The History of WKAR Public Media

6 08 2012

Michigan State’s radio station WKAR has a history of outstanding public broadcasting spanning almost 100 years.   The station originated from the work of one student named Paul G. Andrews, who communicated with the east coast via telegraph, in 1917, and the idea was carried on by his fellow student Forrest Phippey and Electrical Engineering Professor Arthur H. Sawyer.  Together, Phippeny and Sawyer expanded on Andrews’ idea.  Before they even formally set up shop in Olds Hall in 1923, the first official broadcast, an hour-long opera entitled “Campus Nights” produced by the students, was transmitted in

Students of MSU and Eastern Michigan University have a live debate on WKAR-TV, a practice which originated on the radio program as early as 1923.

This photograph shows the new WMSB-TV station tower in Onondaga, Michigan in 1959.

March, 1922.  More well-known, however, was the “Founders Day” speech made by President David Friday in May of 1922, where he announced to the Midwest that he planned for the college to grow into, “in a position of leadership in the field of agriculture, home economics, and engineering education.”

WKAR’s progress stalled for a period following its immediate success.  They covered their first football game—M.A.C. vs. Central—in 1924 as well as instituting a program of bedtime stories for children in 1925, but interest waned in the organization until a new face came to MSU in the year of 1934: Robert Coleman.   Before moving to Michigan, Coleman had worked at Ohio State University’s radio station, and upon his arrival he made it his mission to revitalize the WKAR program.  He moved the station to improved facilities in the Auditorium, began reporting on football again, and expanded both the staff and the broadcasting hours.  With the help of both Shaw and Hannah, a separate radio department was created in 1940, and WKAR regularly broadcasted crop reports, weather forecasts, concerts, political speeches, athletic events, and lectures.

The face of WKAR also evolved shortly after this revitalization with the onset of World War II.  Still under the direction of Robert Coleman, the station, “…wrote to both the Michigan governor’s office and the Michigan Defense Council offering WKAR’s services.  The offers were accepted.”  For the duration of the war, radio programs included speeches by President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, as well as government dramas such as You Can’t do Business with Hitler.  Coleman also had various MSU professors on the program to lecture about war issues from their specific fields’ perspective, while still balancing all of these new WKAR additions with sports coverage and classical music.

On January 15, 1954 the radio program’s largest yet transformation occurred when they created WKAR-TV under their departmental jurisdiction.  The new station was the first educational

Shown here is a student filming an MSU football game for WMSB-TV in April, 1959.

television program east of the Mississippi River, and under the direction of Armand L. Hunter they covered campus social events as well as local and state-wide news.  Unfortunately, the innovative system was so advanced at this time as to be inaccessible to most viewers, and the next year they merged to create a public channel under the heading of WMSB.  WKAR Public Media continues to provide MSU students and other listeners with updates on social events, the political on-goings of Michigan, and musical programs, being more active than ever today.  For more information about their organization, visit their website.