Before MOOCs, There Was Radio

Waiting for a coworker for lunch today, I happened to take a closer look at a display case that I pass every day without really looking. Inside are pieces of Wisconsin Public Radio history, including a brief description of the education programs that WHA (today’s WPR) offered to listeners starting in the 1930s. Full classes, many taught by professors and other experts in their fields, covering a range of subjects and delivered over the latest technological marvel – radio – that its creators hoped to use to reach and educate people with limited access to education? Sounds like a MOOC to me.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are the latest thing in education, promising unlimited participation and access via the technological marvel of our time – the internet. Professors at dozens of universities are teaching online courses and nearly every other university that hasn’t joined in is seriously considering their options. It’s new and hip and marketed as the way to reach people in the modern world.

But isn’t this just what the radio was doing in Wisconsin nearly a century ago?

In 1930, WHA began offering music and discussion of current events to students in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week trial program proved a tremendous success and the station planned to incorporate classroom instruction into the regular broadcast schedule the following year.

Debuting in October of 1931, the “Wisconsin School of the Air,” as it was called, was designed for use in elementary and high school classrooms around the state.  Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assisted with the creation of lessons that they hoped would be particularly valuable to the students attending the state’s more than 6,000 one- and two-room schools. Producers believed that the radio curriculum would increase exposure to new ideas, enhance the learning experience, and most importantly of all, help to close the very real gap in educational resources and quality that existed between rural and urban areas.

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society


Radio lesson topics included government, history, music, art, nature, health, and English. The series included programs like “Let’s Draw” (an art appreciation course where students mailed their artwork to Madison for grading) and “Afield with Ranger Mac”(a nature program hosted by Wakelin McNeel) that ran for decades. Teachers received study guides and educational suppliers offered higher quality radios to schools.

WHA also initiated the Wisconsin College of the Air to extend and improve adult education across the state. One of the most popular programs on the college slate was the Homemaker Program hosted by the affable Aline Hazard. She offered tips for cleaning, cooking, childcare, gardening, and introduced the latest tools and science of home economics. Together, the Wisconsin School and College of the Air brought useful information and education into homes and schools across the state on a technological platform that was relatively accessible to anyone.

At the end of the first semester in 1931, WHA reported nearly 11,000 regular listeners. By the next year, the regular audience had more than doubled to 23,000. The audience only continued to grow so that by 1960, roughly 290,000 students used the programs.

Other states followed Wisconsin’s lead in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as commercial networks cut back on children’s programming. Nearly all were linked to universities or colleges, just like MOOCs today.

It seems to me that MOOCs are just a modern incarnation of the School of the Air, an attempt to give everyone a quality education using technology, whether on the air or online.




New Book! Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine

Self promotion is not something at which I excel. When my first book came out in 2007 (Odd Wisconsin), some of my friends only learned I was even writing a book when I invited them to my book launch at Barnes and Noble. Epic writer fail.

I’m much better now.


I have a new book coming out! In January! And even though you have to wait just a little bit longer to get your hands on it, some of the first reviews are starting to come in, including this gem from Publishers Weekly:

Janik (Apple: A Global History), series producer for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life, offers a particular perspective on 19th-century medicine with this survey of “irregular” treatments that Americans embraced as they turned away from standard medicine. Little changed for two centuries, standard medicine’s “heroic” and often deadly offerings were eschewed for practices like heat and herb therapy, hydrotherapy, phrenology, and homeopathy. Janik reveals the significant role women played in the development of these treatments and spread of do-it-yourself medical books, almanacs, and family recipes for healing salves, prophylactics, and popular herbal remedies. Americans loved anything that “gave them the power to treat themselves,” Janik notes—and 19th-century alternative systems did just that. Bottles of ready-to-use homeopathic remedies came in home kits, and Lydia Pinkham’s medicinal brews not only brought neighbors flocking to her door in the 1870s, but her secret vegetable compound is still on the market in at least two variations. Janik argues that “complementary” and “alternative” therapies are just a 20th-century update of irregular medicine—and recognition by Congress, the Mayo Clinic, and major universities proves “the willingness of regular medicine to consider or at least tolerate the merits of their competitors, an almost unimaginable idea less than a century ago.” She’s delivered a must-read for medical history buffs, whether mainstream or maverick.


A “must read?” How awesome is that?

In the dark depths of researching and writing, it can be hard to stay mindful of the big picture. Your inner critic (mine is really, really mean and just never shuts up) can’t see beyond the clunky sentence that’s far from poetry or the argument that could be so much stronger if only… if only you had made a different choice. Or were smarter. Or had any talent at all. There’s so many of those. But you have to keep going and believing in your project despite what your inner critic says. She does keep you humble but then when the book finally comes out, it’s time for that critic to be quiet and celebrate a bit.


Teddy Roosevelt’s Milwaukee Assassin

On the night of October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to a crowd in Milwaukee despite having been shot by a would-be assassin.

Milwaukee was a campaign stop for Roosevelt who was running for president as the candidate of the newly independent Progressive Party. Roosevelt had already served two terms as president but his unhappiness with his successor, William Taft, led him to seek office on a progressive platform.


Unbeknownst to Roosevelt, New York bartender John Schrank had been stalking him for three weeks and across eight states. Obsessed with the thought of a third Roosevelt term, breaking the two term precedent set by George Washington, Schrank was convinced that Roosevelt’s election would lead to civil war so he decided he had to act. Schrank finally managed to get off a shot from his .38-caliber revolver as Roosevelt departed the Hotel Gilpatrick for his speaking engagement at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Unwilling to miss his speech, Roosevelt trivialized the wound and insisted on speaking. He even opened his vest at one point, revealing the wound, and declared, “It takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.”

Fortunately, Roosevelt had poor vision and was long-winded. The metal case for his glasses and the thick folded pages of his speech absorbed much of the force of the bullet lodged in the right side of his chest.

Following his speech, Roosevelt was rushed to the hospital. An X-ray confirmed the presence of the bullet in his chest but doctors decided to leave the bullet in place as it posed no threat to his organs and surgery could be risky. Roosevelt carried the bullet for the rest of his life.


Footnote – I realized only recently that the site of the shooting was on Old World 3rd Street near Kilbourn Avenue, the current home of the Hyatt, where I have stayed several times. I hear there are even photos and a plaque! I should be more observant.