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Radio Homemakers in the Early Years of Rural Radio

Updated on October 28, 2017
ThelmaC profile image

Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning writer who enjoys writing on a variety of topics, especially those honoring Veterans.

Notice the "Old Time" Radio in the Corner of this Radio Homemaker's Kitchen
Notice the "Old Time" Radio in the Corner of this Radio Homemaker's Kitchen | Source

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.

A 1950s Homemaker
A 1950s Homemaker | Source

"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

Source

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

Please Post Your Comments About Radio Homemakers Sharing on the Air

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    • profile image

      SandyH 

      5 years ago

      I have heard radio homemakers before and enjoyed the recipes, etc. Very interesting article about them.

    • ThelmaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Thelma Raker Coffone 

      6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      I tuned into KMA Radio yesterday via the internet per Evelyn Birkby's comment above. I almost missed the show because I forgot about the time difference. I live in eastern time zone and KMA Radio is in Iowa which is central time zone. Also, in case you want to listen next month, the show came on at 9:15 instead of 9:30. I just love small town radio!

    • ThelmaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Thelma Raker Coffone 

      6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Evelyn I am thrilled that you took the time to read my article and comment on it. I have enjoyed your book "Neighboring on the Air" for about 20 years. Thank you for telling me about your show broadcast over the internet on the 3rd Tuesday each month. I will definitely be listening!

      Thelma

    • profile image

      Evelyn Birkby 

      6 years ago

      Thank you so much for sharing the story of the radio homemakers. It was an important part of the Midwest life in the period between 1925 and into 1990 when Billie and I were the last of KMA's radio homemakers. I am still o once a month, now on the third TUESDAY of each month at 9:30. You can listen on your computer on KMA RADIO NEWS with the Dean and Don show. I have a brand new book of my favorite newspaper columns coming out in September from the University of Iowa Press entitled, "Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living." Thanks for sharing. Evelyn Birkby

    • ThelmaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Thelma Raker Coffone 

      6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Candice I am thrilled that you found my article about Billie. Please use the contact button on here to send me your email address. I would love to correspond with you!

      Thelma

    • profile image

      Candice 

      6 years ago

      Billie Oakley is my Great Grandmother, i miss her so much. I have all her original cook books, and her recording's!

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi ThelmaC, this is such an interesting hub, really enjoyed reading it, the internet and tv can't quite replace that personal, friendly touch that radio provided, thank you!

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      7 years ago from Germany

      Hi ThelmaC. Welcome to HP and thanks for following me. Listening to the radio in my childhood time was really great that I became fond of it since we did not have TV at that time. Thanks for sharing.

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