Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Remembering the Ladies-- A Salute to the Women of Early Radio

Contributed by Donna L. Halper

(From January 1999 issue of Popular Communications)

Women were involved in broadcasting right from the beginning, although you might not know it if you read the majority of the textbooks. Because most historians have concentrated on the technological development of early radio, their focus has been on the inventors and the corporate entrepreneurs, most of whom were men-- Guglielmo Marconi, Reginald Fessenden, Lee DeForest, Edwin Howard Armstrong, and David Sarnoff. Given this approach, it is difficult to show how important (and how necessary) the women of early broadcasting were. If you find women mentioned at all, it is usually as performers: early radio needed live talent, and as a result, numerous women, and even a few young girls, worked as singers and accompanists. (Even back in the days when women were not supposed to want a career, the study of music was encouraged; many women who had received some formal training suddenly found themselves invited to entertain an invisible audience of thousands, rather than just performing for family and friends.) But although a few of radio's earliest singing stars were female (most notably Vaughn DeLeath, "The Original Radio Girl"), it is also true that a few of radio's earliest managers, several station owners, and even a couple of engineers were female.

Whether you support the idea of feminism or not, the fact remains that women who took non-traditional jobs in the 1920s faced many more challenges than women do today. Back then, there were no laws about equal pay; station executives could (and did) say they would never hire a woman; and some journalists who believed that radio should be a man's job wrote columns that were highly critical of women announcers. Although the 20s brought great social change (women got the vote, many more women attended college) old attitudes refused to die: the common wisdom said that women who worked in radio should confine themselves to being secretaries or playing the piano or possibly doing an occasional program about cooking or fashion. But women doing the news? Women managing the station? Unthinkable! Yet in spite of all the opposition from their society (and at times from their own colleagues and families), certain women refused to accept a limited role. It has always seemed unfair to me that these pioneers and their achievements are seldom acknowledged, so let me introduce you to some of them.

Eunice Randall at age 19
in the studios of 1XE (later WGI)
reading a bedtime story to the audience.
(Photo, courtesy of Eunice Stolecki.)
Perhaps the first woman to be both an announcer and an engineer was Eunice Randall (later, Eunice Randall Thompson). At the age of 19, she was broadcasting on 1XE, a Boston-area radio station owned by AMRAD-- the American Radio and Research Company, which manufactured radio receivers and various types of ham equipment. The year was 1920, and the station operated from studios on the campus of Tufts College, (at Medford Hillside, MA) with a dedicated staff comprised of student volunteers and AMRAD employees. Eunice Randall had come to radio by accident, having been raised on a farm and intending to go to art school. But needing extra money, she found a job as a draftsman in AMRAD's factory (the first woman they ever hired), and this provided her introduction to the growing wireless industry. It wasn't long before she was deeply involved with both professional and amateur radio: she soon built her own ham station, and ultimately became one of the first woman in New England to hold the first class license (her ham calls were 1CDP, and later W1MPP). Interestingly, she had no role models in her family for any of this-- I have met several of her relatives, and as far as they recall, none of the Randalls was a "radio bug".

To Boston radio fans of the early 20s, Eunice Randall was "The Story Lady"; two nights a week from late 1921 through 1923, she had a sponsored program (the station's first-- brought to you by "Little Folks Magazine"), reading stories to children. She also did the Police Reports, gave Morse code practice, sometimes announced the news, and when guests didn't show up, she and one of the station's engineers would sing duets! She even became the assistant chief announcer. 1XE (which was re-named WGI in February of 1922) was heard all over the United States, and Eunice received fan mail (and more than a few marriage proposals) from many different cities. Gradually, her technical skills and her willingness to do whatever it took to keep the station on the air-- including climbing the tower if necessary-- earned her the respect of her male colleagues at AMRAD, most of whom had been vehemently opposed to hiring a woman when she first applied. Eunice was frequently written about in the Boston and suburban newspapers, and unlike some other female announcers who encountered ridicule and hostility, what was written about her was very complimentary. (In case you are wondering if perhaps she was extremely attractive and the columnists wished they could take her out, Eunice was very tall for a woman of her day-- at least six feet tall-- and while pictures of her show a woman with a wonderful smile and a pleasant face, she does not look like a potential model. Rather, those who knew her say it was her dedication to her work and her outgoing personality that won over even her critics.)

While she had fun on the air, Eunice truly loved the technical side of radio, and studied hard to keep up with the much more experienced men at AMRAD. The company soon expressed their confidence in her credibility by making her a member of the team of experts sent to discuss and demonstrate AMRAD's newest equipment at conventions and radio shows. Given how few women were in the technical end of radio back then, we can only imagine the impression it must have made on people who met her at the AMRAD booth and discovered she wasn't the receptionist-- in several cases, she had helped to test or build that equipment!

If 1XE/WGI's parent company, AMRAD, had not been beset with financial problems-- by 1925 it was bankrupt-- Eunice might have stayed on the air much longer. As it was, she did remain a dedicated ham radio operator for her entire life, and although she left commercial radio, she continued to do drafting and engineering work till she retired. Occasionally, she appeared as a guest on women's shows during the 1930s and 40s, talking about her adventures in radio's early years. Eunice Randall was by all accounts an amazing and courageous woman. Her desire to enter the all male world of radio totally mystified her father, and I am told he never accepted her decision. But she must have been an inspiration to numerous young women of the early 1920s who heard her voice on the radio and thought that maybe someday they too could be like her.

Bertha Brainard,
the first woman executive at NBC.
(Photo, courtesy of
the Library of American Broadcasting,
College Park, Maryland.)
Another woman who had never planned to be in radio was Bertha Brainard. She grew up in New Jersey, and as a child, dreamed of being a movie star or performing on the stage. After serving as a nurse during World War 1, she pursued her love of theatre; in the fall of 1921 when professional radio came to Newark, she volunteered to do a program of theatre reviews and news of up-coming shows. (Like most performers and announcers from radio's early days, Bertha didn't expect to get paid for her work on the air. She did it because it was fun to be a part of a brand new mass medium.) Her show, "Broadcasting Broadway" marked the first time a woman had been on the air at station WJZ, which, not long afterward, moved from New Jersey to New York City, making it even easier for her to interview the actors and actresses. In fact, she had such excellent contacts that she was hired in a paid capacity to find and book the talent for WJZ. This led to more responsibilities, and by 1925, she was working directly with the management in running the station; she even developed new programs and hired announcers.

Before I continue, I should explain that in radio's early days, titles often meant something very different from what they mean today. For example, a Program Manager did in fact manage the programming-- by finding enough musicians and guest speakers to fill the demands of live radio. And a station secretary-- while usually a "woman's job" with a comparatively low salary and not much prestige -- was often pressed into service on the air, especially if she could sing or had some expertise in domestic arts such as cooking or sewing. In Boston, the woman originally hired to be executive secretary to John Shepard the 3rd (he was president of the Shepard Stores and owner of station WNAC), ended up doing a successful daily show for homemakers-- she became so well-known that when she left, the name remained; a succession of women who filled the secretarial role also served as "Jean Sargent" on WNAC. Thus, while it is true that many women in early broadcasting were listed as 'secretary' or 'studio hostess', a closer look at what they actually did proves their role was far more extensive than just typing letters or answering the phone. Many were doing work we associate with managers-- they often produced their own shows, hired the talent, brought in the guests, and even surveyed the audience to find out what topics interested them! As a result, women who worked as station secretaries often felt very lucky-- it was much more exciting than the typical office job. They met interesting people, their duties changed constantly, and sometimes they even got on the air themselves. Early stations could not have functioned effectively without these versatile women!

The original "Jean Sargent" had something in common with Bertha Brainard-- both worked for men whose attitude about women's proper role was very traditional. Unlike Bertha, who stayed on at WJZ despite a boss who was less than supportive of her goals, "Jean Sargent" left WNAC because her boss refused to give her more opportunity to move beyond a 'women's show'. As long as she remained in the role considered normal for a woman, she was encouraged, but when she asked to do shows considered men's jobs, she was not even considered for a try-out. Frustrated by this, she ultimately moved to the mid-west, where she took a radio job with more opportunities. Meanwhile, Bertha Brainard was working for a Program Manager (Charles Popenoe) who said in a magazine interview in September of 1924 that he believed women lacked the skill to be announcers, and if it were not for Bertha's reputation as a credible theatre critic, he would have taken her off the air long ago! We can only imagine how she felt seeing that quote, but then, Bertha Brainard seemed to have an attitude similar to that of Eunice Randall-- disapproval did not stop her, and she handled criticism with remarkable poise. Based on what I have read about her duties, Bertha was the equivalent of the Assistant Program Manager; yet her boss persisted in minimizing her role, speaking about her as if she only did clerical work. Several books by and about the men who founded WJZ give a very different picture, however: the announcers themselves stated that it was Bertha Brainard who helped them improve their air-work, and trained the staff in how to do their jobs more effectively. Quotes from these men and women who worked at WJZ indicate she was regarded as a "Big Sister", and her opinions were respected.

One man she had to impress was David Sarnoff, whose company purchased her station in 1926. Nothing I have ever read about Sarnoff suggests that he had a modern attitude about women; in fact, he seemed quite old-fashioned. Yet he must have been pleased with her competence because he certainly could have replaced her when NBC took over WJZ. Not only was Bertha retained-- she was promoted. By 1928, she held the title of Program Manager for the NBC Radio Network, and eventually became National Commercial Manager. She was profiled in a number of magazines and newspapers (including the New York Times), and several books about opportunities for women in radio spoke highly of her. She was certainly one of the first women network executives, and she worked for NBC for the next twenty years, until she retired.

Another woman who found similar success with NBC got her start in Chicago on a small station known as WGU, which broadcast from a department store several times a week in the spring and summer of 1922. The station didn't last very long, but the woman who managed it (which meant that she booked the talent, did the publicity, performed classical selections if a guest failed to appear, and almost single-handedly kept WGU operating) would go on to a long and successful radio career. Judith Waller had hoped to become a journalist; when radio beckoned, she was working for the American Red Cross and considering her options. She had recently tried to get a job at the Chicago Daily News; to her surprise, the man who had interviewed her called her one evening to tell her he had just bought a station (WGU), and he asked her to help him run it. Not long after that phone call, she found herself named station manager. WGU ultimately folded-- early stations were fun to own but expensive to maintain. Judith's radio career was far from over, however; she was soon back in radio with WGU's next incarnation, WMAQ. As one of the few women Station Managers, she quickly became known for her ability to persuade famous classical musicians and opera stars to perform (back then, talent was not always paid-- radio was still a volunteer activity at many stations), and for putting on high quality programs. By the late 20s, Judith Waller was developing educational programming on WMAQ-- she strongly believed that radio should not only entertain but also be a vehicle for learning.

In 1931, NBC took over WMAQ, and again, David Sarnoff found he had a talented and very competent woman running the station. She had established an arrangement with the University of Chicago to have debates, panel discussions, and even some courses on the air; she was developing programs in music education for children, and thinking up creative ways to do more public service. Her diligence was rewarded-- Judith was named head of NBC's new Educational Division, responsible for all of the educational programming on NBC stations throughout the midwest. During her years in radio, she wrote many articles for scholarly journals as well as a book about broadcasting and public service, "Radio: the Fifth Estate." She was an eloquent spokeswoman on behalf of the importance of public service, and while she loved music and radio drama, she did not want her industry to ignore the need for programming that would inform the audience and make them think. Judith Waller's career with NBC spanned more than 25 years, and numerous civic and professional organizations-- from the Parent/Teachers Association to the American Medical Association-- thought of her as Chicago's First Lady of Radio.

And then there were the station owners. In the early 20s, a small number of women were active in amateur radio, building and operating their own stations. But professional radio was more of a challenge-- it required an outlay of cash that most women did not have. However, in the small town of Vinton Iowa, in the summer of 1922, a unique event occurred: Marie Zimmerman put a station on the air. The daughter of immigrants, Marie had grown up on a farm and had never thought much about radio until she married Robert Zimmerman, an electrician who was fascinated by the new radio craze which was sweeping the country in 1922. He introduced Marie to ham radio, and they both decided to try to put a professional station on the air. Bob built it (he had to ask for donations to pay for the equipment), but the license was issued to Marie, who operated it and did all the things that station managers in those days had to do. WIAE was typical of small "mama/papa" stations of the early 20s-- Marie and Bob were the entire staff of the station,since they couldn't pay anybody to work for them. Studios were in the living room of the Zimmerman home, sometimes in a rented office, and sometimes in Bob's truck, which he drove around Vinton-- Marie did the announcing as they demonstrated the magic of broadcasting to people who had not seen it before. The station operated on a shoestring, relying on local volunteers to sing or perform, and when no talent could be found, Marie played a few phonograph records. It was an election year, and suddenly local politicians discovered that giving a talk on radio reached many more people than going around town campaigning. The public was amazed when their radio set brought them the voice of a candidate for local office telling why he deserved their vote. It was the first time radio and politics had met in Vinton: to us today, candidates giving speeches are commonplace, and probably boring. But in 1922, listeners had a sense of wonder about broadcasting: they would put on their headphones and marvel at what they heard. WIAE broadcast live from the County Fair that year, and tried to maintain a presence at other local events. Marie's living relatives do not remember her station (they were too young to have heard it), but they all commented on what a warm and outgoing personality she had, so undoubtedly the people in Vinton must have enjoyed listening to her, and they were probably very grateful to have a radio station, even a small one.

Marie Zimmerman seemed to have a remarkably egalitarian relationship with her husband Bob. He fixed the equipment; she did the paperwork the government required for license renewal and hired all the performers-- and they both did their part to maintain a regular schedule of three (sometimes four) broadcasts a week. Had it not been for the fact that the two of them were not rich, and that right up the road, a powerful new station with a large budget (WJAM) went on the air not long after WIAE did, the little station might have lasted longer than it did. But for nearly a year, there it was, bringing local residents a chance to perform and to hear their neighbors on the air. In the summer of 1923, the Zimmermans totally ran out of cash and Marie did not renew the license. There would be several other women who owned and operated stations in the late 1920s, but Marie Zimmerman did it first. She later went on to a career in business, becoming head buyer for a midwest department store.

One other woman owner was Ida McNeil, who ran a one woman station from her house (like Marie Zimmerman, her husband had built it for her in 1922; unlike Marie, she was still running it twenty years later); she gave the audience weather reports, farming tips, some music, messages of interest to the community, and whatever else she felt would be helpful to local people. The station began as an amateur operation, but by 1932, KGFX in Pierre, South Dakota, was a full-fledged commercial station, although Ida was still 99% of the staff. KGFX occupied such a positive place in the hearts of her listeners that Ida and her little station were written up in Time magazine in 1941!

There are so many more women I want you to meet-- such as Eleanor Poehler of WLAG in Minneapolis. She overcame personal tragedy (the unexpected death of her husband after they had only been married a year and she had just given birth to their first child) and not only become a respected singer but she was then hired as Minneapolis' first woman station manager, in August of 1922. A critically acclaimed soprano who had studied in Europe, Eleanor became a vocal supporter of classical music on radio; when the owners of WLAG went bankrupt, she worked as Music Director for their successor, WCCO.

There was also another famous vocalist who managed an early station-- Vaughn DeLeath, who had a long and very successful career as a singer and a recording artist, but who also served as Program Manager for a New York station, WDT, in 1923-24. As mentioned earlier, many of the first Program Managers were performers themselves, mainly from classical music or opera backgrounds, or playing for an orchestra. This made it easier for them to find colleagues who would be willing to volunteer at the station-- the exposure was good for a performer's career, since it gave him or her free publicity. And while not every station had the good fortune to be run by a vocalist as famous as Vaugh DeLeath, most stations tried to have at least one announcer on staff who could step in and perform in an emergency.

Other women in early radio did the "women's shows", but many took their show beyond just recipes and fashion tips to bring in interesting guest speakers on topics as wide ranging as foreign policy and current events. Caroline Cabot of WEEI in Boston was typical of this genre of women's show; she received huge amounts of fan mail from grateful female listeners, and she soon had her own staff and her own office, where her daily show could be produced more efficiently. By the 30s, some women were even doing a sort of talk show-- the best known of these was WOR in New York's Mary Margaret McBride.

I haven't even begun to discuss such pioneering women announcers as Jessie Koewing or Halloween Martin, or women radio columnists such as Jennie Irene Mix, or other women owners like Mary Costigan-- perhaps I can do part two at some point!

Today, few people think about the Bertha Brainards, Eunice Randalls, Judith Wallers or Marie Zimmermans of early broadcasting. There are a number of women on the air in nearly every format; and while the majority of the owners are still men, there are more women in sales and in management than there were in previous generations. Hearing a woman read the news or announce a song no longer brings forth newspaper editorials predicting the end of life as we know it if women are allowed to continue doing "men's jobs". But were it not for the determination of the first women in broadcasting, perhaps radio would still be for men only. The more I read about the 1920s, the more I am amazed at how courageous these women were-- nobody expected them to be successful, some people even wanted them to fail. Yet they not only succeeded, but more important, they proved to skeptics that when given the chance, a qualified woman could get the job done. Their efforts earned the respect of their industry, and they served as role models in a society where few young girls thought they could ever work in the media. I hope one day the historians who write the textbooks will agree that the achievements of broadcasting's women pioneers deserve to be remembered.

Donna L. Halper is a radio consultant, educator, and broadcast historian. She is a contributing editor to the Boston Radio Archives, and is on the faculty at Emerson College in Boston. She completed her third book in April 2001, Invisible Stars : A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting published by M.E. Sharpe.

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