University of Wisconsin was a pioneer in radio.
In 1917, an experiment from the UW-Madison physics department became the country’s first public radio station. In the mid-1900s, a variety of different programs helped the university spread the Wisconsin Idea to rural parts of the state.
Now, a new grant is helping UW archivists bring some of those programs into the digital age.
The grant from the national nonprofit Council on Library and Information Resources is helping the UW Madison Archives Department digitize 250 discs. Those discs contain programs that aired on WHA between 1920 and 1950.
And after all these decades sitting in the archives department at Steenbock Library, UW Archivist Cat Phan says time is of the essence. That’s because these discs are vulnerable. UW Madison is one of 20 institutions to get this Recordings at Risk grant.
The programs are recorded on lacquer discs, unlike much of the university’s archives which are on reel-to-reel tapes. Phan says these discs are particularly difficult to work with and don’t age well.
“They are really, really difficult to handle,” Phan says. “They’re so vulnerable to deterioration.”
These lacquer discs are delicate, and the material breaks down easily. Phan says that makes them a priority in the department since they’re susceptible to aging. Plus, the large sixteen inch discs need special equipment and expertise to play back. Phan says that expertise and equipment is disappearing.
But Phan says preserving these programs is crucial for preserving Wisconsin’s heritage. The Farm Program started as regular weather and market reports, but Phan says it eventually grew into a more comprehensive program, often highlighting research and culture on the UW-Madison campus.
In addition to The Farm Program, this grant will also help the archives department digitize a WHA show called The Homemakers Program, which aired programming aimed at women.
Phan says both of these program reached mostly rural listeners. A 1941 survey found The Farm Program had regular listeners in almost all of Wisconsin’s counties. The regular host of The Homemakers Program, Aline Hazard, was also widely popular with women across the state. Phan says that same survey showed she would get more than 10,000 pieces of fan mail a year.
“These were isolated farming communities that didn’t have that access to broader communities,” Phan said. “This is the one way that they were listening to the same thing as other women across the state and it was really forming a community out of these isolated women in rural areas.”
The digitizing grant is for almost $20,000. It’s meant to pilot a digitization system that the university’s hoping to use for other discs in their collection.
UW Madison archivists hope these programs will eventually be available to anyone with internet access.