Station employees Bob Buckley and Bob Pfeiffer produce a news
segment in Old Gold Studio, located in the 1939 radio addition
to the Engineering Building.
When injuries suffered in World War I prevented a young Burlington,
Iowa soldier from returning to Iowa City to finish school, WSUI
AM-910 was able to provide enough course credits for the student
to earn his degree. In fact, the University station, which celebrates
80 years this year, is considered the first educational radio
station west of the Mississippi River.
As one of the nation's 100 oldest radio stations, WSUI was a
pioneer in radio broadcasting. Besides being among the first
stations to broadcast courses on the air-ranging from psychology
to speech to radio broadcasting-it was also the first to broadcast
from outside the studio and the first to broadcast play-by-play
What began in the basement of the Physics Building with a 10-watt
transmitter and one employee has blossomed into 5,000-watt organization
housed in its own digs on South Clinton Street with a staff of
more than a dozen. Though it has ceased to offer instruction
on the air, the station continues to provide hands-on experience
for students in broadcasting and to provide area listeners with
informative programs from National Public Radio (NPR).
Although the University had spent several years experimenting
with radio broadcasting, it wasn't until 1919 that it adopted
a regular schedule of educational programs and lectures. The
experiments, using Morse code, could be heard in each of the
United States, every Canadian province, as far south as the Canal
Zone, and on board ships off the east and west coasts. When the
station received its official license in 1922, it was referred
to as WHAA. (The call letters WSUI-ideal because they represented
the initials of the State University of Iowa, as the UI was then
known-were being used at the time by a ship off the east coast.
It wasn't until 1925 that the station was awarded the prime letters.)
The WHAA studio, pictured here in 1924, was located in the attic
of the Engineering Building. At the time, UI graduate Carl Menzer
virtually ran the station by himself, doing all the program directing,
producing, and announcing, as well as all the mechanical repairs.
While the role of radio in American life has shifted over
the generations, WSUI's audience has continued to grow, says
John Monick, director of broadcasting services.
"It used to be that a family would gather in the living
room to listen to radio programs, but now it's very much a secondary
activity," he says. "Listening to the radio is something
you now do while brushing your teeth or driving to work. It makes
drudge-filled activities more fun.
Left: Jack Drees reads sports headlines. Drees, a UI basketball
player in the 1930s, went on to do play-by-play radio coverage
of the Chicago White Sox and eventually became a sportscaster
for CBS television.
Right: It's been more than
50 years since WSUI had a staff organist on hand to provide musical
interludes between programs. The organist is Elaine Blair.
"The big change in radio was the introduction of television-that's
when radio began formatting itself much more narrowly, but by
that time educational radio had already declined in use,"
he adds. "Now, WSUI is more of an extension of the resources
and ideals of the University-that's where NPR fits in."
The station's relationship with NPR began more than a generation
ago when it became an NPR member station, and WSUI initiated
the service with coverage of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
hearings on the nation's involvement in Vietnam.
"We've had a role in national radio that is much larger
than the size of our listening audience would indicate,"
Local broadcasts from the Iowa Forensic Union, the Iowa City
Foreign Relations Council, and Prairie Lights Books have helped
maintain the station's solid listening base, says programming
director Dennis Reese, but NPR is largely responsible for increasing
"NPR continues to be a valuable commodity-it's The New York
Times of the air," Reese says.
While WSUI's listening audience is relatively small compared
to commercial stations-the signal spans a 150-mile radius during
the day-Reese says he receives about 10 to 15 letters a year
from residents of Scandinavia who have enjoyed an occasional
evening broadcast from the station.
"Signals do weird things at night. The ionosphere, or upper
atmosphere, becomes active, and AM radio waves are bounced all
over," he explains, adding that states as far away as Washington
and Florida have picked up WSUI's signal. "I get a huge
kick out of those letters. I always write them back and include
a program schedule."
With no commercial advertising, the station is dependent on University
funding, private gifts, and government grants. Despite static
University resources and federal support continually coming in
waves, Monick says the station is in good shape. However, to
ensure a steady flow of funding, Monick has recently hired a
"We've had a long, illustrious past. Now we're doing things
to ensure another 80 years," Monick says. "The next
decade looks bright."
by Sara Epstein