Radio Comes to Vermont

Radio in a home in Bradford, Vermont, 1939 (Library of Congress)

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine, March 19, 2022 for the “Remember When” column with the title, “Can You Hear Me Now?”

In April 1930, the U.S. Census enumerators knocking on Vermonters’ doors asked a question unlike any asked before (or since): “Do you own a radio?”

The census ultimately found that, in 1930, 40-50% of Vermont households did, indeed, own a radio. This ranked the state among the highest radio-owning states, lagging behind only a handful of other northern states (plus California), which boasted up to 63% ownership.

(Many southern states, on the other hand, trailed far behind with only 5-10% of their population owning a “wireless.”)

The first successful public American radio broadcast aired from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1910, but restrictions placed on radios during World War I temporarily thwarted this new form of communication. But when the war ended, soldiers who had served as radio operators returned stateside, bringing with them their new technological skills.

One such veteran was George Brody, who, on coming home, began studying chem-engineering at UVM. When he created a radio club at the university, his classmate, William M. Hall, also joined.

In 1919, not long before these two met at college, radio restrictions had been finally lifted, and on Nov. 2, 1920, the first commercial radio station in the U.S., KDKA in Pittsburgh, debuted with a broadcast of the Harding-Cox presidential election. This kicked into high gear the age of radio, the “disruptive technology,” of its time. (A disruptive technology is considered “an innovation that significantly changes the activities or habits of consumers, industries, or businesses,” according to

“(When) the first licensed broadcast station (aired) everybody started to get interested in having radios,” explained Hall, “they were getting them rather fast and furiously. … They were getting them all over the place.”

In 1922, Hall was a sophomore. And that was the year he and Brody, along with other members of the Radio Club, put Vermont’s first radio station, WCAX, on the air.

Sponsored by the UVM Extension Service, WCAX broadcast educational, agricultural and literary lectures, and entertainment and health talks from a building behind the Williams Science Hall. With help from the Blodgett Co., a tower was jerry-built from a windmill and some lengths of pipe. Other equipment was handmade by students in UVM’s machine shops.

That same year, the Vermont Farm Machinery Co.’s WLAK began airing from Bellows Falls.

Radio’s early connection to agriculture may not immediately seem clear, but farmers had been quick to adopt the new technology. Although, by the mid-1930s, only 10% of Vermont’s farms were electrified (some of the state’s most rural spots would stay in the dark for another 30-plus years), the radios of the 1920s were battery-operated and therefore perfect for those who lived outside the power-grids and information hubs of the state’s larger towns.

Station owners and advertisers saw a marketing opportunity in radio’s ability to deliver news and information with an immediacy not available from newspapers or by word-of-mouth. They began to produce shows — market and weather reports, agricultural lectures and folk music — and commercials geared towards farming families.

Educational programs were often broadcast across the airwaves (Library of Congress)

In fact, farming and radio programming was so interlinked that, when an increasing number of urban homes were re-wired to include plug-in electrical sockets (not just electric lights) and when, after 1930, the manufacture of AC-powered radios outweighed that of battery-operated ones, radios still built to use battery packs became known as farm radios.

So, in a primarily rural state such as Vermont, radio was particularly important. After WNBX in Springfield began broadcasting in 1927, others soon followed suit. WQDM first aired out of St Albans in 1929 as the state’s first commercial station. The next year, WSYB in Rutland became the second, and in 1931, when WCAX was purchased by Burlington Daily News, it, too, went commercial.

By 1930, when the census was taken, anyone who owned a radio — or had a neighbor who did — was listening to live broadcasts of national news, music and sports events previously only accessible to those with money or who lived in metropolitan areas. Educational programs were created for children, and made-for-radio dramas, situational comedies, musical variety and comedy shows became incredibly popular. “You got your studying done quickly, so you’d be sure to hear it,” reminisced Vermonter Georgina Bottamini about her teen years. “We were glued.”

Vermonters counted on the radio for instant and constant information, entertainment and connection within an ever-shrinking world. Radio connected disparate parts and people of the nation and state.

This was especially true during the Depression. News reports kept people informed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt boosted the morale of an estimated 60 million listeners during his weekly Fireside Chats. And when the dwindling dollars of the public forced such entertainment venues as movie houses to shut their doors, radio programs served as a welcome distraction. Listening to the radio became a national pastime.

During the Second World War, radio was used effectively in the war effort. Informational and entertainment shows helped shape public opinion by promoting patriotism and pushing propaganda. But above all, radio continued to buoy the country as it faced hardships.

No other census before or after 1930 included a question about a family’s technological devices. (After the 1930 census, the numbers of personal radios, telephones, televisions, air conditioners, or (since 2020) smartphones, computers and internet access, has been determined by sample on housing schedules or other national surveys.) And when Vermonters answered it, they may not have known just how important their radios would come to be over the next two tumultuous decades.

Just short of a century later, we are experiencing an echo of that time with the emotional, physical and economic distress of the pandemic. And we are still looking to the latest “disruptive technology” for what our parents and grandparents did: connection and with the bigger, yet ever smaller, world.


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