The Chautauqua of the Air

WPAH “…the Chautauqua of the Air…”

Department officials were dissatisfied with WHA’s poor reception in northern Wisconsin.

Edward Nordman, the Commissioner of the Department of Markets was persuaded that a station could serve rural residents of Wisconsin by broadcasting market information.  Officials from the Civic and Commerce Association of the City of Waupaca lobbied for the station, citing the city’s central location and the concentration of the potato industry in the region.  The city agreed to provide office and studio facilities for the station.

Waupaca is the county seat of Waupaca County, an agricultural region about 100 miles north of Madison and Milwaukee, and in 1920, the city boasted a population of 2,839.  In addition to potato farming, which was even then on the decline, dairy farming was and is a major component of the local agricultural economy.  Waupaca was the retail center for a large trading area, between the industrial Fox River Valley cities of Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, and Oshkosh to the east and Stevens Point to the west.

The Department of Markets began construction of the station in November 1922.  Anticipating the startup of the Waupaca station, the Department discontinued the market reports from their Madison office on November 1, 1922, and concentrated all activities at the new facility in Waupaca the following week.5  The department at the time was employing a “radio specialist” who would give assistance to anyone thinking about buying radio equipment to receive the market reports.  Although not listed by name, it is likely this person was Max Littleton, who had been involved with the market reports from 9XM/WHA in Madison since September 1921.  He would later install the equipment for the Waupaca station and act as its first operator and manager.

The location provided for the studios and offices was a storefront at 100 North Main Street in Waupaca.  The building was owned by A. J. Holly and Sons, a family in the furniture and undertaking business. The radio operation would be in the building’s mezzanine.  The building is still standing and is now the former Lighthouse office supply and stationery store.  Two 110-foot towers with 22-foot square bases arrived unassembled from the factory in Freeport, Illinois and were installed 210 feet apart on a site on Jefferson Street in the city.  The antenna was 140 feet long between the towers and it was reported that instead of using a ground, “the station uses a series of wires 18 feet above the ground directly under the antenna.”  It was known as “counterpoise” and was said to be superior to the regular ground system.6  The representative from the factory said the Waupaca towers were the finest he’d installed.7

On December 12, 1922, the station was authorized by the Department of Commerce, which assigned the call letters WPAH.  The call letters had no meaning, but rather were simply the next ones in the sequence.  Other stations authorized the same month were in the series between WPAK and WPAW.9

The new transmitting equipment was fully installed by mid-January 1923.  At least one local business hoped to capitalize on the startup of the new station.  The Waupaca Radio Sales Company ran an advertisement in the Waupaca County Post on January 18.  With the heading “Broadcasting the Markets,” the copy read “Weather forecasts and other valuable information from the Waupaca station, WPAH, will soon begin on their regular schedule.  Are You Equipped to Receive Them?  $12.50 will buy you a complete receiving outfit that will make this valuable information available to you 365 days of the year.  Can you afford to be without this service as such a small cost?  See us about your outfit.”10

After some initial testing on the previous weekend, WPAH officially went on the air at 8:30am on Monday, February 5, 1923, broadcasting on 485 meters (618 khz).  The Waupaca County News reported the first broadcast with the headline “Waupaca on the Air—Radio Station Sending.”  The article listed the broadcast schedule of the six original market programs:

The programs consisted primarily of the market quotations, but a hint of additional items comes from the article in the Waupaca County News:  “In order that the material broadcasted may not become monotonous to the listeners the programs are generally interspersed with musical selections.”  It appears as though the station was not broadcasting continuously during the day.

The WPAH transmitter was said to be one of the most powerful in the nation at the time, perhaps second in power only to WGY, the General Electric station in Schenectady, New York.13  The Waupaca County Post of February 8, 1923 reported that WPAH received over 200 letters and telegrams from listeners who heard the first test broadcasts the previous weekend WPAH experimented with evening programs during its first month on the air.  Regular evening programming debuted that summer.  WPAH broadcast the Thursday evening concerts from the bandstand in front of the courthouse in downtown Waupaca.17  The concerts were a popular entertainment in the area: so much so that area merchants would close their doors on Thursday evenings.  As remote broadcasts go, these band concerts would have been comparatively easy to do in that the bandstand was across the street from the WPAH studio.

The station operated through mid-summer, and then shut down for repairs and maintenance for nearly all of August.  When it returned to the air on September 4, 1923, the schedule had been slightly modified

In addition to the daytime farm market programs, WPAH began offering evening entertainment programs that were the responsibility of the city, sort of an early example of “community radio.”  The regular evening programs that autumn featured a mixture of live music performances and spoken word presentations.  The usual arrangement was for a particular community to be spotlighted, with local talent from that area along with boosters promoting their town.  The broadcasts were often under the auspices of a local paper or chamber of commerce, and occasionally featured short remarks from the community’s mayor.  Some of the evening programs featured dance bands that had been heard on other radio stations.

WPAH management liked to repeat a reference received in a letter from a Madison listener.  In commenting on one of the evening programs, he had referred to the station as the “chautauqua of the air,” and the phrase was appropriated as the station’s slogan.20  The station’s managers were proud of the evening offerings and felt they were the equal of any “lyceum course or entertainment that could be provided.”21  One regular feature scheduled for the Monday evening programs was a talk about health presented by a physician from the State Medical Society of Wisconsin, assisted by local Waupaca doctors.  Station officials thought the health talks especially valuable and felt “fortunate in securing this really worthwhile material.”22  Evening programs were offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, starting variously at 7:00pm, 7:30pm or 8:00pm.  Sundays were added for religious broadcasts beginning November 11: these programs went on the air at 6:00pm.  A complete list of the evening programs does not exist, but from newspaper accounts, these programs from 1923-24 are definitely known:

-September 26: Rena Bauer and Florence Baldwin: music instructors from nearby Weyauwega with a program of 15 classical music selections23

-October 19: Arthur Cole and his Recordograph Orchestra from Milwaukee24

-October 22: Stevens Point Chamber of Commerce program, featuring the Wolverine Orchestra, the Florida Five Orchestra, the Majestic Orchestra, the Whiting Syncopators Orchestra, the Kiwanis Club male quartet, the Orion Male Quartet and other vocal solos, as well as humor talks, a business talk and a health talk by Dr. J. W. Coon of the River Pine Sanitorium25

-October 26: Clintonville Tribune program, with classical solos, duos and trios, an address about Clintonville, xylophone solos and concertina solos of “old-time airs”26

-November 5: Wisconsin Rapids Chamber of Commerce program with addresses from the city’s Mayor, the county agricultural agent and local businessmen, and humor monologue.  Music from the Rotary Glee Club, Arthur Kohl and his Recordograph Orchestra, and semi-classical vocal solos27

-November 11: religious program with a sermon from Reverend J. W. Clevenger of Waupaca’s First Baptist Church28

-November 18: Baptist Church services29

-November 19: Oshkosh Normal School program with members of the Oshkosh Normal School Orchestra, a male vocal quartet, vocal and instrumental solos, and a speech about the value of music instruction in elementary grades30

-November 22: American Legion Vaudeville Show31

-November 24: A dance orchestra from Appleton “under the direction of Mr. Harriman”32

-November 26: Fond du lac Commercial Club program featuring Si Melberg and his Dance Orchestra, talks on dairying and the veterans compensation bill, readings, vocal solos and other addresses: the group also offered prizes for distant listeners33

-November 28: Wausau Chamber of Commerce program with 18 classical music selections, literature readings, a talk about Wausau and an announcement of the details of a missing persons case from the city: also, four pairs of shoes were offered as prizes for most distant responses from the north, south, east and west34

-December 3: Appleton Post-Crescent program featuring the faculty of the Lawrence Conservatoire of Music with classical and semi-classical music35

-December 10: Ripon program with the Zobel Concert Orchestra, readings and talks about both Ripon and Ripon College36

-December 17: Program under the auspices of the Pettibone-Peabody Company of Appleton (a department store) featuring the Lawrence College of Music with classical music, the Lawrence College Methodist Choir and the Green Bay High School Saxoband37 38

-December 19: Sankey’s Radio Syncopators (from Minneapolis, often heard on station WLAG) “under the direction of Mr. C. H. Sayles of the Winter Garden,” plus a health talk by Dr. Sleyster of Wauwatosa, president-elect of the State Medical Society39

-February 3: Sermon by Reverend W. P. Leek-superintendent of the Fond du Lac district of the Methodist Church and former Fond du Lac pastor40

The Holly family, who owned the building where WPAH was located, installed a high-quality receiving set and invited members of the public into the store to listen to distant broadcasts during times when no live programs were transmitted.

(18-A) The WPAH Office in Waupaca Two unidentified men inspecting a vacuum tube in front of the WPAH office in early 1924.
(Courtesy Waupaca Historical Society, Waupaca, Wisconsin)

As was the case for 9XM/WHA and other stations during this period, one of the intriguing aspects of radio was that the local programs were heard at great distances, and reception reports for WPAH were included in newspaper reviews of evening programs.  The Clintonville broadcast received positive responses with listeners particularly enjoying the “old time airs” on concertina performed by Arthur Schoenike, a former Waupaca resident.45  A tardy report indicated the Clintonville broadcast was also heard in Puerto Rico.46

The Department of Markets had continuing problems due to fluctuations of the commercial electric power available in Waupaca.  The Department of Markets approached the city with plans for correcting the problem and also requested better studio facilities and additional financial support.  The city council passed a resolution, agreeing to furnish up to $600 worth of free electric power per year as inducement to keep the station in the city.  The action by the council prompted a local citizen named Tom Salverson to hire an attorney and enjoin the city from further action.  The injunction was served on the Mayor, City Clerk, City Treasurer, and the Board of Public Works, ordering them to issue no further orders, pay out no money, and to do no further work as a municipality to keep the station.

The injunction caused a flurry of activity with the Department of Markets rapidly releasing information to the newspapers that spelled out in detail what they expected from their host city in terms of support.  Sensing an opportunity, others began lobbying to have the station moved to their cities.  The Department of Markets wanted the station as close to the center of the state as possible to serve the maximum area.50  Despite their efforts, Waupaca officials believed the decision had already been made and that Stevens Point was to be the station’s new home.

As its time in Waupaca was drawing to a close, WPAH played an important role during a snowstorm that affected the eastern part of Wisconsin.  On the one-year anniversary of the first scheduled broadcast in Waupaca, WPAH helped relay messages for railroads: their normal telephone and telegraph lines had been knocked out by the snowstorm.  WPAH relayed train dispatching messages between radio stations and to amateurs who were able to contact the railroads by local telephone.51  Other stations participating in the relays included KYW-Chicago, WLAG-Minneapolis, and WOAW-Omaha.52

On February 26, 1924, the WPAH equipment was dismantled.  Evidently somewhat soured on the business of broadcasting, the Waupaca Chamber of Commerce offered the now-abandoned radio towers for sale to the highest bidder.  The Stevens Point Ski Club prevailed with a high bid of $100.  Their intention was to have the nearly-new towers dismantled and then reuse the structural steel to build a ski jump in nearby Plover Hills.


Photos – Henry Estberg Photo, from the collection of the Waupaca Historical Society.

Below Article – Excerpted from “9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea.” Copyright 2006 by Randall Davidson.  All Rights Reserved.

WPAH Towers

WPAH Studio