Textbooks of the Air

Long before there were podcasts, there were attempts to use the radio as a way to distribute educational programming.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Remote learning. If you have kids and are at all familiar with the ebbs and flows of the remote education process, you probably realize it kind of sucks, that for all of its innovation, it puts distance between learners and educators—which is a good thing when you’re dealing with a once-in-a-century disease, but not so great when you’re trying to maximize the learning process. Nonetheless, when you get a distance from that learning process, remote education can feel extremely innovative, even in its most rudimentary forms. Distance learning is something that, when it first emerged, felt like a new frontier—even at a time when that frontier admittedly was a bit limited compared to what we have today. Especially when all we had to push it forth was the radio dial. Today’s Tedium tries its best to capture the excitement of educational radio in the 1920s and 1930s—even though, in a world of podcasts, we’d probably take it for granted today. — Ernie @ Tedium


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Before college radio became the domain of indie rock, it was the domain of educational experimenters

If you’re a fan of indie music, perhaps you found indie rock through your local college radio station. There was a whole friggin’ classic song about it—“Left of the Dial” by The Replacements.

That station, that small beacon of culture, was a useful resource for its community, but perhaps you never thought about why it had emerged in the first place. Perhaps you never asked yourself this, but now seems as good a time as any to ask: Why are there so many student radio stations at colleges?

And the answer might come down to the fact that colleges were very early to radio transmissions, with the first college to experiment with a radio signal of its own being Union College of Schenectady, New York. It began its first experiments with radio around 1915, and by 1920 it was home to one of the first licensed amateur college radio stations in the world, 2ADD—and by 1922, it had a formal license from the U.S. Department of Commerce under the call sign WRL.

Union College Radio

Union College’s radio setup, circa 1920. (Union College/Public Domain)

WRL may be the first radio station to specifically give an educator direct access to a mass audience. Union College allowed physics professor Dr. Peter I. Wold the chance to lecture a radio audience on a topic—in his case, the then-current political situation with China. (Wold had taught at a college in China previously.)

But while Union College was certainly a pioneer, others could make credible claims about how early they were to the early use of radio in education. In 1915, for example, the University of Wisconsin went on the air with 9XM, a radio station that evolved into the licensed WHA by 1922. As a 50th anniversary retrospective puts it:

WHA is among those pioneer stations whose descendants still exist today. Our claim as “the oldest station in the nation” does not diminish the achievements of others, nor do their claims diminish ours. We were all responsible for the birth of broadcasting.

WHA was early to the game, no doubt, but there’s little proof that it had traditional audio broadcasts before 1921—before that, the station was used for purely utilitarian purposes, and often shared information over Morse Code. Nonetheless, the fact that there was such debate over who was first reflects the fact that there was real excitement about radio in education circles.

Perhaps for that reason, it wouldn’t be long until radio was seen as a potentially transformative technology for education. After all, we were literally talking about the first truly real-time technology for distributing education to many people. And there were lots of people who saw that as a truly groundbreaking thing—especially at levels below the college level.

None of those voices were quite as prominent, however, as B.H. “Uncle Ben” Darrow—a figure who emphasized the importance of radio in the way Steve Jobs spoke so highly of computers.


The year that the Chicago radio station WLS first began airing The Little Red Schoolhouse of the Air, one of the most prominent early attempts to bring education to the masses through the new medium. The idea, funded by Sears, Roebuck and Company, was one of the first in the country, and gave educators in Chicago and Cook County the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of students with lessons throughout the listening area. The experiment, led by Darrow (who served as “schoolmaster”), ultimately faltered after Darrow switched jobs, but he would eventually emerge as the champion of the education-by-radio movement.

School of the Air

Students listen in to Ohio School of the Air geography broadcast. (from Radio: The Assistant Teacher)

The man whose passion for radio-driven learning sparked one of the earliest EdTech movements

As I was digging into this topic, I ran across a book which may, perhaps, be the most fascinating document of a movement written by its biggest proponent I’ve ever seen.

This book, titled Radio: The Assistant Teacher, is essentially B.H. Darrow advocating for this concept that he was one of the very first people to successfully develop. But what he didn’t know was that there were at least five other attempts during the same period. None of the educators in other regional markets knew that the other efforts were being undertaken.

Having spent his time developing an educational radio concept in one of the largest markets in the country, he saw what worked in these early efforts and what didn’t.

We have seen a number of school broadcasts “picked green.” The time was not ripe. In general their promoters had either underestimated the difficulties of the task or their enthusiasm had led them to make the attempt too woefully understaffed and underfinanced. Nothing but supreme promotional skill could have saved them. Ability to raise money was probably the prime need. Also, it must be remembered that perhaps not one of these efforts was made with any knowledge of similar broadcasts having failed or being then in existence. Each effort was a pioneering one—blazing a lonesome trail.

Darrow, a former educator himself, would quickly prove himself to be the person to turn this idea into something of a movement, turning his early attempts to build a regional educational radio service into a later statewide effort in Ohio.

That effort, in many ways, became Darrow’s legacy. In 1929, he helped to develop the Ohio School of the Air, which aimed to bring courses on primary and secondary school topics to students across the state of Ohio.

Ohio Radio

Ohio Education Director John L. Clifton listens into Ohio School of the Air with the state’s governor, Myers Y. Cooper. (from Radio: The Assistant Teacher)

It took Darrow a lot of work to sell the idea—apparently, according to a later retelling of the story, Darrow was told by a prominent educator that it was “the craziest idea that anybody ever came into this office with.” But that didn’t stop him, in part because he had seen the positive results in the Chicago area. He managed to get the idea on the air, where it found hugely diverse audiences, not only among the school-age students that the programming was actually designed for, but the parents and adults that could also hear the signals—because they had access to the same dials as everyone else.

Darrow noted that parents who heard the programming became advocates for it, which led even skeptical teachers to give the idea a chance:

But like the baseball pitcher who knocks out winning runs for his team, radio saved itself by ministering to the homes of the nation directly. Not only mothers, who of course can listen to a daytime broadcast in greatest number, but also other members of the family listened. Night time workers, telegraph operators in lonely towers, captains on lake BIM ocean vessels, other men during illness, listened, were convinced of its value land became promoters of radio education. Radio, while directing its program to the classroom, simultaneously carried its case straight to the court of last resort, the fathers and mothers for whom the whole educational fabric is woven. Their interest in education is often deeper than that of the educationalist, though admittedly the school man may be the better informed.

Darrow kept the initiative he started going for nearly a decade, but the initiative was prematurely killed as a result of budget cuts by the Ohio state legislature. (He would soon find himself in Buffalo, starting up a radio-education program there.)

But despite its premature death, the Ohio School of the Air proved a deep influence on others that helped take the idea significantly further than he was able to.


The number of students nationwide that listened to a “School of the Air” program at the effort’s peak, according to educational writer William Bianchi. The initiative, while largely forgotten about today, found success between 1929 and 1975, with some programs even continuing well into the 1990s.

American School of the Air

A shot of the American School of the Air, a CBS radio program from the 1930s and 1940s. (Library of Congress)

How successful were Schools of the Air, anyway?

Despite the premature death of Ohio’s statewide initiative, Darrow’s work proved deeply influential—so much so that commercial radio broadcasters took note of what he was doing.

While broadcasts from the Ohio initiative appear to have not been digitized (lots of documentation has, however), some of these other initiatives can be found easily online.

Before 1950, both the CBS and NBC radio networks frequently experimented with their own educational radio programs, with both taking inspiration from Darrow’s attempts in Ohio. CBS’ effort, The American School of the Air, aired for nearly two decades during the 1930s and 1940s. (Above is a presentation of Romeo & Juliet that aired with that program in 1936.)

NBC, meanwhile, tried a series of different programs starting in 1923 under the University of the Air banner, with the final edition in that long series appearing in 1951. (Above is a discussion about the works of Walt Whitman.)

The idea even found success in other countries, with one of the most popular initiatives appearing in Australia, where the programming was seen as a way to help isolated students more effectively learn. The concept still lives on today, thanks in part to organizations like the Alice Springs School of the Air.

In a way, it’s telling that radio-based education started to fade out to some degree starting around the 1950s, at a time when television was just starting to enter our lives.

Some educational observers, like academic Larry Cuban, saw the struggles that radio faced with funding and continued success and suggested that it showed that there were real limitations there.

“By 1945, radio sets had failed to become “as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.” Nor had they achieved this by the 1950s, when the enthusiasm for television kindled the dreams of another generation of school reformers,” Cuban wrote in his 1986 book Teachers & Machines. “By then, research and journal articles on radio in the classrooms had virtually disappeared. Few commercial radio networks and stations retained their school broadcasts. The promise of radio as a teaching tool, where ‘the roof of the classroom has been blown off and the walls have been set on the circumference of the globe,’ failed to materialize by the time instructional television gripped the imagination of policy makers and educators.”

(Cuban, it should be noted, has not been afraid to critique the push to bring new technology to education. He once wrote a book about computers titled Oversold & Underused.)

Others saw more symbols of success by looking deeper into the archives. Big wins were certainly out there, if you knew where to look. William Bianchi pointed to the work of the Wisconsin School of the Air in particular, which stayed active for nearly half a century before eventually fading out. It nonetheless showed staying power at a time when many similar programs in the U.S. were starting to lose steam.

“By the late 1940s, well after the network SOAs had ceased, the WSA offered a curriculum of programs that attracted nearly one-third of Wisconsin’s K-8 school students,” he wrote.

One of the reasons Wisconsin’s effort succeeded while other programs of its kind failed was because the program was built to actually track audience rates, by having teachers sign up for programs their students would take part in. That allowed WSA to successfully make the case that the program was worth funding in the long term.

(And hey, there’s even a program on Wisconsin Public Radio right now, University of the Air, that carries some of those educational vibes to the modern day.)

So yes, this groundbreaking idea was influential for a time—and even carries on in some ways, in the form of talking books—but the second that the television started to gain steam, even on wobbly audiovisual carts, that was when radios started to fall out of the conversation.

“When the eye and the ear have been remarried in television then we shall indeed be challenged to open wide the school door.”

— B.H. Darrow, expressing his thoughts on television’s gradual role in supporting education in the classroom, something that turned out to be right, but perhaps didn’t account for the gradual dumbing down of television that started to occur in the ’90s—nor, perhaps, the rise of podcasting. Darrow had a vision, but he could only see so far.

I think the thing that we should all take from this early era—particularly Ben H. Darrow’s absolute excitement for this once-emerging medium—is that context matters when it comes to innovation.

As noted by the title of the book that he wrote about the Ohio initiative, he actively pitched the radio program not as a replacement for teachers, but a tool that they could use within the classroom. If students just so happened to learn via radio outside the classroom, great. But that wasn’t the goal—at least with Darrow’s effort.

(In other parts of the world, like Australia, where the remote element was more important, it actually held up a bit better, something I don’t think is an accident.)

When remote learning became one of the tell-tale experiences of the COVID-19 era, it felt like a frustrating kludge because it was the only option rather than the flexible option. And that meant that everyone—even students that would not thrive by leaning on such an experience—were stuck with it.

But if Zoom had been one option of many, just as radio was an additional option to educate the masses in the 1920s and 1930s, it likely would have been better received.

I always think about the thought experiment of what might have happened if COVID happened decades earlier. It’s true that the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 happened immediately before the rise of educational radio, meaning that we just missed an important test case for this, but I do think it would have been interesting to see how it might have been received.

Would it have been seen as enough to keep education going during a time of pandemic? Is it possible that two-way radio formats, rather than one-to-many formats like AM radio, would’ve become more popular tools in this theoretical remote world, that ham radio might’ve become more than just an amateur pursuit?

And on the flip side, if it was received poorly, would it have turned us off from listening to educational radio formats? Would consumer distaste have led to a slowdown in innovation around radio after the fact? And would it have been perceived as a highly innovative tool for education if it was one of the few options?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I kept thinking bout how we were actually kind of lucky that it happened when it did in a way, because the technology had caught up to the point where it was a realistic option to actually do things like work or learn remotely. But I do wonder how we might have adapted the latest technologies of the 1920s and 1930s to meet the moment. In many ways, Zoom won because it was close enough to what many people needed that they made it work.

Something tells me “Uncle Ben” Darrow, and others like him, might have just figured out a way to make education over the radio into a workable thing.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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