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Radio Homemakers in the Early Years of Rural Radio
The Beginning of Homemakers on the Air
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 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 could also provide much needed entertainment and information for the residents of their rural area. May and Welch 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 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 reports 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" Program
The technology for recording radio programs for broadcast at a later time wasn't available in those days. 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 became the longest-running homemaker program in the history of radio. Other shows 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 and broadcasters 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
During their heyday, these shows became extremely popular and were syndicated to radio stations across the Midwest. The ladies became well known personalities. A few had degrees in Home Economics but most just 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 these radio stars. 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 her fellow homemakers had likable personalities and were people 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, 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.
Evelyn Birkby on Radio KMA
Later Years Brought Changes
By the 1950s, radio broadcasting was undergoing changes. Recorded programs replaced many of the live performances and much of the charm and friendliness was lost. Television was influencing changes in radio with popular entertainment shows like those hosted by Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan and information sources such as the evening news. However, the radio homemaker shows 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, only going on the air the 3rd Thursday of each month.
The coming of radio broadcasting had a wide range impact on the social and economic lives of Americans and nowhere was it felt more than in rural areas. Many families lived miles from the nearest town which meant radio broadcasts offered them a connection to the world.
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!
© 2011 Thelma Raker Coffone