Educational Radio’s First
Rural Radio Station
This article appeared in Public Telecommunication Review, Sept.-Oct., 1979.
WBKY used amplitude modulation (AM) on 42.9 MHz.
A poignant account of the WBKY experiment, 1940-41,
reconstructed from the original programming materials and filed-away
memories of the station’s program director.
Ruth Foxx Newborg was program director of WBKY, Beattyville, Kentucky,
during 1940-41. After the Station went off the air, she worked as a
continuity editor at a commercial station in Atlanta, Georgia. For
seven years, she served as director of women’s activities for WGAR,
Cleveland, and later worked for WFIL in Philadelphia for five years,
three in radio and two in television. She now lives in Medford, New
This is the story of the first educational radio station in the United
States established to serve a rural community. It’s the story of an
experiment that failed in its initial purpose but succeeded beyond
expectations in its influence on educational broadcasting across the
nation. The call letters were WBKY. The year, 1940. The location
was an isolated region in the mountains of eastern Kentucky where
electricity had not yet arrived. I served as program director during
the station’s eight-month life, and this is what happened as I
Using listening centers for reception, this educational station was
the dream and creation of Elmer C. Sulzer, who was then director of
radio for the University of Kentucky and who later won the George
Foster Peabody Award. Sulzer’s idea of establishing listening centers
in the Kentucky mountains grew out of a 1930 census which showed that
there were eleven radio sets in one county, eight in another, and
still fewer in others.
Elmer Sulzer saw an opportunity to do some good with the University of
Kentucky broadcasts from their studios in Lexington, and in 1933 he
began to install radio sets in homes and stores throughout the entire
mountain area. These battery-operated sets were the gift of The
Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. As the stocky, energetic
Sulzer trudged his way from cabin to cabin carrying the first radio
sets, a dream began to grow in his mind--a dream of establishing an
educational station in the mountains with programs geared to the
particular needs of the local people.
The rugged Kentucky mountain people among whom Sulzer traveled had
earned a reputation for being proud and independent. Many were of
Anglo-Saxon stock who had settled in the wilderness of the
Appalachians. While most of the mountain men and women could neither
read nor write, they composed and sang ballads about happenings--
about feuding families and miners' unrest. Most of them eked out a
meager existence from what arable soil they could find. It was to
these people that Elmer Sulzer wanted to bring information and
entertainment via radios located in listening centers.
I first met Elmer Sulzer in 1938. I was a sophomore at the University
of Louisville and had been appointed student director of radio
activities. During my freshman year, I had worked part time at WHAS,
the 50,000-watt clear channel station in Louisville, and later had
attended the summer Radio Workshop of New York University.
Once a week the University of Louisville broadcast a half-hour program
over WHAS, which I wrote and directed. In contrast to this schedule,
the University of Kentucky, which had its own studios at Lexington,
broadcast over Mutual’s national and southern networks, WHAS and WLAP,
presenting a total of nineteen programs weekly. I was impressed with
their programming and wrote to Mr. Sulzer, asking permission to sit in
on their productions.
I spent one day at the University of Kentucky studios. On that visit
I saw a wall mural depicting a mountain listening center with two
children sitting in front of a radio set with obvious pleasure. For
the first time I learned of the mountain work that the University of
Kentucky was conducting.
JUNE 1940. I graduated from the University of
Louisville, and in July, Elmer Sulzer wrote and invited me to visit a
mountain center with him. We made the trip in August. As I entered
the mountain world, I found the people to be friendly and
It was during this trip that Sulzer told me about his plans for the
first educational radio station for a rural community. The call
letters were to be WBKY, located in Beattyville, Lee County, and
scheduled to go on the air in October. The listening centers had
worked out well. Now he hoped that the time might come when the
educational and cultural programs might be localized to fit the needs
of individual counties. WBKY was to become the first unit in what was
expected to be a chain of broadcasting units covering the counties in
which they were located. Lee County was chosen for the first local
station because it was small in area, not too rugged in topography
because of the cooperation of the school authorities of Beattyville
and Lee County.
WBKY would be a 100-watt station broadcasting in the educational band
on a frequency of 42,900 kilocycles designed to cover the entire
county. An ordinary radio set would not be able to pick up the
programs on this ultra short-wave frequency, so the University would
provide specially designed short-wave battery receiving sets to be
placed in the schools. Since I had not been trained in the technical
aspects of broadcasting, this explanation seemed logical. It never
occurred to me it wouldn't work. Obviously, it never occurred to
To comprehend the difficulty of receiving radio programs on
battery-operated sets from a 100-watt UHF transmitter, it is necessary
to understand the topography of the area. The entire eastern quarter
of Kentucky is the region of the mountains. While the highest point
in the state is Big Black Mountain which rises 4,145 feet, almost all
of the mountain region belongs to the Allegheny plateau province, a
rugged area with narrow valleys and sharp ridges which seldom rise
more than 1,500 feet above sea level. Most of the homes and schools
were nestled in the valleys surrounded by sharp ridges.
This topography was to prove the insurmountable obstacle to the
success of this visionary experiment, that, plus the lack of money to
keep WBKY functioning in the mountains until the reception problems
were which they never were.
After explaining the project, Sulzer asked if I would consider being
program director. My duties would be to exercise general supervision,
write or edit all continuities, train announcers, rehearse and produce
presentations, and prepare teachers' aids to be used by the county
school teachers in adapting their work to the WBKY classroom programs.
My salary would be $80 per month. Seeing this project as a
tremendous challenge, I gave an immediate yes.
"Now," Sulzer replied, "I have to sell you to the Lee County Board of
Education, for they will pay your salary." (In 1940, the average
teacher’s salary in Lee County was $72 per month, which would make
my salary high by comparison.) Sulzer succeeded, and I moved to Lee
County in September--twenty-two years old, fresh out of college,
professionally trained in radio, and city bred. My knowledge of
mountain people came from reading The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and
Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, and from listening to ballads of
feudin' families. The good people of Lee County never knew I prepared
for my mountain assignment by learning to hit a bull’s eye with a 22
caliber pistol, which I carried with me at all times.
At the time I moved to Lee County, it was rated a pauper county.
Besides the state funds, which amounted to $47,500, the only other
revenue was from local taxation. The county received about
$31,000 from local taxes, and half of this amount was paid by
corporations which were assessed by the state. This gave Lee County
an annual income of about $80,000. Indebtedness amounted to
approximately $45,000, which included obligations for the county
high school building bonds. Farming, the chief industry, consisted of
attempting to grow crops in light, thin soil on hillsides which
constantly eroded with the weather. The only other industry was oil
and coal mining in meager amounts. In an area of 199 square miles,
there was a total population of 9,600.
Throughout the county, there were 38 one-teacher schools, 15
two-teacher schools, 1 three-teacher school, and 2 four-teacher
schools. Of these 56 schools, 54 were without electricity. The
Beattyville Grade School had eight teachers, and the Lee County High
School had a faculty of fourteen. The total school enrollment was
3,000, with 400 in high school.
Instruction was given from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The elementary school year
ran seven months, closing in February so the children could help with
spring planting. The high school ran nine months. Average
qualifications of Lee County teachers were two and a half years of
college plus three years' experience.
Beattyville, the county seat, lay in a small valley surrounded by
mountainous terrain. On one side ran the river, where the North Fork
and the South Fork joined to form the Kentucky River. I lived on a
small dirt road off Main Street in a three-room duplex. A pot-bellied
stove in the livingroom and a coal-burning iron stove in the the
kitchen furnished heat. The bathroom was outside, and there was no
When I arrived a few weeks before WBKY was scheduled to go on the air,
three jobs waited: the dedication program, two hours of programming
each day following the dedication, and planning the in-school programs
as soon as the receivers arrived. Sam B. Taylor, Lee County
superintendent of schools, introduced me to the school board comprised
of Lucian Durbin, chairman, Mrs. John H. Abner, Mrs. Melvin D.
Kincaid, Clay Cole and Everett Snowden. My engineer, Bob Smallwood,
who owned the only radio operator’s license in the county, also set
the linotype and contributed editorials to the local paper, the
Beattyville Enterprise. On Saturdays, he became the town’s commercial
WBKY was located in the Beattyville Grade School, which stood on a
hill off Main Street. The auditorium was two stories high, with a
stage at one end which served as the main studio. On the second
floor, a narrow corridor ran behind the stage, with a small room at
each end. The first room was my office and doubled as a studio for
individual speakers. The far room housed the small transmitter (or
"sending apparatus," as it was called) designed by Orrin Towner, chief
engineer of WHAS. A large window faced the stage below, and it was
from there that I directed the programs in the method I had been
The Radio Workshop I had attended at New York University had been
staffed with top professionals from NBC, CBS and the Mutual networks.
We were instructed in scriptwriting production, types of microphones
and where to place them, sound effects and correct speech. The
workshop was run by the iron hand of Robert Emerson, director of the
Radio Department at NYU.
At the University of Louisville, I had worked at WHAS, a clear channel
network affiliate which operated by professional standards. As a
result, every program on WBKY was written, rehearsed and timed to the
second, for the simple reason that I didn't know any other way.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17, 1940. At 7:30 p.m., WBKY went
on the air.
Preceding the dedication, press releases went to The Courier-Journal
and The Louisville Times, the Lexington papers and others across the
country. That day the Beattyville Enterprise printed a 9 x 14-inch
salute reading, "Congratulations! Radio Station WBKY--The First
Educational Station in the United States Ever to be Established to
Serve a Rural Community." The press releases started: "Almost a
score of important personages in the field of education, radio, and
government have been invited to participate in the dedication of one
of the most unique radio stations in the United States,"
I wrote the dedication program (except for the speeches given by the
guests). Either I anticipated the eventual closing of WBKY, or I
hastened it along, for my dedication script placed the benediction at
the opening of the program and the invocation at the closing.
Fortunately, the two ministers appearing placed them in the right
No receivers were out, but the auditorium was packed with townspeople
and Lee County families. At precisely 7:30, the announcer stepped to
the microphone and said:
Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is radio
station WBKY, Beattyville, Kentucky, owned by the University of
Kentucky and operated in cooperation with the Lee County Board of
Education, broadcasting tonight for the first time on a federally
authorized frequency of 42,900 kilocycles. This initial program
tonight over WBKY heralds a significant occasion and marks the
fruition of plans that have been formulated and carried to completion
during the past few years.
Mr. Sulzer began by tracing the background and purpose of WBKY,
including an enlarged plan of vision for the schools of the county and
a cultural enrichment for everyone concerned. Orrin Towner, chief
engineer of WHAS, described the transmitter. Then the state director
of the National Youth Administration spoke about the radio receivers
to be placed in the county schools in the near future. Lee County
Superintendent of Schools Sam B. Taylor stated, "With the coming of
supervised radio education to Lee County’s schools, the classroom life
of each child will be considerably enriched." Dr. David Young spoke
in behalf of the University of Kentucky.
For music, I had contacted the Lee County Rhythmic Stringsters who
lived at a place not far from Beattyville where two forks of a creek
came together, Dead Wolf and Granny Dismal. They played "Ragtime Ann,"
"In Heaven With Father," and "Chinese Breakdown." Edward Updyke,
principal of the Beattyville Grade School, sang "The Sunshine of Your
Smile," and Mrs. Charles Beach, a pianist and wife of the bank
president, played "Le Carillon."
Several local community leaders welcomed the coming of WBKY, and a
congratulatory letter from James Lawrence Fly, chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission, was read: "In a field clamoring for
development, this new venture already stands out as a concrete
achievement of real significance." Once the prayers were put in the
right order, the dedication program rolled smoothly to completion. The
following day, newspaper headlines proclaimed, "Radio Station At
Beattyville Goes On Ether."
As preparation for the in-school programs, I sent questionnaires to
the county schools soliciting suggestions. To the question, "Which
occupations would your students be interested in learning?" farming
was first, followed by teaching, nursing, mining, lumbering and, in
one instance, aviation. The music they wanted to hear was folk songs
and hymns. To the question, "Which magazines and books do your
students read?" one answer was, "Anything they can get." and another
was, "Don't have any." All were enthusiastic about presenting a
program of their own. One teacher wrote, "I think if the radio
programs are carried out, they can be of great help to both teacher
and pupil. The pupils are very interested." The county schools were
ready to listen and to participate. They never did.
Almost as soon as WBKY went on the air, Mr. Taylor and the school
board began inquiring about the school receivers. Within a month, I
had sent an urgent letter to Sulzer, who answered immediately:
I received your drastic letter this morning. . .it would
have been a simple thing for me to have slapped together the sixty
required battery receivers when we first developed a set that would
approximately do what we wanted such a set to do. However, that would
have been far from sensible, as we have a definite budgeted amount of
money to spend on these receivers, and we cannot make a mistake unless
Lee County wants to be stuck with some bad receivers for all time.
This is a case where making haste slowly is the wise thing. . .
He went on to say a revised model would be ready for testing by the
end of that week. It wasn't.
For reasons of his own--I presume money--Sulzer had turned to the
National Youth Administration for help in designing the receivers.
This federal agency, created to aid American youth between the ages of
sixteen and twenty-four, was established in 1935 by President
Roosevelt, who set aside $50 million for the nationwide project.
Young people under the NYA were paid for their work while training on
the job. High school students received $6 monthly, and college
students up to $15 per month. It’s possible that Sulzer had
students in his radio department who were receiving NYA assistance.
There’s no doubt that he had great faith in the NYA and its young
people; but, regrettably, the young people being helped by this
federally authorized program apparently were not technically trained
to design a battery-operated radio receiver to pick up programs from a
100-watt transmitter operating on a frequency of 42,900 kilocycles in
a terrain of peaks and valleys. I'm not sure anyone could have
Meanwhile, the programming continued, awaiting the receivers. For the
adult programs, I turned to the townspeople of Beattyville. While Lee
County was rated a poverty county, there was an educated nucleus with
an incredible community spirit in Beattyville that made the programs
on WBKY possible. The Beattyville Woman’s Club, founded in 1895, was
the oldest organization in town. There was an active Masonic Lodge
and an Eastern Star Chapter, a Kiwanis Club, PTA, and an excellent
county agent. There were the teachers, most of whom were held in
abeyance until the in-school programs started. All were willing to
volunteer their services.
Programs were live and divided generally into fifteen-minute segments
(rather fourteen minutes and thirty seconds, with thirty seconds for
station breaks). I drew up two typewritten pages of instructions for
speakers, ten written instructions for announcers, and twelve rules
and regulations for WBKY. I wore a stopwatch on a cord around my neck
and managed to find a huge pendulum clock with a second hand which
hung on the wall of the auditorium stage. Occasionally, we had
half-hour programs, and on certain days we carried the University of
Kentucky College of Agriculture from WHAS and another half-hour
University program from WLAP in Lexington. We had no transcriptions
and very few records.
The basic programs settled into the following: a daily fifteen-
minute newscast written and presented by Walter Sale, English teacher
at the Lee County High School. Without a wire service, Mr. Sale
would write his newscasts from newspapers and then analyze the events
in a way Lee County families could understand. World War II was
sweeping Europe, and the United States had just started the Lend-
Lease program. These newscasts were perceptively clear and concise,
going from international to national to local, including sports.
T. H. Jones was county agent for Lee County, where farmers depended
for a living on the generally poor soil. The name of his
fifteen-minute program was Living From the Farm, and his advice was
vital and sound, stressing improving the soil and increasing
production by using the latest agricultural research. His programs
also included war references, one mentioning, "A trip through the
county last week revealed that our farmers, farm women, boys and girls
are in the fields from early morn until night, making every hour
Cumberland National Forest, nearby, presented a most remarkable
program on conservation. It was titled Uncle Billy’s Cross-Roads
Store, and the setting was a store at Bear Track. This was a program
"devoted to the woodlands of this country, to the timber they give,
their natural beauty, and to the many blessings they bring." A staff
member at Cumberland National Forest wrote this fifteen-minute script
each week and sent it to WBKY for presentation. It was written in
pure mountain dialect and included basic good sense on conservation.
The part of Uncle Billy was played by Edward Updyke, principal of the
Beattyville Grade School.
Another standard fifteen-minute program was The Freeman Family, a
serial about a typical Lee County family with all the events that
happened in every home. I wrote it. Henry Freeman, the father, was
played by Sam B. Taylor, superintendent of schools; Sarah, the mother,
by Mrs. Jim Bishop, an active member of the Baptist Church; Miss Rose,
the school teacher, by Edna Porter, president of the Beattyville
Woman’s Club; and Grandma, by Miss Mabel Beatty, an elementary school
teacher. The children of the family were played by school children
who volunteered for the parts.
Each Friday, Reverend George E. Long, rector of the St. Thomas
Episcopal Church, conducted The Church in the Mountains, a fifteen-
minute religious talk.
Around these standard programs were volunteer programs by the
dozens--all written, timed and presented with great care. The
volunteers not only wanted to help a community project; they enjoyed
broadcasting. It was an event in small-town life to appear in a
studio, see the red light go on, the director’s hand drop (indicating
they were on the air), and then perform. Everyone was doing it. Judge
Treadway talked about the law, Coach Wendall Boxley about sports, Mary
Elizabeth Begley about hobbies, the Mountain Sky Liners played, the
Sunshine Girls sang, Edna Porter talked about women in the news, and
Mrs. Charles Beach gave an excellent talk on the importance of posture
during National Posture Week.
WBKY publicized Cancer Control, Crippled Children’s Drive, the Red
Cross, Boy Scouts, and W. P. A. The station broadcast the graduation
ceremonies of Beattyville Grade School, meetings of the Tenth District
of the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers and the Kiwanis
International Service program. Beattyville became the most
radio-oriented small town in the country. And no one heard them.
In January, Mr. Sulzer informed me that he and Mr. Richards of the
National Youth Administration were bringing up a receiver for final
testing. He wrote, "It looks like things will move ahead at whirlwind
speed from now on, for which I am glad, and I have a sneaking
suspicion that you are too."
The next day, The Courier-Journal carried a press release:
Almost two years of research have gone into the perfection of the
radio receivers which will be put into each of the county schools of
Lee County. The new sets will consist of three tubes and will be
powered by a single battery unit. Only two set controls, an on-off
switch and a volume control, will be required. The loud speaker will
be separated from the set and housed in its own unit, thus permitting
a variety of locations of the loud speakers to meet the situations of
the various school rooms. As soon as a majority of the Lee County
schools have their sets installed, programs directed to the schools
will be broadcast.
Mr. Sulzer and Mr. Richards arrived, and the set was placed for
testing in the general store and post office at Heidelberg, a few
miles from Beattyville. A few days later, I received a note from Mrs.
Cecil, owner of the store.
Dear Miss Foxx,
Another letter followed from Mrs. Mina Finch.
We had about twenty listeners yesterday, but the program came in so
weak it was impossible for all to hear. ... The program was fine, if
it had been louder.
I would be glad to have a receiving set put here at my
filling station in Zachariah. I have all the crowds. I would be glad
to get WBKY, as my boy plays on it.
To the best of my knowledge, only two receivers were installed in
Beattyville. One was in Congelton’s Hardware and Funeral Store, and
one in the home of Mrs. Rall, president of the PTA. I didn't have
one. Sadly, the superintendent of schools didn't have one in his
office for the school board to hear. It was inevitable that without
receivers and, consequently, without listeners and with only promises
ahead, Lee County, a poverty-rated county, would call an end to this
experiment in educational broadcasting. My $80 per-month salary
was needed to pay bus drivers to transport children to county
FRIDAY, JUNE 27, 1941. WBKY ended its last day of
broadcasting with Reverend George E. Long conducting The Church in the
Mountains with the Christian Church Choir. For the last time, the
volunteer announcer stepped to the microphone and said:
Ladies and Gentlemen, radio station WBKY, the public
service station of the mountains, owned by the University of Kentucky
and operated in co-operation with the Lee County Board of Education on
a federally authorized frequency of 42,900 kilocycles, brings to a
close today’s broadcasting schedule.
The dream had ended. We had tried so hard. Elmer G. Sulzer had
poured his hopes into this idealistic concept of educational
broadcasting to make life better for those who needed it. The
National Youth Administration had made every effort. I had worked to
make it come true. The people of Beattyville had volunteered hours
and hours of their time to make it happen. Through no one’s fault, it
just didn't work.
I left Beattyville. I never saw Elmer Sulzer again. Shortly after, I
went to Atlanta, Georgia, where I became continuity editor of a
commercial station. A year later, in 1942, I read a newspaper article
describing Sulzer’s continuing tract through thirty-five counties of
eastern Kentucky mountains, placing commercially designed receivers in
listening centers tuned to clear channel stations. WBKY moved to
Lexington, Kentucky, where it became the University of Kentucky’s FM
But Elmer G. Sulzer’s dream did not die in 1941. It pointed the path
to the possibilities of broadcasting as a medium of education and
culture to a vast audience that needed it and wanted it as a means to
a better life. Many future educational stations would follow that
Radio Station at Beattyville Goes on Ether
This article appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Oct. 18, 1940.
BEATTYVILLE, Ky., Oct. 18 (Special)--Talks by educators, townspeople,
a technician, and music by a hill billy band were included in the
inaugural broadcast of Kentucky’s newest radio station here Thursday
The station, WBKY, is owned by the University of Kentucky and will be
operated in co-operation with the Lee County board of education in
promoting the educational and cultural affairs of the county.
The new station will broadcast from noon until 2 p.m. daily, devoting
its programs to news, agriculture, health and safety for adults and an
hour broadcast for children which will be planned in connection with
the school curriculum.
The new station is located in the Beattyville graded school building
and will have receiving sets in each of the county’s 56 schools. When
schools are out next February, the sets will be placed in homes near
the school and each home will become a listening center.
Among the speakers on the opening broadcast was Elmer Sulzer, director
of University of Kentucky radio activities, who described the
University’s work in establishing the station.
Other speakers included Russell Bridges, state NYA director; Orrin
Towner, chief engineer of WHAS, Louisville, who assisted in designing
and installing the equipment; Dr. W. S. Taylor, dean of the College of
Education, and David W. Young, of the geology department of the
University of Kentucky.
Townspeople who took part on the initial program were Sam Taylor,
county school superintendent, T. L. Arterberry, Beattyville high
school principal; Mrs. William Porter, president of the Beattyville
woman’s Club; Mrs. C. G. Rall, P. T. A. president; J. D. Rallins, Lee
County Farm bureau president; County Judge G. B. Treadway; the Rev.
George E. Long, rector of the Episcopal church; the Rev. Luther