Alabama’s own Dinah Washington, an inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, made a mark with her 1953 R&B recording “TV Is the Thing (this year)” – a nod to an emerging technology that she mused was swiftly taking the place of “out of date” radio.
Well, radio is the thing this year at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) in Montgomery, which on Saturday opens its newest exhibit, “Alabama Radio Moments,” with special family activities and demonstrations.
The exhibit, which runs through May 2023, highlights the history and impact of radio on the lives of Alabamians in the 20th century. Indeed, nearly 70 years after Washington’s musical prediction – and the emergence of seemingly infinite options for watching shows on home screens, computers and smart devices – radio remains a force, providing news and entertainment to people in Alabama and across the globe.
“Long before the internet and streaming media, radio provided Alabamians with access to the broader world,” said ADAH Director Steve Murray. “From Joe Louis’ thrilling championship matches to wartime dispatches from overseas, to the cultural transformations of the 1960s, the shared experiences of Americans for most of the 20th century were carried on radio waves.”
Developed in partnership with the Alabama Historical Radio Society, the exhibit features items dating from the launch of Alabama’s first public radio station through the beginning of the age of television and into the 1970s. The exhibit highlights Alabamians’ contributions to radio technology and programming and the influence of the medium in shaping the social and political climate in the state.
The exhibit’s unveiling this year is significant. A century ago, in April 1922, Alabama Power hit the airwaves with the state’s first operating radio station. WSY (an acronym for “We Serve You”) began broadcasting from rented space in a building on Powell Avenue in Birmingham.
The 500-watt AM station was initially designed as a company tool, to provide better communication among employees – especially those in the field and at remote generating plants. In fact, radio technology was so new – regularly scheduled radio programming in the U.S. began in 1920 – Alabama Power engineers had to design and build most of WSY’s transmitting equipment.
The company soon began to offer entertainment programs on the station because of popular demand, as more people obtained radios. But by late 1923, the company ended its foray into radio, dismantling its equipment and donating it to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University. Instead of using the already outdated technology, Auburn’s Extension Service and Department of Electrical Engineering bought a new, state-of-the-art, 1,000-watt transmitter. The venture evolved into a new station, WAPI, named after the school. Its first broadcast, in September 1925, featured an in-studio announcer reading telegraph dispatches from that day’s football game between Auburn and Birmingham-Southern College. WAPI grew to become one of the state’s largest radio stations before World War II.
Alabama Power, in coordination with the Historical Radio Society, still has a hand in preserving the history and legacy of WSY. Photographs and documents about the station are on display in a radio history museum maintained by the society in the atrium of Alabama Power’s Corporate Headquarters.
“The Alabama Power Company made the state’s first ‘radio moments’ possible,” Murray said. “It is fitting that the company’s continued support of the Alabama Historical Radio Society helped to make this special exhibit at the archives a possibility.”
Georgia Ann Hudson, ADAH communications coordinator, said Saturday’s festivities will include presentations on a variety of radio topics by experts, beginning at 12:30 p.m. Interactive demonstrations and activities for children and families will take place throughout the afternoon in ADAH’s Hands-On Gallery and second floor lobby. Admission to the archives, including the Museum of Alabama, and participation in Saturday’s activities are free.
Hudson said additional programming related to the radio exhibit will be developed and offered throughout its run. In addition to the items on display from the historical society, the exhibit includes artifacts from Huntsville collector Marc Bendickson and Tuscumbia radio station WZZA. The exhibit is supported by the Friends of the Alabama Archives and the Alabama Humanities Alliance.
Learn more about the archives, its exhibits, programming and other offerings at archives.alabama.gov or call 334-242-4364. Learn more about the Alabama Historical Radio Society at alhrs.org.