The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association last night named the late William T. Evjue, the founder and longtime editor and publisher of The Capital Times, to its Hall of Fame.
The Broadcasters' Hall of Fame? But wasn't Mr. Evjue a newspaperman?
Yes, he was a newspaperman — and a famous one at that. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association put him in its Hall of Fame the very first year it was created. Evjue's founding of The Capital Times and his building it into a strong statewide progressive voice are legendary in state and national newspaper circles.
But what's forgotten is that Mr. Evjue was a pioneering broadcaster as well.
Just seven years after he put the first edition of The Capital Times on the streets of Madison — Dec. 13, 1917 — he welcomed to his office two young Madison entrepreneurs who happened to own equipment for something that was just starting to turn heads: a new medium called radio. The only radio in Madison at the time was the University of Wisconsin's experimental station that eventually became known as WHA.
The newspaper publisher became convinced radio showed promise as a new medium and on that day in 1924 he invested $900 in the venture to become two-thirds owner of the city's first commercial station, which he was to name WIBA. (Shortly thereafter, he purchased the other one-third interest.)
The station was set up on a balcony in what was then the University Music Shop at 511 State St. and an antenna was attached to the top of a pipe on the building's roof. One of the first things Mr. Evjue did was hire a UW engineering school graduate to take care of the transmitter and aerial which, nevertheless, blew down in August of 1925 when a strong wind came through town, knocking the station off the air for a couple of weeks.
Almost from the beginning, even while his newspaper was facing headwinds as it struggled to survive, Mr. Evjue experimented with radio content. He carried speeches by state politicians, including his hero, Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, before the senator's untimely death later in '25. He entered into a contract to carry Major League Baseball's World Series and made arrangements to carry Saturday afternoon Badger football games.
By 1928, the station was carrying live news broadcasts from the newsroom of The Capital Times, perhaps one of the country's first collaborations between traditional newspapers and the new medium of radio. And then three years later, he entered into a contract with NBC to become the city's first station to affiliate with a national network.
Although by 1948 there were several new stations in Madison, WIBA commanded nearly 52 percent of the morning radio audience and more than 56 percent in the evening. The station was known for its strong news department, anchored by Bob King and Bob Banko and the ever-popular disc jockey Jim Mader, all of whom had Mr. Evjue's imprimatur.
FM was soon added to the license, but it took until the '60s for FM to take off with a unique format called "Radio Free Madison," which featured hosts playing new wave music and lots of talk from George "Papa Hambone" Vukelich, who built a huge following.
Mr. Evjue stayed involved with WIBA station until his death in 1970. The station was sold in 1977 to the Des Moines Register Co., and has been sold many times since. It is now owned by Clear Channel Communications, which features the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Vicki McKenna, both of whom would have Mr. Evjue spinning in his grave.
I was privileged to accept the posthumous honor for Mr. Evjue at the impressive ceremonies at the beautiful Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake. Mr. Evjue was, after all, the man mostly responsible for launching my own newspaper career some 51 years ago this month.
Others inducted last night included outdoor reporter Dave Carlson who hosted "Northland Journal" on WEAU in Eau Claire and is syndicated on 25 stations in 12 states still today; Karl F. Schmidt of Wisconsin Public Radio's "Chapter a Day," who at age 90 has a career dating back 72 years; Scott Trentadue of the Goetz Group of radio networks, which has created several groundbreaking features like a daily farm report, a twice-a-week "Titletown Report" on the Packers and coverage of WIAA high school sports tournament; and Bill Vancil, program director and general manager for Mid-West Family Broadcasting's Madison stations and co-founder of Magic 98 and other broadcasting initiatives.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org