In 1922, a prank almost sank WKAR before it even launched
This story originally aired during WKAR's Century of Service special on Aug. 20, 2022.
WKAR is 100 years old! We received our radio broadcast license on August 18, 1922.
That’s our official birthday. But really, WKAR's story began a few years earlier, with an answer to a patriotic call of duty.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I. The conflict that shifted centuries of political power was an era of falling empires and rising innovations. The war unleashed a wave of battlefield technologies, one of which was the portable radio transmitter.
The army quickly needed to teach its soldiers the science of telegraphy.
Frank Kedzie was the president of what was then called Michigan Agricultural College.
Armed with $1,000 worth of equipment from the Army Signal Corps, Kedzie asked student Norris Grover to lead the course. Some 900 students completed the training.
When the war ended, that equipment sat idle…until idle curiosity stepped in.
By 1922, America was fascinated with radio.
That year, 10 MAC engineering students resurrected all that wartime gear and started tinkering with voice transmission.
What happened next turned into a legendary mistake.
It was so infamous that announcer Irving Haggart remembered it in a 1947 WKAR broadcast.
“That little incident resulted when some engineering student pranksters decided to serenade some of their friends in Wells Hall by means of radio," Haggart said during the broadcast. "Only by accident, the broadcast went beyond the limits of the campus.”
Student Frederic Holmes was a founding member of the student radio committee. Years later, he would write about that rather off-color vocal performance.
“They were sure that the signal would not go beyond Wells Hall,” Holmes wrote in a 1939 letter. “They sang several ribald songs for the benefit of the inmates of Wells, and signed off as W.A.R.D.E. The next day there was a furor of protest. To their chagrin the program had been heard up to a radius of 15 miles. This almost killed broadcasting at M.A.C. before it was born!”
They were sure that the signal would not go beyond Wells Hall. They sang several ribald songs for the benefit of the inmates of Wells, and signed off as W.A.R.D.E. The next day there was a furor of protest. To their chagrin the program had been heard up to a radius of 15 miles. This almost killed broadcasting at M.A.C. before it was born.Frederic Holmes, radio committee student
Proof of concept established, it was time for the budding broadcasters to go legit.
On May 13, 1922, the students transmitted a speech by MAC president David Friday. On Aug. 18, 1922, the station got its federal license, and a brand-new name: WKAR.
In 1925, WKAR debuted its noonday program, The Farm Service Hour.
M.A.C. created the Farm Radio School, a palate of on-air courses in fields ranging from crop management to veterinary medicine. The programming continued to grow.
In 1934, Robert Coleman came aboard as station director. Within six months, the station’s air time doubled. Coleman oversaw a lineup of sports, science and music shows.
Education was always at the heart of WKAR’s mission.
Decades later, Coleman recalled those early days of professor lectures and on-air studies in a 1972 WKAR interview.
“And so I felt that if we could get these people to do some of these things on the air, we were not only extending the resources of the college to the public, we were also giving these faculty people a sounding board to spread their information and influence over a wider area,” Coleman said.
Coleman believed educational radio had to be engaging, and above all, accessible.
I felt that if we could get these people to do some of these things on the air, we were not only extending the resources of the college to the public, we were also giving these faculty people a sounding board to spread their information and influence over a wider area.Robert Coleman, former WKAR station manager
If listeners couldn’t come to the college, he would bring the college to them.
“We tried for about three years to broadcast directly from a classroom,” he recalled. “We never offered grades; we never gave examinations. We simply broadcast a classroom.”
In the 1940’s, the radio experiment that had risen from the aftermath of the first world war took on a new role in the second.
In World War II, WKAR taught listeners about planting victory gardens, how to use ration coupons and promoted war bonds.
By 1948, WKAR had adopted a new technology: frequency modulation, or FM.
WKAR continued to evolve as the years rolled on.
By 1970, a new day would come that would take the station in a completely new direction.