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
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
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
"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
"We've had a role in national radio that is much larger than the size of
our listening audience would indicate," Monick
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 it.
"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
have picked up WSUI's signal. "I get a huge
kick out of those letters. I always write them back and include a program
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 marketing director.
"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