Celebrating Women’s History Month

Women in Radio & Television

By Brian Belanger

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The National Capital Radio & Television Museum celebrates Women’s History Month with stories to illustrate how women have influenced radio and television. For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, I recommend highly historian Donna Halper’s book Invisible Stars.*

When radio began roughly a century ago, it was dominated by men, as was the case with many fields of endeavor. Girls were strongly discouraged from pursuing careers in non-traditional fields. In 1929 the American Academy of Political and Social Science published an article about the role of women in the workforce. At the time, only a few vocations, such as nursing, teaching, and secretarial work were viewed as “suitable” career options for most women. The field of radio broadcasting was listed under “odd and unusual fields of work” for females.

Entertainment radio broadcasting began in 1920, the same year that the women’s suffrage movement won the passage of the 19th amendment. A few women had served as wireless operators in World War I and a handful continued to work in radio after the war, but that was rare. During the “Roaring ‘20s” more women were going to college and working in non-traditional occupations. Nevertheless, a woman had high hurdles to overcome if she had an interest in a career in radio, and later, in television.

Photos of radio factories of the 1920s and ‘30s typically show rows of women making small parts and assembling radios. The assumption was that women were more adept at handling small parts and more careful then men. Perhaps they were hired in such large numbers because they were routinely paid less than men.

But even in the earliest days of broadcasting, there were women who made important contributions in radio as manufacturers, engineers, program managers, station owners, announcers, and more. Donna Halper has devoted much of her career to uncovering long-ignored stories of women in broadcasting. Regarding the role of women in early radio, Dr. Halper said, “The more I learned about them, the more I came to believe that these pioneering women broadcasters played an important part in changing our culture: not only did they expand society’s expectations of what women could do, but they also provided a forum for the issues that affected the lives of housewives, children, and career girls.” Radio and television also helped to shape society’s attitudes about the roles of women.

Let’s look at a few examples of women who succeeded in spite of the odds against them.

Hester Erickson Chambers (Radio engineer and manufacturer)

Hester Erickson Chambers was the technical expert behind of one of the first wireless equipment manufac- turing companies in the United States (it may well have been the first).

Around 1905 Hester and her husband Frank founded F. B. Chambers & Co., Philadelphia’s first radio equipment manufacturing company. They began their business, directed at making radio equipment for amateurs in their apartment, but as their business grew, the couple built a factory next door. In addition to offering parts, their catalog advertised “a complete wireless outfit.”

Hester Chambers operating her home wireless station. Photo credit: New York Daily Tribune. April 24, 1910, p. 3

Both Frank and Hester were listed in the city directory as “electrical engineers.” Frank focused on the business aspects of the company and Hester on the technical issues. When a newspaper reporter, preparing a story about the growing company, asked about their individual roles in its success, Frank described his wife’s contributions this way:

“Why, she is the whole thing here. I’m sure we could never make the successful instruments we do make without her. I won’t let anyone else do certain things here, and I wouldn’t even trust myself. And then, too, whenever we get anything new, [she] uses it first. We got a new drill press the other day. She had to bore the first hole. I won’t let anyone touch it until she does. . . And I always have her get the first spark on every transformer, every time.”

Initially, the Federal government devoted little attention to regulating radio, but after 1912, amateur radio operators, or “hams” as they are often called, were required by law to apply for a government license. Hester Chambers was the first woman to receive such a license, early in 1913, although she was on the air at least as early as 1910. Frank began his ham radio operations about the same time.

When they were separated by travel, Hester and Frank stayed in touch via ham radio. The couple’s marriage was egalitarian in an era when that was rare, and when radio technology was considered a man’s domain.

When the United States entered World War I amateurs were required to disassemble their stations, so overnight the market for ham equipment dried up. Seeing an educational opportunity, Hester and Frank created the Chambers Institute of Wireless Telegraphy, one of the nation’s earliest radio vocational schools, where Hester taught radio classes to those interested in military service or government jobs. The demand for classes was so great that Hester taught eleven hour days and developed carpal tunnel syndrome from her long hours demonstrating a Morse code straight key. (For more information see “F. B. Chambers & Co., Evolution of Philadelphia’s First Radio Manufacturer,” by William Goodwin, AWA Review, 2019, pp. 71-98.)

Eunice Randall (Announcer and technician)

Eunice Randall was another radio pioneer. American Radio and Research Company (or AMRAD), a Boston- area manufacturer of radio receivers, hired Randall in 1918, its first and only woman. Initially assigned to do blueprint drafting, she studied radio theory and quickly learned the business of making and designing radios. Soon she was testing and repairing radios that did not function properly. She built her own ham equipment and was one of the few women ham operators to be licensed in that era. When AMRAD decided to launch radio station 1XE, later commercial station WGI, she took her turn behind the microphone and became a popular radio personality as well as the first woman radio announcer in New England. She joined the company’s team of engineers that traveled to trade shows to demonstrate the company’s products. So, Randall became respected among her peers both for her technical prowess as well as her success as an announcer. She was featured in newspaper articles of the time that emphasized the novelty of a “girl” radio engineer who climbed radio towers to make adjustments, while simultaneously being a recognized name on the air.

Eunice Randall, circa 1921, in the studio of station 1XE. Photo Credit: Donna Halper, Invisible Stars.

Marie Zimmerman (Station owner)

The first woman to own a radio station when commercial broadcasting began in the early 1920s was Marie Zimmerman of Vinton, Iowa. Her husband built the transmitter, but Marie’s name was on the WIAE station license as the owner, and she actually operated the station. Unfortunately it did not last long, but that was the case with the majority of early start-up radio stations.

Marie Zimmerman. Photo Credit: Donna Halper, Invisible Stars.

Bertha Brainard (NBC’s Program Director)

Bertha Brainard was a popular theater critic in the New York area. She created a program on Newark, New Jersey, station WJZ called “Broadcasting Broadway,” in which she reviewed plays and interviewed performers. She must have sounded particularly good on the radio, because WJZ soon hired her as an announcer, even though her boss, Charles Popenoe, had stated publicly that he felt there was no place in radio for female announcers.

It was common in the 1920s to hear people say that women announcers were unsuited to being on the air. Some of that was undoubtedly prejudice, but it was true that early microphones had rather poor high frequency response, so that a lower-pitched male voice would likely reproduce better.

In 1923 Brainard became WJZ’s assistant program director, and soon after NBC, the nation’s first radio station network, was created in 1926, it hired Brainard. By 1929 she had been promoted to be program director for the whole chain. A 1934 Radio Stars magazine article about women in radio described Brainard as “feminine, but efficient,” as if the article’s male author thought that a feminine and efficient network executive was somehow an oxymoron. Brainard remained upbeat in spite of such comments, and told interviewers that she viewed broadcasting as wonderful career for women. 


Right: Bertha Brainard. Photo Credit: Donna Halper, Invisible Stars. Left: Judith Waller. Photo Credit: http:// www.richsamuels.com/ nbcmm/wmaq/waller/waller2.html

Judith Waller (Director, NBC’s Midwest Educational Programs and Chair, NAB’s Education Committee)

Judith Waller, program director for Chicago station WMAQ in its early years is another example of a broadcaster who was highly respected in her profession. After rising to be that station’s vice president, she was hired by NBC in 1931 to direct the network’s Midwest educational programs. Waller had a good instinct for what audiences wanted. In 1929 CBS declined to air the program “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” because they thought it would not catch on, but Judith Waller brought it to NBC and it soon became by far the most popular program on that network in spite of portraying negative stereotypes of African–Americans. To her credit, Waller advocated for and worked with boards of education to create children’s educational programs. But that was a hard sell. Adver- tisers proved reluctant to sponsor such programs. Waller went on to chair the National Association of Broad- casters’ Committee on Education. She promoted and broadcast the first Women’s World Fair in 1925, which touted the achievements of women, including careers in non-traditional fields.

Ora Nichols (Sound effects expert)

Radio history books note that the first notable radio sound effects technician was Arthur Nichols, who got his start doing sound effects in vaudeville theaters. Nichols had developed a machine that incorporated several sound effect devices combined in one cabinet to provide the sounds of falling trees, crashing glass, doors slamming, and more. He got a job with CBS shortly after that network was founded in 1927. But, soon after, he died of a heart attack. His wife Ora had been his assistant. She picked up where her husband left off, quickly became CBS’ sound department head, and continued to develop and perfect sound effect devices. Within a short time she had invented 1000 such devices that continued to be used by others throughout radio’s Golden Years. By 1934 she had become so respected in the industry that Radio Stars Magazine named her “one of the Nine Greatest Women in Radio,” alongside such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt and Kate Smith. She did the sound effects for Orson Welles’s famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. He wrote to her, “Dearest Ora: Thanks for the best job anyone could ever do for anybody. All my love, Orson.”

Ora and Arthur Nichols with their sound effects devices. Photo Credit: Leonard Maltin, The Great American Broadcast, New American Library, 1997.

Eleanor Roosevelt (Commentator)

Beginning in 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt was on the radio both during and after her husband’s presidency. Her broadcasts drew huge audiences. Concerned about the lack of opportunities for women in broadcast journalism, her press conferences were restricted to women reporters. Because these events were often newsworthy, newspapers had to scurry to hire female reporters to cover them. In the World War II era she hosted “Mrs. Roosevelt’s Own Show,” a popular program on the NBC Red Network, sponsored by Sweetheart Soap. The New York Times called Eleanor Roosevelt “the object of almost universal respect.”

Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo Credit: https:// www.nps.gov/people/eleanor-roosevelt.htm.

Dorothy Thompson (News commentator)

In the World War II era there were a number of female news reporters who set a high standard for broadcast journalism. Radio news reporter Dorothy Thompson often lamented the fact that competent women reporters were too often assigned to cover women’s issues rather than being hired to report “hard news.” Sometimes called “The Dean of Women News Commentators,” she made the cover of Time magazine in 1939 and did get opportunities to report network war news and prove her merit. A poll by Movie and Radio Guide magazine ranked Thompson as its “Outstanding Woman Commentator.”

Dorothy Thompson. Photo Credit: Donna Halper, Invisible Stars

Mary Marvin Breckenridge (News reporter)

Although her career in radio news reporting was relatively short, Mary Marvin Breckenridge was one of Edward R. Murrow’s famous team of CBS Radio World War II European correspondents. She reported from the Netherlands.


Mary Marvin Breckenridge. Photo Credit: Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, The Murrow Boys, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Pauline Frederick (News commentator)

Pauline Frederick is an example of a woman who made her mark in both radio and television. After achieving success in newspaper writing, in 1938 she took a job as a script writer for ABC. She did radio interviews with diplomats’ wives as World War II was breaking out. In 1945, work- ing for NBC, she was given the assignment of traveling to nineteen countries around the world to report on conditions as the war was winding down. Her first overseas broadcast was from China, and she was the first U.S. female broadcaster to report from there.

Pauline Frederick. Photo Credit: https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_Frederick_ (journalist).

In 1949 Pauline Frederick became a full-time journalist for ABC television. That same year she hosted a weekday news program—The Pauline Frederick Report. Starting in 1953 she covered the United Nations for NBC and continued that news beat for twenty-one more years, earning respect in the industry for her in-depth knowledge of international issues.

Frieda Hennock (FCC Commissioner)

In 1948 Frieda Hennock became the first woman to serve on the Federal Communications Commission.

As was often the case in situations where male reporters covered a story where a woman was named to a traditionally male position, the reporters who covered the story strayed from facts regarding her qualifications and policy positions to comment that she was “attractive,” “blonde,” and “a smart dresser.” Donna Halper wrote that Hennock “became a tireless advocate for educational radio and TV and spoke forcefully about the media’s obligation to do more than just sell products.” She urged that frequencies be set aside for educational non- commercial broadcasting.

Frieda Hennock. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

In the 1970s the FCC admonished radio and TV stations as well as networks to hire more women. During that era, female reporters were increasingly given an opportunity to demonstrate their skill, which they did, and many then became well-known to viewers, for example, television reporters Connie Chung, Leslie Stahl, and Judy Woodruff, who was for years the principal anchor- woman on “The PBS News Hour.”

Carole Simpson. Photo Credit: https:// www.carolesimpson.com/.

Others like Carole Simpson and Andrea Roane got their start at local stations, demonstrated their competence, and then moved on to national networks. When Simpson applied to journalism school at Northwestern University, the admissions counselor had strongly urged her to choose another career, arguing that a Black woman would never get a job in radio/TV journalism. Annoyed by this attitude, she graduated from the University of Michigan, had a successful career in television, and ironically, was then hired by North- western University to teach broadcast journalism.


Left: Marianna Woodson Cobb. Photo Credit: Radio and Television Museum News, Dec. 2004, p.10. Center:

Cathy Hughes. Photo Credit: https://cathyhughes.com/about/. Right: Oprah Winfrey. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Marianna Woodson Cobb (Broadcast radio engineer)

Women who have pursued careers in the more technical aspects of radio have often faced particularly blatant sexism. A good example is Marianna Woodson Cobb. In the early 1950s she was one of only two female registered broadcast engineers in the DC area, and in fact, one of a very small number of such engineers in the entire nation. Early in her career, the company she worked for sent her to station WBOK in New Orleans, which had requested a field strength survey of their antenna system. When she knocked on the door and the station manager opened it, he was shocked. He immediately phoned Ms. Cobb’s com- pany, complained about them sending “a girl” to do a man’s work, and asked them to send a male engineer. Marianna’s boss said it would take a long time to arrange for a substitute, and besides, she was extremely competent.

Needing to have the survey done quickly, the station reluctantly allowed her to begin. She donned rubber hip boots and waded into the murky snake-infested swamp where the antenna towers were located. She not only completed the survey two weeks ahead of schedule, but she showed the open-mouthed station management how they could re-adjust the phasing of the towers so as to beam more of their signal towards their intended audience rather than wasting energy by beaming too much signal towards the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the project the station management gave her a “forgive me” party, and obviously had learned an important lesson about gender stereotypes. Ms. Cobb continued to have a successful career in broadcast engineering. She sometimes had challenging assignments, including climbing to the top of the radio/TV towers on the Empire State Building, 1,300 feet above street level. That is not a job for the faint of heart! In 1991 she received a Broadcast Pioneers Award for her contributions to the industry.

Cathy Hughes (Network founder)

An impressive success story is the rise of Urban One (formerly Radio One), the leading electronic media voice speaking to Black America today. Urban One includes the largest local urban radio network, the largest African- American owned television network, and also dissemin- ates digital urban content.

This company’s story centers around Cathy Hughes, the first African-American woman to head a firm publicly traded on a stock exchange in the United States. In 1979 Ms. Hughes and her husband purchased failing Washington, D.C. radio station WOL. She quickly built the station into one of the most popular in the nation’s capital, and she was called by many “The Voice of the Black Community.” As additional radio stations in other cities were added, the Radio One Network grew and morphed into the successful major corporation that Urban One is today. WOL continues today at 1450 on the AM dial.

Oprah Winfrey (TV Icon)

An appropriate way to end this article is summarizing the story of Oprah Winfrey, a television icon.
Born into poverty in rural Mississippi, she was once called “the world’s only Black billionaire.” She can thumb her nose at the ranks of misogynist male broadcasters down through the years who argued that there is no place in radio and TV broadcasting for women.

The Oprah Winfrey Show remained one of the most popular TV shows for a remarkable quarter century. Some called her “the most influential woman in the world.” She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. The list of her prestigious awards is too long to include here.

Oprah Winfrey had a charisma that endeared her to both white and black audiences. She developed an interviewing skill that was second to none. She even created her own network. Her story shows that today fame and success are achievable for any woman with sufficient talent. ■

Brian Belanger is the Museum’s Curator, Librarian, and Editor of its journal Dials and Channels.

* Donna Halper, Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting, M. E. Sharpe, 2001.