Many of us are intimately familiar with the golden voices on the radio that accompany us throughout our daily routines: the early morning reporter who guides us through the day’s news as we wait at the mechanic, the lunch hour deejay whose tunes keep us company as we take a break, the late-night talk show host that helps us unwind at the end of the day. Womxn have been a key force in shaping these listener experiences and broadening audience horizons since radio’s inception.
Even in the early 20th century during radio’s fledging beginnings as wireless telegraphy (the practice of transmitting telegraph signals via radio waves), womxn could be found working on land and at sea as radio operators, shipboard operators, and engineers. It is no surprise then that when radio became a domestic delight in 1920 womxn served as program managers that booked guests and announced them on the radio. Although womxn were important content creators, by 1930 they were facing industry pushback that attempted to erase their voices from the airwaves. A belief that the quality of contemporary receivers made womxn’s voices sound “shrill” was a key contributor to prejudice against womxn on the radio, an idea that was bolstered by studies that stated that both male and female audiences found men’s voices more “natural” and “persuasive.”
Much like Senator Liz Warren, womxn in radio persisted. Womxn not only shaped the future of radio from behind the scenes, but from within their homes as well. Media historian Kristin Skoog has pointed out that female listeners—an audience frequently home during daytime hours—quickly became a key demographic whose interests shaped what are now standard radio broadcasting formats such as serials and talk shows. This can be seen in the work of at-home radio pioneer Pegeen Fitzgerald who began broadcasting with her husband from their New York home in 1940. Her combination of witty banter and contemporary topics in a friendly environment proved successful: Fitzgerald’s presence earned her a loyal fanbase that kept her on for 42 years despite broadcast executives’ attempts to take her show off the air. Womxn made strides in commercial radio as well. Mary Margaret McBride rose to prominence in the 1940s as a radio journalist that brought engaging interviews to daytime programming. She gained millions of listeners in the 1940s and 1950s, earning her the title of “America’s First Lady in Radio.” Kate Smith was also a popular radio personality during this era. A patriotic host and singer, Smith recorded over 15,000 broadcasts and raised $107 million in war bonds in 18 hours to support the war effort. It must be noted, however, that Smith’s love of country did not extend to all Americans—the United States’ recent racial reckoning has brought forth anti-Black recordings created by Smith that have led to the removal of her recorded performances from professional sporting events.
The rise of womxn like Fitzgerald, Smith, and McBride coincided with the onset of World War II, an event that sent men to the frontlines and womxn into recording studios. During this time womxn performed a variety of roles ranging from sound effects to providing audiences with crucial information about the war itself. American journalist Betty Wason worked as a foreign correspondent for the Transradio Press Service and the Columbia Broadcasting Company, while British reporter Audrey Russell provided BBC listeners with knowledge that amplified the humanistic side of the news.
Although men resumed control of radio broadcasting at the end of the war, womxn’s achievements in radio could no longer be ignored. The late 1940s and early 1950s provided womxn with several opportunities to be heard across the globe. The BBC created the women’s issue focused radio show Woman’s Hour in 1946, followed by a transnational recognition of the importance of gender equality in media with the creation of the International Association of Women in Radio in 1951. While these organizations are not directly connected with the womxn’s movement as we conceive it today, both were early supporters of the movement and womxn’s issues. Women’s visibility in radio broadcasting rose yet again in 1955, when the first all-female radio station WHER hit the airwaves.
As time marched on, other stations began playing with WHER’s all-female format. This experimentation proved particularly fruitful for Alison Steele of WNEW in New York City. Dubbed “The Nightbird,” Steele was one of the first female disc jockeys and the first womxn to receive Billboard’s “FM Personality of the Year” award in 1976. Female reclamation of the airwaves continued through the end of the 20th century. Dorothy Brunson led several radio stations to success and became the first African American womxn to own a radio station in the process, carving out a road for herself and other members of the Black community. radiOrakel, the world’s first feminist radio station, was also established towards the end of the century. They operate in Norway to this day and still support their mission of educating womxn in journalism and sound engineering.
Contemporary womxn in radio across the globe continue to build upon this rich legacy. Whether promoting womxn’s rights in Afghanistan in the face of Taliban opposition, nurturing an amateur radio operator community while supporting national relief efforts, or educating their communities on the importance of womxn’s roles and decision making in society, womxn continue to invent and create space for themselves across the airwaves.
Uncovering and celebrating womxn’s contributions in radio is an ongoing project that we can all be a part of. If you would like to learn more about how you can support womxn in radio—or if you are a womxn in radio looking to make deeper connections, check out Women in Radio. You can also explore this article to learn more about some of Austin’s leading female deejays, including KOOP’s own Leah Manners.
– Cristina Saltos