowing laboratory and installed them themselves in their large 5 kilowatt spark transmitter.

 One of the spark tube transmitters developed under the direction of Earle Terry. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

One of the spark tube transmitters developed under the direction of Earle Terry. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

All of this technical innovation was certainly exciting from a purely scientific perspective, but Terry, a modest, legendarily industrious, and extraordinarily devoted teacher, insisted that the technology be used in service of the university’s larger mission to more broadly serve the citizens of the state. His first choice? Collaborating with the U.S. Meteorologist on campus to transmit daily weather information for local farmers—hardly a more fitting choice for an inaugural broadcast, considering the etymology of the word. The first of these telegraphic broadcasts took place at 11 a.m. on Monday, December 4, 1916. Although there were only an estimated 500 radio receivers in the entire state at the time, Terry began receiving reports that roughly 200 amateur radio operators were receiving their forecasts, and he encouraged all listeners to transcribe the weather reports and post it in their community for others to benefit from.

In 1917, Terry and his students constructed a continuous wave transmitter which was capable of transmitting voice and music, a full four years before RCA (the Radio Corporation of America) installed its first vacuum tube transmitter at its flagship station in Chatham, Massachusetts. Early audio transmissions suffered from strong distortion, but in February 1919, after a few years of classified wartime collaboration with the US Navy, 9XM made its first clear, undistorted transmission of human speech. In February 1920, Terry and his students reinstituted their daily weather broadcasts, this time transmitted by human speech rather than by dots and dashes, and continued them through the completion of the academic year. It’s difficult to imagine now, but it was less than 100 years ago that Wisconsin farmers and radio operators first became able to hear the simultaneous, live transmission of a human voice originating miles away from them. What a strange and heady feeling it must have been for these early listeners!

A map showing the physical location of listeners who reported receiving a transmission of a live piano concert broadcast from station 9XM. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.

A map showing the physical location of listeners who reported receiving a transmission of a live piano concert broadcast from station 9XM. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.

Inspired by the success of their early experiments, 9XM instituted the nation’s first regular educational radio program, with their first broadcast on January 3, 1921. Their earliest programming consisted of a short weather forecast transmitted six days a week at 12:30 p.m., as well as live or recorded music on Friday evenings. By the fall of 1921, the weather forecasts were regularly proceeded with farm market information, providing further evidence of the importance of agriculture in Wisconsin at that time and for the developers of its early radio broadcasting technology. While Terry faced skepticism and even active opposition from members of his home department, including his department chair Charles Mendenhall, who felt that such practical engineering and outreach work was outside the disciplinary bounds of physics, a “pure” rather than “applied” science, Terry continued to play an active role in the direction of the station (which was reorganized under the call sign WHA in 1922) until his death in 1929.

Professor Earle M. Terry photographed in the early days of WHA [c. 1921-24]. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.

Professor Earle M. Terry photographed in the early days of WHA [c. 1921-24]. Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.

The establishment of 9XM and its early years with experimental educational broadcasting is only part of the larger story of radio’s ultimate involvement in the “Wisconsin Idea,” however. While 9XM’s initial efforts did of course further agriculture and provide some pleasant entertainment on Friday evenings, the technology had not yet been fully utilized in service of the public good, leaving unfulfilled a significant part of radio’s capacity to embody the Wisconsin Idea. This is not to say that it was not often present in the mind of its creators. In the years between the establishment of WHA as a regular educational broadcaster and his death, Terry worked hard to popularize the medium, sending his students to give demonstrations of radio technology throughout the state and eventually gathering the enthusiastic support of key faculty outside of the physics department, like Edgar Gordon, a prominent music professor, and William Lighty, a speech professor who worked for the University Extension. Gordon and Lighty each saw the radio’s radical potential to educate and serve a broad public audience. This deeper engagement would not begin, however, until 1931, a full two years after Terry’s death, when Gordon, Lighty, and Harold McCarty worked together to establish the groundbreaking “School of the Air.”

Featured image: Malcolm Hanson at left, Earle Terry at right, examining radio equipment at 9XM, c. 1920. Image courtesy of UW-Madison Archives.

Steel Wagstaff is a poet, literary scholar, designer, and education technology consultant. He holds graduate degrees in English and Library and Information Studies and is building a web-based dissertation dedicated to the “Objectivist” poets. He works for L&S Learning Support Services at UW-Madison, where he makes his home with his wife, Laurel Bastian, and their young son Cedar. Contact. Website.


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