Listening to the Radio

An item on the 1930 United States Census caught my eye. I was looking over the lines for Emil, Gina, and their family when I noticed one category was “Radio set.” Did Emil and Gina have a radio on April 22, 1930, the date of the census? The mark in the column was “R” indicating they did.

So I began wondering: What station might they have been listening to in Fitch Coulee? The state educational station WHA in Madison was going and was, in fact, one of the ground-breaking stations in Wisconsin. And since the air waves were uncluttered in the 20s, the Borresons in Fitch Coulee may have listened to Malcom Hanson at noon, for example, tell what the weather would be for the next 24 hours, or to the latest reports from “every stock, grain and produce center in the country.”

More likely, however – and more suprising to me – in the mid to late 1920s the family may have listened a station broadcasting from nearby Osseo. Clyde S. Van Gordon was born in Hixton, became a boat builder in Eau Claire, and owned a general store in Osseo. His radio hobby led him to establish WTAQ (1180), the “Voice in the Wilderness,” broadcasting from Osseo, Wisconsin beginning October 12, 1923. He regularly communicated with Malcolm Hanson, the engineer who helped develop WHA.

WTAQ’s first programs were local musical talent, weather and market reports, and his own Julebukker (Christmas fooling) program. This latter he dedicated to his listeners, identifying them by name and location, and it became so popular he continued it all winter. At WTAQ’s start, the estimate was 40-50 radio sets in the area.

Stein's 1930 Aztec Cathedral radio

WTAQ had only 100 watts of power, but in a time of uncluttered air waves, a man from New York City wrote of hearing it clearly December 15, 1923. In 1926 Van Gordon sold his Osseo store and transferred all his radio equipment to Eau Claire. At first the station broadcast every noon hour and 2 1/2 hours every Monday through Thursday night.

The owner of Gillette Rubber actually bought the station license so he could advertize his tires. In 1928 the station was moved to 1330 kilocycles and increased to 1,000 watts. R. B. Gillette suggested they test the station’s range this way: to the first person to call, write or wire from each state, he would give a free tire! In a short time he had shipped 46 tires, each worth $30. The station received word that it had been heard as far away as England, France, Hawaii, New Zealand and other places.

The station gave free time to politicians, such as Governors John Blaine and Fred Zimmermann, and even President Herbert Hoover traveling through Eau Claire on November 4, 1932. Fifteen thousand people gathered outside station WTAQ, but Van Gordon had to broadcast from President Hoover’s train which he would not leave.

Well, it’s fun to think of Emil, Gina, and the family gathered around listening to WTAQ, one of the first stations in the state, maybe even hearing the Herbert Hoover broadcast. In 1928 the station joined CBS to increase its programming and advertizing. By 1930, it was one 680 stations in the country and air waves sometimes became a cluttered jumble. In 1937, the station was sold to a Green Bay company and moved across the state – where a WTAQ still broadcasts.

Note: much of the information for this post comes from “Early Broadcasting in Wisconsin” by James I. Clark, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 90-98.

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