Radio Homemakers Shared Recipes On the Air in the Early Years of Rural Radio
What Did Plant Seeds and Radio Homemakers Have in Common??
In 1925, two gentlemen trying to come up with an idea to increase sales of their plant seeds stumbled onto an idea that would last for years to come and would drastically change the lives of farm wives of that era.
Earl May, owner of a seed company and E. S. Welch, owner of a nursery believed that radio could greatly enhance their struggling businesses. It would also serve to provide much needed entertainment and information to the residents of their rural area. They constructed radio station KMA in the seedhouse of the May Seed & Nursery Company in Shenandoah, Iowa. Establishing KMA was a bold step for the station founders. They needed listeners and they needed advertisers.
The coming of radio broadcasting had a wide range effect on the social and economic lives of Americans but nowhere was it felt more than in rural areas. Many families lived miles from the nearest town which meant that radio broadcasts offered them a connection to the world.
The first priority was to come up with programming that would appeal to the farmers. That was easily done with farm news and agriculture reports. However, they soon realized it wasn't just the farmers that would tune in to the station. The farm wives were also dedicated listeners.
Isolated on the farm with usually just the children to talk with during the day, the wives longed for entertainment and information concerning topics of interest to them. KMA Radio created programs devoted to gardening advice, recipes, household hints, and child rearing. Ella Murphy gave book reviews, Eva Hopkins had a beauty program and sold the cosmetics she made at home, Lina Ferguson conducted a one hour daily program on flower arranging, and Gertrude May shared inspirational messages. These ladies became known as "Radio Homemakers" and a new era in rural radio was born.
"Kitchen Klatter"- a Radio Homemaker Program
The technology for recording radio programs for broadcast at a later time wasn't available in those days so KMA came up with the idea of installing microphones in the Radio Homemaker's kitchens. Visitors would stop by to chat over the air right from the kitchen table. The first show of this type was called Kitchen Klatter and It would become the longest-running homemaker program in the history of radio. Other programs featured names such as Stitch and Chat Club, Home Hour, Domestic Science, Up a Country Lane and one simply called Visit.
Broadcasting rules were very strict in those days and the Radio Homemakers were not allowed to discuss certain subjects. They talked about household problems and child rearing but were forbidden to talk about "potty training"!
Billie Oakley and Evelyn Birkby were Trusted Voices on the Radio
In the heyday of the Radio Homemaker shows, the programs became extremely popular and were syndicated to radio stations across the Midwest. There were many radio personalities broadcasting such programs. Several had degrees in Home Economics but most were women that relied on their own personal experiences to share on their shows. This created a sense of credibility with the listeners who responded as if they were having a daily visit with a good friend.
I had the pleasure of visiting by phone in 1989 with Billie Oakley, one of the best known of the Radio Homemakers. She was preparing for a trip to New Orleans where she would receive the prestigious Marconi Award from the National Association of Broadcasters. Billie worked at several radio stations during her career and had a syndicated show that was carried on 24 different stations across the region.
Billie and all of the other Radio Homemakers had easy going personalities and were people that their fans could depend on and trust. The listeners became emotionally attached to them and would heed their endorsements of the products they promoted. One of Billie Oakley's sponsors was Bag Balm which is a moisturizer used on cow udders. Billie casually mentioned that she used it herself as a facial cream and the sales in the local drugstore soared from six cans a year to over two thousand! Such was the power of the recommendations of the radio homemakers.
Radio Homemaker Evelyn Birkby on Radio KMA
Book by Evelyn Birkby, One of the Original Radio Homemakers
Later Years Brought Changes to Radio Homemaker Programs
By the 1950s radio broadcasting was undergoing changes. Recorded programs replaced many of the live performances and much of the charm and friendliness of the radio programs was lost. Television was influencing changes in radio with popular entertainment shows like Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan and information sources such as the evening news. However, the Radio Homemakers survived. Kitchen Klatter remained on the air until 1986 which was an impressive 60 year record.
Evelyn Birkby, one of the original Radio Homemakers, still broadcasts on KMA Radio in Shenandoah. She has a limited schedule and is only on the air on the 3rd Thursday of each month. More information about Evelyn is available on her website at www.evelynbirkby.com
Today there are television programs geared toward home and family and they attempt to provide what the Radio Homemakers sought to share. The Internet has brought wonderful communication tools in the form of websites, forums and "blogs", such as Heavenly Homemakers, The Prudent Homemaker and The American Homemaker. They provide a platform for sharing ideas, problems and just plain old conversation with other people with common interests. However, none can replace the unique and down-home friendliness of sharing over the radio from a microphone in a farmhouse kitchen.
At the conclusion of my phone call with Billie Oakley so many years ago, she said, "If you ever get to Shenandoah, Iowa stop by my kitchen for a chat". She promised to keep the microphone turned off!
Click here to listen to a short 30 second clip produced by Iowa Public Television about Evelyn Birkby and her popular radio show, Up a County Lane on KMA radio in Shenandoah, Iowa
© 2011 Thelma Raker Coffone