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  Spring 2011 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Spring 2011 issue.
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WJAG, Norfolk, Nebraska

The Early Years of Talk Radio: WJAG, Norfolk, Nebraska · Mark Smith and Larry Walklin

The history of radio broadcasting reflects a rich variety of talk shows distributed by national networks and produced by local stations. One pioneer talk radio show began
as a live street broadcast on a Nebraska station.

Eugene (Gene) Huse, publisher of the Norfolk (Nebraska) Daily News, experimented with radio before World War I, and founded WJAG in 1922. The station's first announcer, Karl Stefan, built on Huse's broadcast vision of localism and community service. Stefan's engaging personality on popular local news and talk programs boosted not only the station's notoriety but also Stefan's election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1934.

Before entering public service, Stefan created a program called Voice of the Street and served as its initial host. His successor, Arthur (Art) Thomas, overhauled the format just after the outbreak of World War II. Controversial Voice topics jeopardized WJAG's license renewal in the 1940s and likely impacted the physical health of Thomas; however, his talk show strategies remained intact decades after his departure.

The Huse Publishing Company received a Limited Commercial, Land Radio Station license for WJAG on July 27, 1922. The Huse family, sole publisher of the News since 1888, thus has the longest broadcast claim in Nebraska.

Publisher Gene Huse envisioned the new medium of radio as an ancillary service for the well-established News print operation. In its earliest days, Huse dubbed his broadcast facility the "Norfolk Daily News Radio Station." WJAG promoted the News, and the latter also served as an advocate for its new media partner. In January 1924, the News began to promote WJAG with a column entitled "Radio Flashes." Published Monday through Saturday,
"Flashes" publicized station programming, reception tips for WJAG listeners, and correspondence from the "radio family."

The most notable voice behind the WJAG microphone throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Karl Stefan, joined the News in 1909 as a telegrapher for the Associated Press. On September 13, 1922, WJAG's first day of regularly scheduled programming, Stefan announced the settlement of a nationwide railroad strike. Stefan departed the News city editor's desk in September 1924 to purchase a Norfolk cigar store and magazine distributorship, but continued on the air at WJAG. Stefan not only served as announcer, but also created local radio programming that endured years after his departure from broadcasting. The noon news report-the foundation of WJAG programming-featured news, bulletins, farm markets, weather, a hospital report, and area births. Stefan strengthened his ties with northeast Nebraska listeners through the creation of the WJAG Radio Family. He invited the audience to join him around a mythical table each noon hour and by 1932 nearly 100,000 listeners had contacted the station for memberships. Through the creation of familial and social titles Stefan communicated with listeners individually: father, mother, banker, baseball fan, and crippled girl, to name a few.

Robert E. (Bob) Thomas, a longtime Norfolk resident who became WJAG manager in 1951, observed Stefan's growing popularity firsthand. According to Thomas, Stefan forged a special bond with listeners through his ability to speak with them one-on-one. Stefan connected with listeners, frequently by name, with a buoyant, homespun announcing style embedded in a German accent. On a typical WJAG broadcast he reminded a local farmer, Sam Kent, the current price of hogs would "make everything alright." Born in Bohemia and fluent in several tongues, Stefan deviated from English to connect with local immigrants. A frequent birthday message broadcast to listeners in both German and Bohemian reminded listeners, "I am wishing that you will live as many years as the fox has hairs on his tail."

With the deepening Depression, radio provided affordable access to news and entertainment. Carrying considerable clout with listeners, Stefan proposed to the station manager, Art Thomas, a new type of talk show that moved the announcer out of the studio and onto the sidewalks of Norfolk Avenue. Thomas agreed to provide the audio hardware and broadcast the Voice of the Street, hosted by Stefan. The program featured live interviews with pedestrians in downtown Norfolk, which were fed to the WJAG studios nearby. Although he requested no additional compensation, Street interviews with passersby in front of Stefan's cigar store certainly increased the visibility of the tobacco and magazine shop. First broadcast in December 1932, the show was originally programmed as a thirty minute feature, Monday through Friday; however, attracting sufficient pedestrian attention, particularly along a cold Norfolk sidewalk, likely contributed to a decision to shorten Street to a quarter hour one week after its premiere. By early January 1933, the weekday program had nestled into its longtime slot of 10:15 a.m.

The entire essay appears in the Spring 2011 issue.

Painting the Town

"Painting the Town": How Merchants Marketed the Visual Arts to Nineteenth-Century Omahans · Jo L. Wetherilt Behrens

When Joslyn Memorial opened in Omaha, Nebraska, on November 29, 1931, over 30,000 Omahans-from "the man in overalls" to "the man in an evening suit"-"poured into the building, swept down every hallway and filled every room." Commissioned by Sarah H. Joslyn, the structure commemorated the life of Omaha newspaper magnate George A. Joslyn, Sarah's husband. The Joslyns were devoted patrons of music and art, and the memorial contained multiple galleries for art as well as a fine concert hall in which was installed George Joslyn's personal pipe organ taken from the Joslyn home. It had been rebuilt as a concert organ with four manuals and pedals and some seventy-five sets of pipes. Although today's enlarged structure retains its fine music hall, most twenty-first century Omahans know Joslyn as the "art museum" with a permanent collection ranging from artifacts of the earliest civilizations in the Fertile Crescent to the most recent contemporary visual art. But when Joslyn Art Museum opened, twentieth century Omahans had not suddenly decided that they would support a museum of fine arts; they had been schooled by the city's nineteenth century business leaders-turned-art patrons to understand the importance of supporting visual arts in their community. Omahans had been educated to appreciate art, not solely as household decoration, but as a culturally appealing societal component of life that transcended all income levels in the city. The story of Omahans' acquisition of the skills necessary to foster community interest in the visual arts can be told through the story of the efforts made by nineteenth century merchants who marketed the concept of art patronage to all residents of this frontier metropolis.

Established in 1854 on the west bank of the Missouri River, the frontier community of Omaha grew quickly after the Civil War during the era of the transcontinental railroad's construction. By the 1870s, art patronage among members of Omaha's business community was expanding rapidly. The decade saw an economic boom that boosted the city's population to over 60,000 people. Numerous industries manufactured bricks, brewed beer, and refined metals. Over 1,300 retail establishments sold everything from furniture and stoves to hats and undergarments. A hinterland of small agricultural communities, farms, and ranches thrived along the rails west of the city, each with residents who depended in some way on the goods sold by Omaha merchants. In their free time, Omahans attended thirty-eight churches and two synagogues. For entertainment, they danced, sang, played musical instruments, and watched plays by itinerant troupes. But the visual arts were viewed only privately in the sitting rooms of the city's wealthy citizens. And only a few businesses stocked decorator accessories such as chromo-lithographs. But as the city grew and diversified, so did the population's desire to individually collect and to civically cultivate the visual arts. In December 1885, Parisian art broker Joseph Keller visited the city to get acquainted with its prominent citizens-and potential clients. Omaha was on the cusp of artistic change, and Keller summarized residents' improved interest in, and understanding of, the visual arts by saying:

There can be no doubt that art decoration, in every branch, is receiving more attention in America than ever before. It is apparent every time I come here. . . . I find myself doing business for the most prominent people in America. . . . [not] all picture buyers are connoisseurs. . . . But it is not them we seek to educate. It is their children who are beginning to discern between masterpieces and daubs.

The city's cultural environment had begun to mature.

The entire essay appears in the Spring 2011 issue.


Unicameral Legislature

The Political and Journalistic Battles to Create Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature · Thomas Irvin

Credit for the creation of Nebraska's unique unicameral legislative body is often ascribed to two factors: U.S. Senator George W. Norris, and the confusion over the words pari-mutuel and unicameral. Norris's importance is correctly placed: he was the measure's greatest advocate and most visible backer, although he did not act alone. But the supposed confusion over pari-mutuel gambling and a unicameral legislature (just vote for everything, voters were supposedly told) is likely overstated, probably because it sounds amusing in a rustic backwater sort of way. In fact, the voters of Nebraska went to the polls in 1934 very well informed, thanks to an aggressive campaign from both sides.

Nationwide, the unicameral movement gained currency during the reform-minded "Progressive" decade of the 1910s, during which time proposals for unicameral bodies were introduced in the legislatures of Alabama, California, and Colorado. During this same time, constitutional amendments proposing unicameral legislatures were defeated by voters in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Oregon, and constitutional conventions featured suggestions of unicamerals in Arkansas, New York, and Ohio. Governors of Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Washington also called for unicamerals in their states.

In Nebraska the idea was first proposed by a joint legislative committee, formed in 1913 and charged with suggesting new government reforms, which recommended to the 1915 legislature that a constitutional amendment be introduced (by voter initiative) and submitted to the voters to establish a one-house legislature. The committee's other reform suggestion of a revision of the rules of procedure was adopted by the 1915 legislature, but the unicameral suggestion was not.

However, the chairman of the committee, J. N. Norton, emerged as a strong advocate for unicameralism and introduced a bill in the 1917 session calling for a one-house legislature. This was killed in committee, but a second bill from Norton calling for a constitutional convention to meet in 1919-1920 was passed. At this convention, Norton chaired the committee on legislative reform, which again advocated a unicameral. Initial support for this proposal ran high: in a straw poll of the convention attendees eighty-three out of one hundred members favored putting the matter before the voters of the state. However, in the debate that followed, it was suggested that a one-house legislature might not be workable without a cabinet form of government. This raised doubts, and when the matter was voted on, it failed to pass with a forty-three to forty-three tie.

The entire essay appears in the Spring 2011 issue.


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