MADISON - In 1917, a small group of Wisconsinites gathered at the Madison home of University of Wisconsin - Madison Physics Professor Earle Terry to witness the launch of public broadcasting in the state. There was no fanfare; there were no crowds, just a small group of scientists and students who were committed to using new technologies to enhance life across the state — a commitment that remains at the heart of everything Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) do to this day.
“By all accounts, we’re the oldest public radio station in the nation and one of the oldest continuously broadcasting radio stations of any kind in the country — we’re even older than the BBC,” noted Mike Crane, director of WPR. “When Terry demonstrated voice and music broadcasting in 1917, he was really introducing a significant change in how the world would share information and connect, and it continues to be life changing to this day.”
The history of public broadcasting in the state is really two stories: one of technological innovation and one of program innovation. While UW professors and students were developing the transmitters that would make radio possible – crafting fragile vacuum tubes by hand in the lab – educators at the recently established University of Wisconsin - Extension Division were wondering if the new technology could help the state’s mostly rural families improve their lot in life.
“When our founders decided what they should broadcast first with the new wireless technology, what did they choose? The two things that would benefit the most people in Wisconsin — weather forecasts and crop prices,” Crane said. Among many broadcast “firsts”, WPR was the first station in the nation — public or private — to offer regularly scheduled weather forecasts. “Public service was really the foundation of those early innovations and it still drives everything we do on air, online and in communities across the state,” he added.
According to UW-Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen, the vision of extension education was instrumental to developing the public media values Wisconsin audiences still experience on WPR and WPT. “The weather might not seem like a big breakthrough, but for farmers at the time, access to scientific forecasting was game-changing, and data on crop prices leveled the economic playing field, putting them in a better position to profit in the open market,” she said.
“Today, WPR, WPT and UW-Extension remain committed to providing free access to information that allows Wisconsinites the opportunity to chart their own course, to make up their own minds, and to shape their communities,” Sandeen said. “We are incredibly proud of WPR and WPT and hope all of Wisconsin will join us in celebrating their service to the state and their leadership in educational broadcasting nationally.”