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 Jersey.

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 remember it.

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 hospitable.

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 Sulzer either.

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 hot water.

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 photographer.

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 taught.

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 order.

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 succeeded.

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 count."

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,

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.

Another letter followed from Mrs. Mina Finch.
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 schools.

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 outlet.

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 path.

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 night.

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 Newman, [...]

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