Copyright 1996 by Sue Schardt and The Christian Science Monitor Publishing Company

Broadcasting histories usually date the beginnings of American radio from November 2, 1920, when Pittsburgh's KDKA inaugurated its regular broadcasts with updates on presidential election returns. Commercial radio was born with a ten-minute real estate ad aired on New York's WEAF on August 28, 1923. Public radio's beginnings are at once more humble and more noble.

The Navy put a freeze on civilian broadcasting in 1917 because of World War I, but several universities were able to continue experimenting. WHA (then known as 9XM) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is recognized as the first regularly broadcasting noncommercial station in the United States. It may also be the oldest broadcasting station of any kind. WHA began transmitting in 1916, continuing through the war under special arrangement with the Navy. Radio was still something engineers 'did' in 1916, so programming wasn't very sophisticated. 9XM and stations like it at other schools merely powered up every day, broadcasting weather and farm reports and whatever else experimenters considered interesting - mostly just to see "what worked."

But along with eager engineering departments, universities had stables full of people with something to say... professors, artists, scientists with an interest in education - all helping students learn about this new technology and giving audiences access to culture and information. Educational missions carved out a place for noncommercial broadcasting in America during the commercial grab for radio licenses in the late '20s and '30s. Educational broadcasters won a significant and lasting victory in 1941 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved a portion of the new FM band exclusively for noncommercial use.

The Depression and WWII spurred further developments in radio technology and programming, but while businessmen capitalized on radio's enhanced profitability and growing audience, others began to imagine radio as an important cultural force. Voices from outside the economic and political establishment became interested in keeping a wider range of cultural expression on the dial. Edward Nockels, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor in the '20s, had fought long and hard - sometimes alongside educational broadcasters, sometimes alone - to keep "the voice of labor", WCFL, on the air. He pioneered the concepts of "independent voice" and "listener support"... themes that are still central in public radio. Similar ideas motivated Lewis Hill to organize Pacifica Radio (KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California) in 1949. Hill was a Quaker, a conscientious objector, and a Washington, DC, newscaster during WWII. He developed Pacifica as a radio enterprise with a special commitment to freedom of expression and listener sponsorship - two hallmarks of the "alternative" tradition of public radio.

The '50s brought a new medium - television - to American life. All of radio had difficulty competing with television's home picture shows, but noncommercial radio had a particularly difficult time despite its protected FM frequencies. A few educational stations labored to break ground in radio's newfound obscurity: WILL-FM (Urbana, Illinois) ran a tape sharing service that used the US Postal Service as a program distribution channel; WRVR-FM (New York City, New York), WGBH-FM (Boston, Massachusetts), WHYY-FM (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and WAMC-FM (upstate New York) had an impact on radio programming and policy through the Eastern Educational Radio Network (EERN). But educational program schedules were having a hard time keeping pace with the wider culture. Noncommercial radio needed something else to set it apart.

Pacifica's system suggested examining what it really meant to be noncommercial: with money and talent coming from the people who listened, rather than from advertisers. Unimpressed with radio being produced by educational institutions holding noncommercial licenses, Lorenzo Milam started taking Pacifica's member-supported radio to smaller cities with a new kind of approach called community radio. Founding KRAB-FM (Seattle, Washington) in 1962, Milam went on to set up KBOO-FM (Portland, Oregon), KTAO-FM (Los Gatos, California), KCHU-FM (Dallas, Texas), and KDNA-FM (St. Louis, Missouri). Nevertheless, noncommercial radio was so eclipsed by the end of the '60s, it was nearly left out of the federal legislation formalizing the public broadcasting system we know today.

By 1967, national leaders recognized that noncommercial broadcasting was being held back by its lack of a network structure. Stations were on their own, with little way to share programming of national interest. With the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, Congress provided for ways to build a national financial and distribution infrastructure for noncommercial television and - oh, yes! - radio (added to the legislation at the last minute).

The Act created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to serve as a conduit for federal financial support of local radio and television stations, nationally produced programming, and interconnected services. With regard to radio, it was concluded (after a year of study) that most noncommercial radio was either student-run, or religious in nature, and therefore did not fit the criteria for funding. Consequentially, two important strategic decisions were made with regard to administering radio. First, a set of criteria was devised for funding. Unlike television, virtually no on had the capacity to produce sustainable, quality programming on a national level. In 1970, National Public Radio (NPR) was created as a national production center for news/information and cultural programming. NPR was to also serve as the coordinator for national program distribution. NPR began its national program service in 1971 with production of "All Things Considered", a daily hour of in-depth, primarily national, news. The distribution infrastructure was completed in 1979 with the launch of public radio's own satellite system which, for the first time, allowed local stations to send and receive programs among themselves. Between the years of 1970 and 1982, NPR was funded almost entirely by the CPB (stations paid $100 to join NPR).

Community radio also formalized itself during the '70s. Fifteen stations and license applicants, several from Lorenzo Milam's original group, formed the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) in 1975. In general, the '70s and early '80s were a period marked by dramatic growth across the spectrum in public radio... the independent producers community emerged, the number of public radio stations tripled, minority participation grew significantly, Morning Edition from NPR (the a.m. sister to All Things Considered) went into production, and university stations moved to redefine their community outreach beyond simply acting as "classrooms of the airwaves".

There were two important developments which took place between 1984 and 1986. The CPB began funneling money directly to the stations rather than to NPR, and an alternative distribution house was created. When NPR turned down the chance to distribute nationwide the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) program "A Prairie Home Companion", MPR established American Public Radio (APR, now known as Public Radio International or PRI) in Minneapolis to distribute independently produced national programming. This "decentralization" resulted in a public radio environment which was driven by the stations, and one which was more competitive and diversified. Via APR/PRI, new producers began coming onto the scene; besides Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion", there were alternative news services - Monitor Radio (from the publishers of The Christian Science Monitor), the BBC from England, and the CBC from Canada. Pacifica Radio benefited from this diversification of the marketplace as well, with its offerings gaining greater national carriage. The production community continues to diversify, with the recent emergence of such entities as American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS), and Radio Bilingua (a public radio service targeted to the Hispanic audience).

Emerging information technologies market the idea of "interactivity" without acknowledging radio's pioneering work with that concept. Public radio warms interactivity into participation. Public radio calls on its listeners to be owners and, in some cases, producers... to support stations directly and to have a say in their development. Public radio makes listening itself active. Its programs create time for thoughtful attention to voices speaking around the world or down the road, inviting listeners to supply something of their own imaginations to the process. Public radio's commitment to reach you where you are, while taking you places you've never been - all for the price of one good ear and a small wireless receiver - preserves the best the medium has to offer and calls on some of the best we have within ourselves.

Return to Station Information page

Page updated 1/8/04