Long before the homemade vibes of food podcasts, there were folksy radio homemakers. These early 20th-century women offered recipes, life hacks and insights for the modern farmer's wife. And just like podcasts today, their shows were often personal, off-the-cuff and straight from the kitchen table.
"We were just women who shared our lives," says Evelyn Birkby. "We shared what we were doing with our families, what we were cooking, what we were eating." Birkby began hosting Down a Country Lane out of Shenandoah, Iowa, 65 years ago on KMA radio.
The station was the brainchild of Earl May, owner of the May Seed and Nursery Company. In 1925, the early days of radio, May saw the new medium as way to build an audience for his products. He asked listeners to write in with their addresses for a free flower bulb — and quickly expanded his catalogue mailing list. By continuing to create new, woman-centered content every day, his nursery was ever present in the ears of people who made the household buying decisions.
KMA broadcasts, and others like them, gave farm wives information they could use every day, while connecting listeners across the isolation of the Midwestern prairie. The familiar voices who hosted these shows became an intimate presence in fans' homes — in part, because some women broadcast right out of their homes. Birkby, who still broadcasts once a month, collected the stories of some of these pioneering female broadcasters in her book Neighboring on the Air: Cooking With the KMA Radio Homemakers.
Florence Falk, who hosted The Farmer's Wife, gave her audience a taste of farm life by narrating the scenes she spotted through her dining room window and sharing dishes inspired by her Swedish heritage. Adella Shoemaker drew listeners in for a "visit" to her sunroom, reveling in the freedom that the new medium of radio gave her. Birkby says that Shoemaker loved the idea that she could move from kitchen to microphone, appearing before her fans even in an apron splattered with the day's canning. And after a car accident put Leanna Driftmier in a wheelchair, she hosted her popular Kitchen-Klatter from the mini-studio that KMA set up in her house. There, she dished up recipes for Midwestern staples like meatloaf and angel food cake.
"It was just like they were sitting there with you," says Birkby. They were, she jokes, something of an early support group — especially for farm wives.
"For a lot of rural women, their nearest neighbor might be several miles away," explains Erika Janik,a scholar of women's and Wisconsin history and executive producer of the Wisconsin Public Radio show Wisconsin Life. She says these real-life radio shows helped listeners and hosts make "friends on the air."
Wisconsin Public Radio, one of the oldest stations in the nation, first received its WHA call letters in 1922. And in 1929, the station began broadcasting The Homemakers Program, which aired for 38 years. The hosts — from the university's home economics department or extension services — created shows for a captive audience "who were home doing the cooking and cleaning during the day and listening to the radio," explains Janik.
But the show had a bigger goal — "to elevate rural women through education on technology and domestic science," Janik says. The idea was to put farm wives in touch with the latest techniques and trends (think convenience foods) that urban women already enjoyed.
"They did roundtable discussions about recipes and food," says Janik. Or listeners could write in and ask for advice about a cooking failure, "and the home economists would try to tackle it." A lot like America's Test Kitchen today, she adds.
In 1933, when Aline Hazard began to host the program, she sometimes took the personal touch on the road, broadcasting from listeners' own kitchens and gardens. Hazard, who was required to upgrade her degree in English and speech with one in home economics in order to host the show, learned alongside her listeners. That gave her shows a sense that "you're on this journey together," Janik says.
At a time when commercial stations allowed "10, 15, maybe 20 minutes" for food programs, the early public radio shows ran an hour or two a day, explains Janik, giving listeners far more contact time with the women whose lives they felt they shared. She says hosts like Hazard received thousands of letters from listeners who "considered her a good friend."
Compare this intimacy and neighborliness to programs like Aunt Sammy — a radio personality created by the Department of Agriculture in the 1920s. In 1925, the USDA launched a radio program to deliver advice to farmers. The following year, "Aunt Sammy" was conceived as the female counterpart, who would speak to the concerns of the farmers' wives. A single script was drafted in Washington, D.C., and sent to radio stations across the country, where it would be read by a woman in the local dialect. There was no room for deviation or personalization. It was a far cry from those hosts who "literally shared their lives," says Birkby.
For some fans, listening in was like catching up with a good friend over the phone — sometimes literally. In the days of party lines, explains Birkby, one farm wife with a crystal set could ring fellow listeners on the same telephone line. When the program began, "you would lift your receiver and ring the party line," she says. As soon as your friends heard the bell, "everybody would lift up their receivers, and 13 or 14 people listened to the same radio."
Today, we've replaced the telephone with earbuds. With their sometimes informal presentation and direct connection to the host, Janik says, "I see podcasts drawing a direct line back to these homemaking programs."
Birkby says she and others created an intimate environment "where you couldn't wait until the next day to listen again."
It was less like a broadcast from far away, and more like an afternoon break for a good conversation about food and drink. Birkby recalls: "I would say to the listeners, 'Pull up a chair, I'll pour you a cup of coffee, and let's visit.' "