IPR Celebrates 50 Years

By Linda Stephan
Our birthday is coming up. During the summer of 1963, Interlochen Arts Camp students witnessed a big change on campus: our radio tower went up that July, and we signed on as WIAA, broadcasting in northern Michigan.
A lot has changed since 1963 in northern Michigan – as it has in the rest of the world. That summer also kicked off the Civil Rights Movement. In this region, American Indian tribes were not recognized by the federal government and many lived in poverty and without access to clean drinking water. There was no national lakeshore and the state’s multi-billion dollar sport fishing industry simply didn’t exist. No one had yet thought to plant a vineyard. Simply put: a lot has changed.
Even Before NPR, Interlochen Launched WIAA
In celebration of our milestone, now through the month of July we’ll be reflecting on some of the big ideas that have shaped northern Michigan since we signed on with that very first broadcast. But first, indulge us as we tell our own story. IPR, or WIAA as it was known in 1963, actually pre-dates a national public broadcasting network. We were one of the founding stations in the network that became known as NPR. And Interlochen’s roots in radio go back even further to some of the earliest days of network radio.
Music Lessons On Air
More than three decades before our tower was built, the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp was launched in 1928. At the time it was known as the National Music Camp. Already in 1930, performances were being broadcast on CBS every Sunday. A year later broadcasts began on NBC.
Then, in winter, when Interlochen Founder Joseph Maddy went back to the University of Michigan, he would teach over the airwaves for several stations.
“When he was in Ann Arbor, he went on the radio and had a whole network, if you will, a whole group of stations where they would broadcast at a certain time and school children would sit there with their violin or their band instrument and be instructed over the radio,” says Byron Hanson, the archivist for the Interlochen Center for the Arts, IPR’s parent organization.
“It wasn’t so much the idea of entertaining, in the sense of just listening to something, but the idea of actually learning how to play the violin, or learning the intricacies of music perhaps,” Hanson says.
“I think eventually he realized that that’s easier said then done. And, much as with some other educational efforts that were going on in the 50s with television, that’s largely disappeared. You have This Old House and some things like that, but even then you’re not learning step by step how to do something.”
After a short stint on NBC, these broadcasts waned and national broadcasts of student performances also came to a halt. That was actually over a dispute with the musicians’ union. In an era of depression, the union didn’t want students broadcasting and siphoning work from professionals. Interlochen was blacklisted and the dispute would last about 15 years.
Broadcasting Up North
But Maddy never lost his taste for radio. Interlochen became a year-round institution in 1962 when it opened a winter boarding school for arts students. The radio station came just one year later.
Dick Goerz, the first official station manager, is still a listener. He lives in Traverse City. He says as the tower was being built Maddy’s vision was still to teach. But the board and many on the faculty disagreed and lessons never were a key function of WIAA.
“But really he wanted to not just introduce but to sustain people’s interest in music and therefore encourage their children's interest in music,” Goerz says.
Even in the earliest days when the station signed on at 1:55 in the afternoon and signed off at 11 p.m., the station also carried news, a mix of culture and news programming would later become the hallmark of NPR. Today network programming reaches 26 million listeners every week and 43,000 people here in northwest Michigan.
So what was Maddy’s vision? Goerz thinks the Interlochen Public Radio of today is probably pretty close. Archivist Byron Hanson agrees, though he doesn’t think Maddy could have ever imagined the stations of today.
“I doubt he really had in mind how potent this service would be or the importance it would be to the greater community,” Hanson says.

You're Invited! Join us for a 50th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, July 20, 2013 at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The event will feature great food, drinks and live music from local artists.