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Testing, Testing, 1-2-3

The Grand Experiment That Was The Wisconsin School of the Air

While the iconic image of an American family gathered around a radio console listening to a presidential speech, mystery thriller, or home gardening show seems like an old-fashioned notion, between the 1920s and 1960s radio was a central force in the entertainment and education of millions of children and adults across the United states.

Here in Wisconsin, WHA Radio—today known as Wisconsin Public Radio—hosted a program called School of the Air that was an essential knowledge resource for both rural and urban citizens, especially children. The program came about through the efforts of dedicated individuals who understood radio’s tremendous potential to simultaneously entertain, educate, and create a sense of community.

With a “can do” spirit and great perseverance, these pioneers took the initiative in bringing electricity to their rural towns and villages, in building early radio transmitters and receivers, and in experimenting with audio lessons that could vividly capture the essence of art, music, geography, and a multitude of other subjects. These Wisconsinites were zealous in their drive to improve the quality of life for Wisconsin families, especially in rural areas. They are not only to be admired, but also perhaps—in this challenging time—to be emulated.

While other writers and historians—namely the brilliant Randall Davidson in his exhaustive study, 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea (UW Press, 2006)—have explored these subjects before, a brief excursion into this history may reveal ways in which we can better support public education—and attain that still elusive goal of equal education for all—in today’s digital age.


Rural Wisconsin Goes Electric

To understand the kinds of change that radio brought to rural life, we should start in a one-room school whose name is now forgotten. On a cold December day in 1936 in a room undoubtedly heated by a wood stove, with a kerosene lantern burning to supplement the weak winter sunlight, a student—probably a fourth or fifth grader—wrote the following letter to Wayne Claxton, program producer at WHA Radio and a recent University of Wisconsin graduate student in art education:

Dear Mr. Claxton, 
We have been enjoying your Creative Art lesson that you have been giving over the radio. ... I like the way you describe what you want us to draw. I sometimes wonder how we can hear your voice so far away. ... We just got our new radio. We had a box social at the school and made enough money to buy it. We can hear you plainly over the radio.

This student’s note reflects both the excitement and sense of wonder surrounding University of Wisconsin’s School of the Air, a series of WHA-Radio programs begun just a few years earlier in 1931. School of the Air targeted elementary- and high-school grades and was created largely with Wisconsin’s rural, one- and two-room schools in mind. The series included programs like Let’s Draw, Journeys in Music Land, and Afield with Ranger Mac that ultimately ran for decades. School of the Air joined a growing number of offerings from the nascent University of Wisconsin radio station located at that time in the UW Department of Physics in Madison’s Sterling Hall. Ranging from classroom lessons to the homemaker’s hour to Badger football, these shows brought friendly, familiar voices with welcome information into homes and schools across the state.

The student’s note also captures the relative novelty of radio in rural households of the 1930s. It’s likely this child’s hometown was one of the hundreds that were just beginning to see their first electric power lines. For years private utilities had neglected rural communities because it was not profitable to run miles of line in order to serve a few widely scattered customers. Finally in 1935 the federal government stepped in and established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The REA took profit out of the picture by offering low-interest, long-term loans to local non-profit cooperatives that would take on the task of bringing “high-line power” to the back roads of their counties.

In the years before electric poles began marching neatly down country lanes, rural families had lived with far fewer amenities that their city cousins. Windmills or gasoline engines powered water well pumps and wood stoves heated homes. Indoor plumbing was usually absent. Home lighting commonly depended on kerosene or propane lamps or on a “light plant,” which was a gasoline-powered electrical generator hooked upto storage batteries. In many cases the light plant illuminated the barn only. Some homes had propane or kerosene-operated refrigerators; most relied on iceboxes.

“They were second class homes in comparison with cities,” reflected Iowa historian Tom Morain during a 2009 interview about the gaps between town and country life in the 1920s and ‘30s. According to Morain, electrification and the increasing availability of the automobile were the two biggest forces for change for Midwest families in the 20th century. By l940, 85% of Wisconsin farmers had an auto of some kind (though they likely still used horses for farm work), thereby freeing many rural families from physical isolation on the farm. With electrification came labor-saving equipment that not only dramatically increased agricultural productivity but also the quality of rural home life.

Electrification gave radio a big new role in rural life. In 1928 only 20 to 30% of farm households had a radio—which was likely to be battery-operated. But after 1935, radio became not only a prime source of entertainment for rural families but also an agent of change and a bridge that linked them to every other community. Via radio, country people heard the same news, music, lectures, and dramatic entertainments as their city neighbors. (It was said that when the nightly Amos and Andy radio show came on, telephone use plummeted 50% nationwide.) Radio listening, whether to baseball games or soap operas, was a bond that united millions of Americans. Radio also delivered much that was practical, especially programs from university-based stations like WHA. WHA’s earliest broad- casts included daily weather reports, farm market reports, and helpful advice from home economists.

Even as WHA expanded the number and variety of daily programs, there was a large part of the population that had yet to be reached: young students. In 1931, there were 138,000 students attending 6,600 one-room schools scattered across the agricultural and forested areas of Wisconsin. Almost a quarter of these schools had less than twelve students. Producers at WHA set out to develop a curriculum that could enhance the learning experience, stimulate interest, increase exposure to new ideas, and close the very real gap in education that existedbetween Wisconsin’s rural one-room schools and the larger, better-funded urban schools. The country schoolhouse might still be heated by a wood stove and lack running water, but at least with the new Wisconsin School of the Air providing expert help and supplementing the teacher’s efforts, youngsters would have greatly expanded opportunities to learn more about music, science, literature, and a range of other subjects.

With more power lines came more radios, but WHA still had to weather many battles with primitive technology and airwave competitors before it could move ahead.


Early Struggles

When Wisconsin School of the Air began in 1931, the University of Wisconsin–Madison had been transmitting over the airwaves since 1914 when physics professor Earle Terry took over operation of the early Morse Code–style transmitter known as 9XM. Over the next seven years Terry and his physics students doggedly worked to build a transmitter that could carry real voices. They reached their goal in 1921 and the old 9XM station was re-licensed as an educational station and given the WHA call letters.

In that same year, William Lighty, WHA’s first program manager, floated the idea for a series of radio programs for Wisconsin schools; but the time was not yet right. First WHA had to establish itself in the increasingly competitive world of radio. Over the next ten years WHA was constantly fighting for its spot on the dial—usually against larger, urban, commercial stations. Federal regulation of the airwaves was nominal at best, and between 1924 and 1929 there were several periods when WHA simply stopped broadcasting because of overwhelming interference from other stations (particularly those in Chicago). WHA also had to develop a consistent calendar of programming and broadcast hours. This meant not only lining up talent (often UW professors) with an interest in radio, but also cultivating effective ways to deliver a broad range of content from milk prices to scholarly lectures.

In 1929, even as WHA continued to battle new challengers for its bandwidth, the station received a grant to experiment with teaching music and current events over the air to Dane County seventh and eighth graders. The positive outcome encouraged Harold McCarty, WHA’s new program director, to proceed with plans for a School of the Air aimed primarily at elementary grades. He made clear that it would be “free and independent of commercial influences” and would be “sponsored solely by the state, county, and municipal educational agencies.”

By this time, radio had caught the attention not only of UW’s physics and electrical engineering students but also of graduate students in education. Wayne Claxton, for example, the writer and narrator of Creative Art, developed his program as part of his Master’s thesis. James Schwalbach, who took over the art slot in 1936 with Let’s Draw, wrote a Master’s based on two years’ worth of radio scripts he had developed. Alice Flickinger, who wrote an early social studies series, also researched effective radio script writing techniques for her graduate degree. Basically, people were learning about on-air instruction as they went along and reporting what they learned. Behind it all seemed to be a belief that just about anything could be taught over the airwaves if the instruction was thoughtfully prepared.

Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana, Texas and several other states and cities initiated their own Schools of the Air in the 1930s and ’40s when the large commercial networks, realizing the escalating value of air time and advertising, began to cut back on their children’s programming. Most Schools of the Air were linked to university or college radio stations. For example, University of South Dakota (USD) students and faculty together wrote and dramatized on-air lessons similar to those in Wisconsin. (Electrical engineering sophomore E.O. Lawrence, who built USD’S experimental radio transmitter, went on to win a Nobel Prize in Physics for his cyclotron “atom smasher.”) The School of the Air based in Portland, Oregon, had a particularly long life. Its success was largely due to active involvement of school children in producing programs; besides participating in radio events such as spelling bees, children were encouraged to write and present radio lessons and dramatizations to fellow students.


Teaching With Charisma

The Wisconsin School of the Air’s popularity and longevity can be attributed to the tenacity and talent of the producers, engineers, and on-air hosts that made it work. Through the years, Wisconsin School of the Air presented dozens of classroom programs. Three of the most fondly remembered and longest-running shows were Journeys in Music Land with Edgar B. Gordon, Afield with Ranger Mac with Wakelin McNeel, and Let’s Draw with James Schwalbach. These early programs made especially good use of three local talents who already had radio experience and who were contagiously enthusiastic and charismatic, each in his own way.

Professor Edgar “Pop” Gordon had been producing music appreciation programs for WHA through the 1920s, including some experimental over-the-air sing-alongs. Well-known for his ability to ad lib, Gordon entered the studio with a prepared musical topic in mind, but did not use a script. Gordon had great stage presence, having honed his talent by leading multi-ethnic choral groups for a Chicago “settlement house” (a home that housed volunteers who worked with the city’s poor) and in community arts programs in Kansas before coming to UW. When he agreed to create a program series for sixth through eighth grade children in 1931, Gordon used a method by which students could quickly memorize a tune, then learn the words and sing together. He also used a simple system that taught children to relate numbers from one to eight with the sounds of notes on the musical scale. From there, he taught them (over the air) how to read simple sheet music and how to understand and use rhythm.

In 1933 he introduced an annual sing-along show. Students from across the state came to Madison to sing together, on the radio. Beginning with a few hundred students, these Radio Music Festivals had grown to 2,400 participants by 1938—all eager to sing the songs “Pop” had taught them on air. The success of the radio shows was made clear when the sing-along events had to be moved from the campus Stock Pavilion to the Field House to accommodate the growing number of participants. Seeing these gatherings as wonderful opportunities to build a sense of community among school children, Gordon also organized and attended 125 regional festivals in 47 Wisconsin counties during the life of the show. Some of these shows were held in conjunction with slide shows of student art from the Let’s Draw program, bringing together students from both programs.

“Pop” Gordon and his wife Edna, who played the viola, wrote more than four hundred original songs that were used on the show. Clearly this was something they enjoyed doing and that enabled them to tailor the music to fit specific lessons.

Wakelin McNeel, better known as “Ranger Mac,” was a professor of agriculture and assistant state leader of 4–H. He had inaugurated a popular forestry program within 4–H and had great rapport with youngsters, especially those who lived in rural communities. The young audience for Afield with Ranger Mac, whom he referred to as the Junior Rangers and his “Trailhitters,” eagerly heeded his colorful descriptions of nature and his advice on how to look for raccoon tracks along the streamside or tent caterpillar webs in the wild cherry trees on the way home from school. Started in 1933 and aimed at seventh to eighth grades, Afleld With Ranger Mac would prove important to rural and urban children alike. Simple things like tips on bird identification or Native American uses of plants could spark in children a greater appreciation of the common plant and animal life.

McNeel also focused heavily on bigger problems of soil and water conservation that were threatening Wisconsin and regions further west. This issue hit home one May day in 1934 when a vast cloud of dust, eroded from the droughtstricken Great Plains states, joined with dust-laden wind from the Central Sands area of Wisconsin and enveloped the state. The dust was further thickened by the smoke of forest fires burning in cutover lands of Wood and Jackson counties. It made an impression: by 1936 the Wisconsin legislature passed a law requiring all students to receive instruction in conservation. The legislators appeared to agree with UW professor of game management Aldo Leopold that the only way to preserve the landscape was to induce the private landowner to be responsible for his land’s total care. Consevation had to be the concern of everyone and the lessons would begin with the children.

Both teachers and students put Afield with Ranger Mac at the top of their list of popular shows. The program helped teachers meet the Department of Education’s new requirement to teach conservation and the show also had a natural appeal to children. At Ranger Mac’s urging, many teachers set up classroom nature tables where children could display objects they found—an abandoned wasp nest, wildflower seedpods, or live tadpoles.

In the field of art, Wayne Claxton, who from 1932 to 1936 presented the first radio art instruction program on WHA, had a style that was kindly but often included words well beyond the comprehension of a fifth-grader. Claxton focused heavily on the expressive aspect of art. His shows were built around mood-evoking pieces of classical music accompanied by his readings of descriptive passages from books or poems. Essentially, he set a mood and scene and the children were encouraged to draw and express their interpretation of the scene. He then asked the children to send their best work to the station for his comments.

When Claxton left the UW to teach college in Detroit, James Schwalbach’s Let’s Draw program followed within the year. Schwalbach had noted the academic tone of Claxton’s monologue and strove to avoid it in his own art instructions. Like Claxton, Schwalbach wrote carefully-timed art lessons with musical interludes. Though he had great charisma and wrote most of the shows, he did not narrate them during the first ten years of the program’s 34-year run. (Working as an art professor at Wisconsin Teachers’ College at Whitewater, he simply could not be present at WHA for broadcasts.) Schwalbach’s schedule of school programs included expressive exercises centered on music and inspirational readings; symbolic or representational lessons (emphasizing the realistic rendering of an object or scene); and manipulative lessons, which emphasized crafts of various kinds such as soap carving or papier mâché sculpture. He emphasized originality and strongly discouraged copying.

Let’s Draw had a built-in feedback mechanism that also contributed to a sense of community among participants. Students were urged to vote on the best art in their class, which was sent to Madison where it was critiqued before being returned to the school. The best pieces were mentioned on the program’s on-air Honor Roll. Others received “Honorable Mention” citations. The best of the best pieces from participating schools were selected for “Round Robin” traveling exhibitions. Teachers forwarded these collections from school to school within their region so that students could see the variety of ways in which a topic could be artistically represented. Some of these works also were selected each year for exhibition at UW–Madison’s Memorial Union.

Sometimes Schwalbach would arrange to be in a classroom and monitor student and teacher responses as a show was aired. This was made possible by WHA’s ability to transcribe programs to 78 rpm, acetate-coated discs. Using discs, WHA could pre-record its own programs or mail programs to stations or schools beyond the reach of WHA’s AM airwaves (WHA developed an FM presence in 1947).

Good Programs, Good Education

From the perspective of school district superintendents, the music and art programs were among the most valuable. They supplemented the teachers’ often-limited skills in these areas and exposed children to lessons unavailable in most small communities.

From the teachers’ perspective, School of the Air was valuable for the across-the-board enrichment it provided. By putting a different spin on materials that students were already studying, the radio programs increased students’ enthusiasm for the topic at hand. For the one-room schoolteacher, the programs were also a way to add variety to a long day and break it up a bit, and sometimes to keep part of the class occupied while she or he worked with older or younger groups of students.

Programs were prepared with input from practicing teachers, the Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Education Association, and pertinent UW departments. Sometimes the show’s writer was also the narrator, as in Afield with Ranger Mac and Journeys in Music Land. Other shows were the combined effort of UW faculty and school teachers aided by trained script writers (often UW students) and announcers from the station.

In 1944 approximately 40% of Wisconsin children attended rural schools and script writers were constantly challenged to keep content within the reference points of country children but still hold the interest of urban students. It was also important to limit a lesson’s “materials list” to those items that were cheap and readily available.

When a program required frequent access to a good library reference collection, that program’s registrants were almost always the larger urban schools. Lessons within a series had to be developed early enough in the year that teachers could see the lineup for the next semester in the School of the Air Bulletin, make their selections, order their teachers’ manuals (for an average fifty cents to a dollar), and make other necessary preparations. A brief quarter or half hour of airtime required many hours of preparation and follow up by WHA professional staff as well as effort by the teacher.

School of the Air shows were usually fifteen- to thirty-minutes long, but the end of the broadcast did not necessarily mean the end of the lesson. For example in Schwalbach’s survey of teachers, he found that the majority let the children continue their Let’s Draw art activity to completion, or would let them finish later in the day. For other shows such as the geography, history, and literature programs, the broadcast was frequently the launch for a lengthier class lesson.

Teachers liked the fact that the WHA-based shows tied in with the Wisconsin curriculum better than school programs offered by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) American School of the Air, which ran from 1930 to 1948. These national programs, which also enlisted educational experts, had the burden of dealing with four time zones and 48 different state curricula. They, like WHA, found that one of their biggest obstacles initially was that schools simply had no radios. They also reported a widespread fear by teachers that radio lessons would make their jobs superfluous. WHA seemed to avoid this latter problem through its constant reassurances in teachers’ manuals and other communications that radio lessons were only supplemental, not the main show.

The more closely the WHA programs paralleled required curricula, the more helpful they were to teachers. Neighbors ’Round the World, for instance, which used music and lively dramatizations to convey information about geography and foreign cultures was especially well received. As one teacher wrote, “Before the program each Thursday, we have a committee of boys and girls secure all the necessary books, maps, pictures, and globes to help us learn along with your broadcast. We sincerely hope programs of this nature will continue for a long time to come.”

Dramatizations, performed by a mix of WHA narrators and UW students—known collectively as the WHA Players—or by Madison theater groups, were an important part of Neighbors ’Round the World and several other shows. The popular social studies series Community Living, for example, often featured the fictitious Copelands and their four children as they dealt with issues like taxation, local government policy, and the postal service. (In 1966 WHA helped the Agency for International Development create twenty-six radio programs about health and nutrition in Spanish. What the likeable Copelands had done for social studies, the “Gomez family” did for health information. The show was ultimately broadcast over 46 stations in five Central American countries.)

Teachers and students alike favored the art, music, and other participatory programs like Young Experimenters, which dramatized historical events in the physical sciences and then asked that a committee of classroom students repeat that experiment. This and a later show, Exploring Science, both written by Madison teachers Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Liedtke ran for almost twenty years.

Researchers, however, found that too many characters, too many voices, or too many sound effects created confusion and interfered with learning. Even if cleverly dramatized, programs got a “thumbs down” from teachers if the content was weak.

In 1954 and ’55, Elizabeth Falter-Minz taught eighteen children—first- to eighth-graders—in a one-room schoolhouse at the crossroads village of Cheeseville in Washington County. She recounted the heavy demands on one-room schoolteachers:

We were teachers and janitors and recess referees and everything else. We had so much material to cover that we couldn’t spend much time on radio lessons that weren’t pertinent. I would check over the schedule for the various radio shows at the start of the semester and try to customize, to select lessons that would be meaningful to their experience.

She added that the year when she had a majority of boys in her class, she used more of the outdoor-related programming, such as Afield with Ranger Mac.

Falter-Minz, who lives in Milwaukee and is now 76, celebrated her nineteenth birthday during her first year of teaching after completing the required two years of training at the Sheboygan County Teachers’ College (or “normal school”). Because of her own love of art, she used many of the Let’s Draw radio lessons and had the entire class participate. “I watched the excitement James Schwalbach instilled in my students as they listened to Let’s Draw,” she said. She admired the enthusiasm with which he approached art and his repeated reminder that “art was for everyone and that everyone was important.”

Falter-Minz’s first school, in the rolling farmland northeast of West Bend, had electricity but water had to be brought from a nearby farm. “The school district had very little money. We had to be so frugal. We used pencils, crayons, tempura paint, and pan water colors and we used both sides of a sheet of paper.” She appreciated the creativity of Schwalbach when, for example, his Let’s Draw directions for printmaking called for a potato on which to carve out a simple image and tempura “poster paints” to serve as “inks”.

William Bianchi, an Illinois specialist in instructional technologies and a historian of schools of the air, believes the “participatory” element was critical to Wisconsin’s School of the Air’s long-running success. Citing how active participation was built into so many programs, he concluded in a 2002 article, “Wisconsin School of the Air intentionally worked at building community among its listeners. ... They conducted regional and statewide contests, festivals, and events that enabled WSA students and classroom teachers to meet one another, in person, in a learning environment.”

Active participation had been identified early on as important to the lessons’ success. Between 1937 and 1939 a research project, funded by the Rockefeller family’s General Education Board and supported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Normal Schools, studied the effectiveness of WHA’s School of the Air. In this study, professor A. L. Chapman of the University of Texas (which was involved in producing the newly-formed Texas School of the Air) joined UW professor of education J. Murray Lee to examine Wisconsin’s school curriculum and assess how and where radio lessons could be of most use. They worked with a variety of UW academic experts as well as representatives of the Wisconsin Education Association and the respective writers, producers, and narrators of seven ongoing programs to create a year’s worth of lessons as well as protocols for assessing those lessons’ effectiveness.

UW Press published the study in 1942 as Radio in the Classroom: Experimental Studies in the Production and Classroom Use of Lessons Broadcast by Radio. Results showed that students who were taught the radio show material by their own teacher (who had agreed to follow the radio content closely) did about as well in comprehending and retaining information as students who listened to the actual radio show. The only statistically significant difference was found in programs focused on music, literature, and good speech where vocalized examples gave an advantage. But researchers noted that radio stimulated students’ interest and enthusiasm for a subject, which had its own value.

Besides the benefits of active engagement, researchers also reported the resounding popularity of WHA’s art and music lessons; the importance of good dramatic narration for all programs; the usefulness of dramatized lessons in geography and community studies as well as in literature and poetry; and the need for more science-related programming.


Adapting Lessons To The Times

Looking at the School of the Air program list over the years, it’s hard to know which titles represented truly new topics or themes. For example, there might be three programs running simultaneously related to music, but each was tailored to a different age group. And when hosts retired or moved on, the show associated with their name was generally dropped and a new show, with similar content but different host, would fill its place bearing a new name. Some programs like Rhythm and Games, designed for very young children and hosted by Madison teacher Fannie Steve, continued for many years with the same name and basic approach. Other shows had briefer lives.

Sometimes a show was created in response to a group or individual’s concerns that particular subjects needed more emphasis. Randall Davidson recalled how informal the creation of a new program could be: “If someone came to WHA with an idea and [program director Harold] McCarty liked it, it went forward; they found a way to pay for it.” Funds, he said, came directly from WHA’s station budget for many years. Starting in the 1960s, grants for certain programming could also be secured from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Programs were often developed in response to current events. For example, The Darker Brother and We Are the Other People were developed in the late 1960s to explore issues of prejudice and the impacts of racial discrimination, which were very much in the news. With lunch counter sit-ins, housing rights marches, and the violence of race riots in Los Angeles flashing across the TV screen every evening, the impacts of bigotry could not be ignored. Though ostensibly an urban issue, bigotry also flexed its muscle in largely white rural communities against migrant workers and Native Americans. Rural children needed to understand the pain of prejudice and include it in their picture of the world.

It seems more than coincidental that the Let’s Draw program, which had begun steeped in a progressive philosophy of simply enjoying art as an experience and a free form of individual expression, had taken a pragmatic turn by 1959—two years after the Soviets embarrassed the U.S. with the launch of the Sputnik space capsule. In the teachers’ manual that year, Schwalbach emphasized that “Today’s world needs men and women trained to think creatively, to clearly organize their thinking into specific form and to project that thinking into lucid and understandable visual symbols. Art, with its stress on the training of the eye and the hand, is one of the best ways of developing these badly needed skills.”

This was just one of the many adjustments that Let’s Draw made over the years. When Schwalbach had only 1,228 regis- tered student listeners in 1936, he could not only outline the scripts and teachers’ instructions, but also regularly respond to student art sent to the station, select the best pieces for mention on air, and maintain the Round Robin forwarding routine. But by the end of the 1946-47 school year, the program had received 41,000 pieces of art, making returns impossible. Ten years later, Let’s Draw’s enrollment had risen to about 120,000. Providing individual feedback had become an overwhelming chore, even with volunteer aid, and it was eventually discontinued.

The show became so popular that Schwalbach also had to discontinue the Round Robin cycling of best art pieces from school to school; the scheduling became too onerous for him and for the teachers. (It also appears from some children’s surviving letters that they felt frustrated and disappointed in themselves when they saw the superior art circulated via the Round Robin. The Round Robin was intended to inspire, but it also made less talented children feel inadequate—the antithesis of what Schwalbach wanted.) In place of the Round Robin, Schwalbach held a “Gathering of the Clan” at which selected students visited with Schwalbach at the station and toured the art department and other campus features. By this time Schwalbach had an advisory group of teachers, artists, and school administrators who helped him keep a finger on the pulse of the classroom and who didn’t mind rolling up their sleeves to help him with lessons.

To remain successful, all the long-running School of the Air programs depended on education advisors and faculty experts; good writers, narrators, and engineers; and feedback from students and teachers. Wakelin “Ranger Mac” McNeel, for example, got feedback by urging children to make scrapbooks of their nature observations and to send them to the station. The best received awards. Teachers also sent in snapshots of  their Nature Corners. Often teachers’ manuals for a season’s programs included a questionnaire, asking teachers to identify the best shows—and worst—and why they succeeded or failed. Other measures were the many thousands of unsolicited cards and letters from teachers and students as well as the overwhelming attendance at events like the Let’s Sing regional gatherings.


Impacts Beyond The Classroom

Both Afield with Ranger Mac and Let’s Draw were significant in the impacts they had beyond the classroom. Through his radio show Wakelin McNeel launched a major tree-planting campaign with the goal of getting children to plant hundreds of thousands of seedlings in state and school forests, particularly in the cutover areas of northern Wisconsin that had been stripped of their trees by the lumber boom of the late 19th century. Responding to McNeel’s request, children also visited their local woodlands to gather acorns, black walnuts, and other tree seeds by the hundreds of pounds for Wisconsin’s forestry department nurseries.

Schwalbach, while continuing his Let’s Draw program, became involved in the College of Agriculture’s ground-breaking project to find and encourage adult rural artists, and provide exhibitions. Originally called the Rural Art Program, it began soon after UW President Glenn Frank appointed Chris Christensen as the Dean of Agriculture in 1931. For both men the Wisconsin Idea was a daily creed. Christensen wanted the Extension Division to not only spread the word of new alfalfa varieties but also to make the lives of farm families richer and more satisfying.

One of Christensen’s key emissaries was John Rector Barton, a professor of rural sociology with interests in lifelong learning programs and the folk arts. He embraced the regionalist and American scene art movements of the U.S., represented by artists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton who depicted things close to home and to their everyday reality.

By 1936 Barton and Dean Christensen had wooed well-known regional painter John Steuart Curry to the campus as an artist in residence, a new concept for any American university. Curry’s assignment was to make presentations on the role of art to young farmers at the annual Farm Short Course, to freely paint his scenes of rural life and other topics, and to be available to the general public as a mentor, lecturer and art critic. Though Curry was a shy, private person who was not comfortable giving speeches, he enjoyed going out to small towns, meeting with local farm families, viewing their art, and making gentle suggestions for improvement.

Seeing the wealth of talent to be found in the countryside, Barton and Curry arranged the first Rural Art Show in Wisconsin, bringing the work to Madison for exhibit. This show and those that followed were resoundingly successful. In his 1949 book Rural Artists of Wisconsin (UW Press), Barton wrote about a number of the wonderfully talented artists and crafts people who stepped forward from farms and villages.

In 1942 Barton made an important decision. He hired Schwalbach, who was still writing radio scripts for Let’s Draw and also teaching art at Whitewater State College, to oversee the fledgling Rural Art Shows and to become UW Extension Division’s first director of rural art programming. The goal was to set up a series of regional exhibits around the state in which rural artists could show off their work and be recognized—and to encourage the formation of local arts clubs that would keep the momentum going.

It was an inspired move. Schwalbach was good with people and took many of the same program devices that he (and Claxton before him) used in the children’s radio show and applied them to adults. He invited artists of all skill levels to enter their works in a one-to-three day local exhibit, which included a lecture or workshop by an accomplished artist who also judged and critiqued the works. The local winners sent their pieces to Madison to be entered in a statewide exhibit (just as the school children did); and when the show was over, the prize-winning works became part of a traveling show that circled the state—much like the early Round Robin circulation of student art.

The enthusiasm that surrounded the early regional shows prompted the formation in the 1940s and ’50s of many community art associations such as the Jack Pine Artists of Rhinelander, the Rural Rembrandts of Wautoma, the Wisconsin Valley Artists Association of Wausau, and the Lancaster Art Club. From these local clubs evolved a statewide organization of non-professional artists, the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association (WRAA), which continues to thrive as do many of the original clubs. As people from city and suburbs began to take part in the rural shows, the name of the exhibits was changed accordingly to “Town and Country” shows, and later to Wisconsin Regional Art Program (WRAP) shows. There is currently an average of twenty WRAP shows per year, organized by UW–Madison Continuing Studies and supported by the volunteers of the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association.

Schwalbach was appointed a Specialist in Art and Design at UW in 1945 and later became Director of UW Extension Art. Wearing both his Let’s Draw hat and his rural art show hat, he traveled thousands of miles annually around the state up through the 1960s, visiting classrooms, attending and helping to organize art shows, teaching silk-screening and craft techniques at various UW Extension classes, and giving advice to art club members wherever he went. To many people, Schwalbach was and always will be “Mr. Art.”


A Change In Demand

From the late 1950s onward, a variety of things began to take a toll on classroom demand for School of the Air. For one thing, television was catching on as a new and captivating medium for classroom instruction.

There were also key retirements of beloved radio personalities in the mid-1950s. Wakelin McNeel retired as Ranger Mac and his slot was filled by the Wonderful World of Nature with UW Wildlife Ecology professor Robert Ellarson. After twenty-four years, “Pop” Gordon retired in 1955 at age eighty, having taught music to almost a million children. His show was replaced by Let’s Sing with Norm Clayton and Lois Dick, which ran for another nineteen years. (Up to the end, on-air music lessons were among the most valued.) Let’s Draw continued to 1970, but by 1968, its enrollment was only 34,600, down from 120,000 ten years prior.

But, as Wisconsin author Jerry Apps describes in his book One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (Amherst Press, 1996), the overall decline in program listeners was likely due to the consolidation of rural school districts and a shrinking rural population.

Since the early 1900s the state had urged school districts to close their multitude of one-room schools and to bus children to larger, centrally located schools that offered grade-appropriate education and facilities and that were more cost effective. Consolidated graded elementary schools and junior highs had expanded academic offerings including full- or part-time art and music teachers, school orchestras and bands, better quality libraries, foreign language classes, and industrial arts. There was growing concern that while the high-school enrollment rate for Wisconsin’s city schools was first in the nation in 1940, our enrollment of rural boys in high school ranked 37th and rural girls ranked 42nd nationally.

Pressure for consolidation picked up with passage in 1947 of Assembly Bill 255 requiring all counties to form county school committees for the purpose of drawing up consolidation plans. If the committees did not submit plans by 1951, they would be dissolved by the state and new committees formed. Rural parents resisted as long as they could, cherishing the little schools at the heart of their crossroads communities. The last few one-room schools, many of which had just received electricity and indoor plumbing, reluctantly closed in 1959. With their closure went a large audience, and a major reason for the genesis of School of the Air.

By 1971 WHA-AM, WLBL-AM, and all the state-owned FM stations had become members of National Public Radio. Three years later School of the Air had left WHA-AM and was carried only on FM. As talk radio became a larger part of WHA’s format, the remaining school programs were shifted to the Subsidiary Communications Authorization Service (SCA) airwaves. SCA was a part of the FM system but required a special receiver to catch and record the broadcasts. The last School of the Air programs aired over SCA in 1995.

Today as Wisconsin schools struggle with increasing class sizes, troubling high school dropout rates, and chronic achievement gaps between white and minority students (particularly in urban schools), it might be time to return to the great experiment that was the Wisconsin School of the Air.

Or something like it.

Could online lessons that stress a human touch, as the familiar voices did so well on School of the Air, be part of the answer? Could radio find a new life in the classroom? With today’s multitude of communication technologies, can we set aside the glitz and choose those that truly stimulate children to imagine, create, and be part of a larger community—three things that were special gifts of Wisconsin’s School of the Air?

It’s something to think about.

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Jean M. Lang of Middleton worked for many years as a science writer and editor at UW–Madison and directed a science writing training program for graduate students.

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