A familiar voice on Wisconsin Public Radio, Randall Davidson joined the network as a news producer and anchor in 1990. The Neenah native started his career in radio at the UW-Oshkosh station WRST-FM, and was later a DJ and sportscaster at an Appleton FM station.
Now WPR's chief announcer and its unofficial historian, he is the author of 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea 1916-1978, published this year by the University of Wisconsin Press. Beginning with humble origins as a transmitter located in Science Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus, Davidson's history of the stations that would become Wisconsin Public Radio encompasses 9XM and WHA Radio's early use of voice broadcasts, its initiatives serving farmers and its introduction of such programs as "Chapter a Day" and the "Wisconsin School of the Air." Davidson's Wisconsin Book Festival appearance is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
The Daily Page: How and when did you become Wisconsin Public Radio's unofficial historian?
Davidson: It's happened over time. I've always been interested in history generally and had read some of the WHA/WPR history even before I began working there. At WPR, I began gathering and preserving what historic items were on hand and made it a point to learn where the network's archival collections are on campus. I continue to be amazed at how many historical questions I field from members of the public (or other staff members).
What is your earliest memory of Wisconsin Public Radio? When and where did you first tune in? What was it about Wisconsin Public Radio that grabbed you?
Other than singing along with the Wisconsin School of the Air program "Let's Sing" in sixth grade, my earliest modern memory of regular listening is from early 1983, when I stumbled on WPR's Simply Folk program one Sunday evening. I was immediately hooked by the music and started listening to programs adjacent to Simply Folk and then more and more.
I appreciated the station's respect for the listener, the intelligence and the wide range of programs being presented. I had been searching for a radio station to listen to ever since the demise of the "underground" rock format on stations in Wisconsin (WIBA-Madison, WIXX-Green Bay). I regularly credit Simply Folk for getting me into this career.
Where were you and what were you doing when you were struck by the idea for 9XM Talking?
The idea was presented to me. In 2002, WPR host Jean Feraca had taken a leave of absence to begin work on a book and had mentioned to her editor at UW-Press that there was a guy at WPR (me) who knew a lot about the history of WHA. They asked her if she thought I'd be interested in writing a book on the topic. She urged me to contact them and after some meetings with them, they agreed I would write this history. As for where Jean first told me about this, it was in the middle of the footbridge over University Avenue between Vilas Hall and the Humanities Building.
From concept to completion, how long did it take you to research and write 9XM Talking?
The manuscript took 18 months to complete.
Would you describe the project as an avocation? A compulsion? A labor of love? A hobby?
I guess the word avocation comes closest to the mark.
What sacrifices did you make to clear room and time in your life to research and write such a substantial volume?
From the outset, I knew I'd have to do this during evenings, weekends and during vacation time. Thankfully, some of the major archives collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society are available on Saturdays, and their main collections can be used on weeknights. The only real sacrifice is that I didn't really take any vacation travels until the book was completed.
What resources did you most rely on in researching 9XM Talking?
The major collections are the WHA Radio and Television materials at UW Archives and the papers of WHA manager Harold McCarty at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. Also useful was a remarkable 1959 dissertation by UW student John Stanley Penn that covered the history of WHA up to 1940. The letters he received from early WHA staff members while doing his research are also preserved at the Historical Society.
How much of your research for the book covered ground that was already familiar to you, and what portion would you estimate was an education in the sense that you learned something new?
I would guess that about a quarter of the book was material I was already somewhat familiar with, and for the rest, I was learning as I did the research. The one part of the book that was completely new to me is the history I unearthed about WHA-affiliated station WLBL in Stevens Point.
Dating to 1923, WLBL was one of the very few non-commercial AM radio stations not owned by an educational institution (it was owned by the Wisconsin Department of Markets). As such, it's not included in standard reference works on educational radio of this era. WLBL must have been a great station to listen to, as it carried a mix of its own farm markets programs, the best of the WHA programs, Packers football from WTMJ-Milwaukee, programs from the local college (now UW-Stevens Point) and a wide array of entertainment and informational programs, many done by local residents; they even had a house orchestra.
It's sort of an early version of what today would be called community radio. (I wish a recording was available of their program "Bicycle Traffic Court.")
Did your research and writing of the book dispel any misconceptions about the network's history that you, other staff, listeners or the general public might have held? If so, what would you say
was the most significant misconception corrected by 9XM Talking?
The main legend I debunk is the claim WHA makes as "the oldest station in the nation." I devote an entire chapter to discussion of the claim and it's pretty clear from the documentary evidence that WHA is second to commercial station KDKA in Pittsburgh in developing scheduled voice radio broadcasts for public reception. The gap between the two may be as much as two months or as little as five days.
Neither WHA nor KDKA can claim to be the first station, however. That honor appears to belong to the ancestor of KCBS-San Francisco. It had been on the air in San Jose as early as 1909 and had a regular schedule by 1912. It loses out as America's "oldest" since it had a long gap after World War I when it was not in operation.
It's telling that WHA founder Earle Terry never made the claim that the Madison station was the oldest.
As you explored the archives and interviewed people with institutional knowledge, what was your most memorable "Wow!" or "Aha!" moment?
For me, the moment came when doing the research on the early technology of radio. The man most credited with taking radio from the dots and dashes of Marconi to transmitting sound and human speech is former Edison employee Reginald Fessenden. He experimented with sending music and speech via radio waves in the early 1900s. On Christmas Eve 1906, he made a famous broadcast of live and recorded music, Bible readings and holiday wishes for the benefit of wireless hobbyists and radio operators on ships, a group accustomed to only hearing the buzzing of Morse code in their headphones.
One of Fessenden's staff members during his experiments was a man named Edward Bennett. Bennett later became an electrical engineering professor at UW-Madison and in 1914, acquired a radio license with the call letters 9XM; it was for use with some personal wireless apparatus he'd set up on campus.
In 1915, Earle Terry of the physics department asked to "borrow" his license for use with a new transmitter he and his students were then building, and Bennett agreed. Terry had the license transferred to the UW, and the 9XM call letters were used for the station though the first year of voice broadcasts and until early 1922, when the call sign WHA was assigned. Bennett and his 9XM license are the link between the first sound broadcast of Fessenden and the WHA of today.
How complete are the recorded archives? Are they being digitized?
WHA was unable to make sound recordings until mid-1935, when the station acquired its first lathe for making 16-inch transcription records. Tape recording came in after World War II. The collection is largely at UW Archives with some materials at the UW School of Music and the Historical Society.
Most of the earliest extant recordings are of the educational programs from the Wisconsin School of the Air (WSA) and the Wisconsin College of the Air (WCA). It should be noted that many WHA programs were done live and not recorded at all or only rarely.
There is preliminary work being done by UW Archives to digitize representative programs from the collection, with the WSA and WCA programs likely candidates (all of us involved hope to uncover one particular "Holy Grail" item: any of three known appearances by Aldo Leopold on the Wisconsin College of the Air from 1935-36. It's not known if the programs were recorded).
What is it about Wisconsin -- as distinct from, say, Minnesota or Massachusetts or any other state that might possess fertile attributes -- that allowed 9XM to take root and grow into Wisconsin
The thing that makes Wisconsin special is the way that everything 9XM/WHA did was with the Wisconsin Idea in mind. From the earliest days, those involved with the station were looking for ways to use the technology of radio to serve the residents of the state and allow them to benefit from the riches available at the university.
From the weather forecast to farm market reports to programs for homemakers, farmers, rural school children and adult learners, the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea was present. It also was the main reason for the development of the statewide FM network: as a way to get programs from WHA efficiently to all of the state.
How did the research and writing of 9XM Talking affect your perception of how you fit into the history of Wisconsin Public Radio?
I am pleased that so much of the station's heritage is still in evidence: state weather forecast (since 1921), live classical music concerts (1921), news (1922), election night specials (1928), State Capitol studio (1931), Chapter a Day (1932), air time for political candidates (1932), University of the Air (1933), programs about nature and wildlife (1933), informational programs on gardening (1935), Associated Press service (1942), BBC programs (1943), program series for national distribution (1944), call-in programs (1967), etc. Some things have disappeared, notably the Wisconsin School of the Air programs for in-school use and UW sports, but a lot remains. Much of what I do on a daily basis at the network has its roots in the past.
Who do you envision as the audience for this book -- who ought to read it, and why should they read it?
I imagine a lot of people who participated in the Wisconsin School of the Air programs during their youth will like to read more about this unique service and I think anyone who has an interest in radio generally or Wisconsin in the era 1920-1980 will enjoy it. I hope people who read it will come to appreciate the struggles the station faced in its early days and how close it came to folding on more than one occasion.
What can people expect to see, hear and experience during your Wisconsin Book Festival presentation?
I'll talk about the early history of WHA, about WLBL, the development of the FM network and a bit about each of the main program services of the stations (WSA, WCA, Farm Program, Homemakers' Program and Chapter a Day). I'll be bringing along a few photos and historical items.
When, where and how do you prefer to write?
I did the bulk of the writing at the computer in my living room, mostly late at night.
Among other presenters appearing at the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival, who are you most intrigued to see?
I hope to be able to speak with Jerry Apps. Several of his books covered topics important to my research.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends, and why would you recommend it?
I recently recommended the reprint of the WPA Guide to Wisconsin (Minnesota Historical Society Press 2006). It provides a nice snapshot of Wisconsin and its communities in the late 1930s. Anyone interested in Wisconsin history would enjoy it.
Why do you live where you live?
I live in Madison because of my work with WPR. I'd find it difficult to leave, as I enjoy having access to the great research libraries here.
Do you have any tattoos?
I don't believe so.