Judith Waller---First Lady of Radio

Judith C. Waller

[Curator's note: This piece, author unknown, originally appeared in the April, 1947 issue of The Chainbreak, NBC-Chicago's in-house newsletter.]

In spite of the fact that it's been done before, the most natural thing is to call Judith Waller radio's first lady, which she is, by double right, not only as a pioneer in the field but as an executive who dared many "firsts" in broadcasting.

Her efforts in the educational field led to the establishment of such programs as the University of Chicago Round Table, the American Medical Association programs, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers series and hundreds of other public service broadcasts from her debut in 1922---when she put WMAQ on the air for the first time under the alias of WGU---she believed that the new medium should offer more that entertainment. And so it was she who suggested that actual pickup of classroom lectures from Northwestern and the University of Chicago were feasible and worthwhile.


Her pioneering led to the establishment of numerous educational children's programs and the inauguration of the NBC Northwestern University Summer Radio Institute which has been conducted annually since 1942.

Educators credit her with leadership in starting radio on its road to importance to education and her system has been used as a basis from which evolved the Ohio school-radio plan and the Wisconsin system.

Miss Waller's introduction to radio was one evening in 1922 when she was called from the dinner table by Walter Strong, then business manager of the Chicago Daily News. At that time, she was office manager of the Central Division of the American Red Cross, but she had her eye on the newspaper field and had asked Strong for a job. But she was somewhat startled when he called her from the table to say, " I've just bought a radio station; come on down and run it. She protested that she knew nothing about running a radio station. "Neither do I," said Strong happily, " but come on down and we'll find out." She did and they did.

And so WGU went on the air April 13, 1922. The fact that the station stayed on was largely due to the fact that the lady manager literally rang doorbells and stopped just short of kidnapping to make people appear before her microphones.

When talent ran short she doubled as announcer, played classical numbers on the song bells and admits that occasionally she filled in on the drums, too. Programs were such that often she would book a show, rush back to the Daily News office to write it and then hurry back to The Fair store, which housed the station, to announce the broadcast.


It was her wide-awake attitude which brought to radio more than tenors singing '' Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and discussion groups on the care and feeding of husbands. The wistful plaint of a young friend that "school keeps me away from baseball" gave her the idea that led to her tackling William Wrigley on the subject of broadcasting the Chicago Cubs' games. Whether it was shock at being tackled by a diminutive lady who knew what she and radio wanted or the fascinating prospect of baseball by wireless that made him agree, Miss Waller still doesn't know. But anyhow, he signed on the dotted line and "Q" had another first.

Radio and educational groups have loaded her with honors, which she accepts brightly and then heads back to work. Most recently, she was elected to the secretaryship of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting' System and awarded an honorary degree of doctor of letters by MacMurray College in Jacksonville. She was given the first annual award of merit by the School Broadcast Conference in l940 and has to her credit a book, published in 1946, titled "Radio, the Fifth Estate," a comprehensive text covering all phases of the industry's operations.

Among the dozens of groups which have elected her to membership are the Federal Radio Education Conference, the Association of Education by Radio and the School Broadcast Conference.

Her hobbies are books, fine recordings and photography. Incidentally, she invariably drives male camera experts to fury by the quality of her pictures- -which she takes with a little $15 Kodak.

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