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The Broadcast Archive

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Marie Zimmerman-- Broadcasting's first female owner

by Donna Halper


When people think of early radio pioneers, I doubt that the name of Marie Zimmerman comes readily to mind, nor does the place where she made history-- Vinton, Iowa. But Vinton, which is near Cedar Rapids, is the location of the first radio station owned and operated by a woman. And, as was the custom in those days, the license holder was listed as "Mrs. Robert E. Zimmerman". I am a broadcast historian who is especially interested in the achievements of women and minorities in early radio, so when I saw the word "Mrs" on the list of licensed stations in 1922, it immediately made me want to know more. Since women were not often written about (nor, sadly, was radio itself-- many cities had newspapers which saw radio as competition, and this seems to have included Vinton), it was a bit of a challenge to find out who this woman was, but I was finally able to do so, and now I can tell her story.

Marie Zimmerman probably did not plan to be a radio pioneer. She and her husband Robert (often called "Zim") were two of the many people bitten by the radio bug in the early 1920s. While KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA is usually called the first radio station (it went on the air in November, 1920), a number of other stations, often run by amateurs, were already broadcasting. Newspaper accounts and articles in QST mention that the Cedar Rapids area had several hams who sent out frequent concerts of phonograph music in the early 1920s. But it was also possible to hear stations such as 1XE in Medford, Massachusetts or XWA in Montreal, as well as stations from Detroit or New York or San Josť. Given the limited number of radio stations in those early days, it is certainly possible that as Zim and Marie listened in on their ham radio set, they heard one of those distant stations. Radio fans would often send QST and Radio News lists of far away stations they had received; it was a very exciting time to be involved with this new medium, as you never knew which stations would be broadcasting that night. Reception varied-- some nights, static drowned out everything, and stations faded in and out. Yet, in spite of that, it was a time when the industry seemed open to just about anyone-- all you needed to do was get a license and build a transmitter.

Marie Ciesielski married Robert Zimmerman in 1915; he was from Illinois originally, and she was from Jesup, Iowa. They were both 21 years old. Marie's parents, Andrew and Julia, had come here from Europe and settled on a farm in Buchanan County, Iowa, where Marie was born in 1894, the second of 11 children. (Although the majority of her family has long since passed away-- her last living brother, Clarence, died in March, 1997 at the age of 88-- several of her sisters in law and some cousins still live in Jesup.) Robert Zimmerman worked as a mechanic and by the early 1920s, he was the city electrician for Vinton. But he was known around town as an avid radio fan. The Cedar Valley Times of March 29, 1922 reported about his 'car radio'-- back then, you had to install a huge antenna (and an equally huge radio), and Zim was one of those who did so. It was evidently quite noticeable around town, and he liked to drive around with Marie and demonstrate how his radio worked. Marie too seems to have been a radio fan, although back in those days it would have been rare for a woman to study electronics-- a few did so (such as pioneering radio engineer and announcer Eunice Randall of 1XE), but most women radio fans got involved with it because their husband or their brother was. Several people from the Vinton area who remembered Robert and Marie Zimmerman recalled that car with the radio receiver in it-- after their station was licensed, they would even send out remote broadcasts, with Robert operating the equipment and Marie doing the announcing. If you lived in Vinton in 1922, your newspapers were the Vinton Eagle or the Cedar Valley Times. You probably went to the Palace Theatre to see the new movies (still called 'photoplays' by some theatres-- movies in those days were silent, and the Palace showed all the popular films, featuring such stars as Ben Turpin and Harold Lloyd. Most theatres also offered some live shows, such as vaudeville or a vocal concert.) The Mayor of Vinton was George N. Urice. And while neither of the local newspapers had its own radio column, the interest in radio prompted the local newspapers to run occasional syndicated columns about how to build your own radio equipment. Like it or not, radio was in the news with increasing frequency, as famous singers and celebrities from all walks of life made their first guest appearance on radio. Even the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, had had his own radio set installed in the White House in February, a Page One story in several major newspapers. By the way, radio wasn't yet officially called 'radio'. Some newspapers still referred to it as 'wireless' or 'radio-telephone', and the word 'broadcast' was not commonly used either-- stations would 'send' a program and the 'air' was still known as the 'ether'.

Robert Zimmerman and his wife Marie were young and hopeful-- as were many radio fans of the early 20s-- and they wanted to put a radio station on the air in Vinton. But money was a problem. In that March 29, 1922 article, Zim explained that he had saved up $150 towards the purchase of the transmitting equipment he would need-- he was ordering it from Rock Island, Illinois. Turning this dream into reality was not going to be as simple as he had originally thought. Commercial advertising was rare in radio's early days, so if you were not owned by a major company, you had to pay for the broadcasts yourself. (Many of the stations owned by entrepreneurs like the Zimmermans would ultimately fail, due to lack of a financial backer; the stations which lasted were often owned by a newspaper or a company that made receivers or perhaps a major store which had a radio department.) But Robert saw a chance and he took it-- he used the interview with the Cedar Valley Times to ask interested radio fans to donate money to help him purchase the rest of the equipment-- he was by his estimate $100 short. Evidently, somebody came through for him (the power of the Cedar Valley Times in action!) because soon, he and Marie were filling out the paper-work to get the new station its license. Since he was an electrician by trade, he built it. But in what was quite surprising for that time, it was Marie to whom the license was issued, and it was she who became the station's manager. On July 21, 1922, a limited commercial license to operate the radio station was issued, and it was assigned the call letters WIAE. It went on the air sometime in the last week of July, and the community must have been delighted. In small towns all over the United States, 1922 was the year when local stations were springing up, and now suddenly, Vinton had one of its own.

Not surprisingly, the local Vinton media did not discuss the opening broadcast of WIAE, but if it was like most cities, the mayor probably made a speech and several local musicians probably entertained. In 1922, stations were not on the air all day, and few were on 7 days a week. Marie sent the schedule of WIAE to Radio Digest, one of the major national radio magazines. She listed the following in mid-August of 1922: WIAE broadcast on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, usually from 9 to 10 pm, with music and news. On Wednesdays at 8pm, there was a band concert; on Sundays at 2.30, there was a concert too. We may also assume that at times, a church service may have been broadcast on Sundays, which was very common for radio in the early 20s. WIAE broadcast at 360 metres, with a power of 40 watts. (Don't let the wattage fool you-- few stations back then had more than 100 watts, and some stations had as little as 5-10 watts. A power of 40 watts would have been quite typical for that time, and it would have allowed the station to carry about 75 miles on a good night.) Like most stations of the early 1920s, WIAE made sure it was involved with local events. When the Benton County Farm Bureau held its picnic, one of the features was the appearance of WIAE. According to the Vinton Eagle of August 25, 1922, City Electrician R. E. Zimmerman was able to secure some remote equipment from the Cedar Rapids Electrical Equipment and Repair Company so that the broadcast could occur. "A large sized radio outfit was installed at the picnic grounds, with the antenna stretched between the lofty tops of two oak trees... the program which came over the wires was easily heard and provided a most pleasing entertainment."

Another place where radio was providing something new was in the realm of politics. For the first time, candidates were able to give speeches to the public via the air-waves -- today, we may regard political speeches as an annoyance, but in 1922, to turn on your radio and hear a famous politician was amazing-- mayors, governors, even senators were stepping in front of the microphone. The Vinton Eagle noted in a front page story on November 7, 1922 that "Vernon J. Youel, Republican candidate for the office of country auditor, is the first Benton County candidate to take advantage of radio in sending out an appeal for support... Mr Youel sent out his appeal from station WIAE, operated by Mrs R.E. Zimmerman..." The story goes on to tell how Mr Youel received phone calls from all over the area after his broadcast, including several from long distances. The story was even picked up by a neighbouring town's newspaper, the Waterloo Courier, which reported that people in Waterloo had received the broadcast too.

Unfortunately for little stations like WIAE, 1922 was the year when more and more big stations, supported by big companies, went on the air. Coverage of WIAE's achievements was overshadowed by the big new station in Cedar Rapids, WJAM, which got much of its equipment from the previously mentioned company the Zimmermans had utilized during the Benton County picnic. WJAM's parent company, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, hired a well-known consulting engineer and spared no expense in putting up a transmitter-- test broadcasts were easily received in Vinton in late July (around the same time that WIAE first went on the air). According to newspaper reports in several area newspapers, WJAM could be heard as far away as Hibbing, Minnesota. WIAE pressed on, doing its best to serve the local area, but gradually, the bigger and better equipped station in Cedar Rapids made inroads. The Gazette ran page 1 articles throughout August, offering free radio sets to anyone who bought a subscription to the newspaper. There were also contests where WJAM listeners could win prizes. And as the year went on, Robert and Marie's car with the radio set in it and the little studio they had in their house were evidently no match for the more polished (and better funded) efforts of WJAM. Still, WIAE had its fans, and radio reception reports in national magazines indicated that the station was heard in other states. But running the station was still a labour of love for the Zimmermans, and it was increasingly more expensive. Ultimately, the money ran out, as it became more and more difficult to pay the bills and keep WIAE on the air. In April of 1923, Marie did not renew WIAE's license (in those days, licenses were renewed every three months). The Department of Commerce officially deleted the station in late June. It had lasted not quite one year.

As for the Zimmermans, they remained in Vinton for a while longer, but ultimately moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Marie stayed in business-- she went to work at a department store and ended up as a buyer. But neither she nor her husband ever built another station, although there is evidence they continued to be interested in ham radio. Her relatives remember her as a cheerful woman who was always willing to help others; after her husband died suddenly in 1946, she moved back to the farm in Jesup to care for her ailing mother, and she also cared for several other siblings. She died in 1973, and her obituary says nothing about her involvement in radio; none of her relatives recall her speaking of it either. However, this is not as unusual as it may seem-- many of radio's early entrepreneurs did not think of themselves as particularly special. They just loved broadcasting and were glad to be a part of it. Marie Zimmerman deserves our thanks for being the first woman to own a station, but she and her husband also brought radio to Vinton and gave local performers a place to be heard. Today we take all of this for granted, but without the energy and creativity of the Robert and Marie Zimmermans of the world, radio might not have achieved such popularity.

I couldn't have found so much information about Marie without help from some wonderful people-- among them Virginia Holsten of the Vinton Public Library, researchers Dennis Reese from Iowa City and Karen Alderson from Marion, The Waterloo and the Kenosha Public Library Reference staffs, Margaret Foster of the Iowa Genealogical Society, and Marie's sisters in law, Dorothy and Lorraine Ciesielski; the photo of Robert and Marie comes from the personal collection of her nephew, Dave Ciesielski.


--- Donna Halper is a famous lecturer and broadcast consultant based in Quincy, MA. Her love of radio history is evident in the way she captures the essence of her subjects.