Public radio's teachable moment

Kids with a radio in the classroom in 1943.

If public radio sometimes feels a little like a classroom—and we all know it does – there’s a reason.

Or, at least, a convenient excuse.

Public radio got its start in schools. “Broadcasting began in the U.S., largely on university campuses in engineering departments,’’ said Michele Hilmes, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.  “People were experimenting with radio and building radio sets.” 

By the mid-1920s, those engineering experiments were becoming stations, and broadcasting educational programs. 

The earliest programs were aimed mainly at homemakers and farmers.  Later, said Hilmes, the stations “got into schoolroom broadcasts, where kids in schools could actually listen to things that related to their lessons.” 

Dozens of state universities, departments of education and school boards created shows for kids. 

In Cleveland, for instance,  WBOE was licensed to the local board of education in 1938 (hence the BOE).  The station broadcast instructional programming for nearly 40 years, beginning in the morning—like the school day— and ending in mid-afternoon. 

John Basalla,  an archivist with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, says schools had radios made specially to pick up only WBOE’s frequency.

WHA now a part of Wisconsin Public Radio — had one of the most active “schools of the air.” There were music classes.  Drama classes.  Nature classes. (Check out their 1943 programming schedule. )

The idea was simple.  Broadcasting would transform education by making it possible for students to learn from great teachers wherever they were—so long as there was a radio in the classroom.

There was hype. Hope.

And a lot of money.

Check out these photos and captions from the 1952 book Teaching Through Radio and Television.

But, the revolution never came. Lots of schools didn’t have radios. Those that did, often had trouble coordinating regular lessons with those on the radio.  And many of the shows just weren’t that good. “If you talk to old practitioners in public broadcasting,  they actually use ‘educational radio’ as a pejorative,” said Josh Shepperd, a media studies professor at Catholic University, in Washington, DC.

Commercial broadcasters also took a crack at the classroom.  CBS had the American School of the Air;  NBC broadcast the Music Appreciation Hour.  “The best and most effective educational broadcasts did come out of the networks,” Sheppard said.  But there wasn’t enough money in it, to keep them interested.  Broadcasting education shows to school kids just wasn’t sustainable for commercial radio.

Gradually, public stations that stayed on the air started making better shows.  They started making radio less -geared to students sitting, listening, in circles. 

And more for learners like us.

We’ve got more on the history of radio in the classroom here

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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