It was International Women's day a couple of weeks ago. Big deal, I say.

In light of equality and recognizing what men have accomplished I decided to see when International Men's day is, and there it is November 19th.

Anyway...

I had a phone call from one of my favorite newspaper enthusiasts, telling me about an article that he ran across about a woman from Vinton. "YOU should do something about this, you're just like she was!" I gave a chuckle and thought, "Oh Frank, you always have these great ideas, but sometimes I feel like I don't have time for the fun stuff!"

And honestly, I'm just doing what I do, the fanfare about the fact that I'm a woman doing it, is no big deal, at least to me. But the more I thought about it, I thought, this will be one of the rare times that I jump on the "look what women can do" bandwagon.

The article he shared me was about another woman that was the first one to own a radio station, and she owned it in Vinton.

I'm probably the first woman to own an online-only newspaper, at least in Iowa, and I'm operating it on behalf of Vinton.

In the 1920's the woman we will be talking about, was known as, “Mrs. Robert E. Zimmerman” not by her given name, Marie Zimmerman. If she's like I was, she didn't mind the title. It was just understood that this is who you are. Unfortunately, it could a bit complicated around here, so please be sure to just refer to me as simply Valerie Close.

In the article I'm going to share below, when Marie passed away, her family wasn't even aware that she had been the first woman to own at a radio station.

I've often thought that when I'm gone, probably my great grandkids won't know what I did. Newspaper clippings last for decades, but websites, I doubt will be kept "alive" that long.

So while I see quite a few similarities in my story and Marie's, and while I hate the "women need to break the glass ceiling" mentality, I tend to just grab a sledgehammer and smash it to pieces, why stand around talking about it has been my theory.

All my life I've found my greatest motivation has been the idea that I couldn't do something. Tell me I can't and I'll prove you wrong, if I care enough.

On the flip side, to all of the men that appreciate what women can do and recognize it, you're the best.

So here's a story about a gal that did something in Vinton, that hadn't been done across the nation in her time, from a gal in the same shoes almost 100 years later.

Thanks, Frank for sharing this story with me, and pointing out that yes, we are a lot alike. And here's to "girl power." *insert eye roll*

And now I wonder, what other firsts we have in Vinton by women?

---

Marie Zimmerman: The First Woman Radio Station Owner


By Donna Halper


Marie Zimmerman probably did not plan to be a radio pioneer. But when station WIAE in Vinton, IA


received a license from the Department of Commerce in mid-July 1922, she became the first woman to own a radio station.


It was a time when women generally were expected to be homemakers and, while Marie volunteered for the Red Cross during the war, she seems to have had no plans to work fulltime – in fact, on her husband Robert’s 1918 draft card, he stated that he was the sole support of his wife. But something changed for the young couple in 1920; Robert’s brother Carroll came from Illinois to visit, and he introduced them to a new hobby – amateur radio. Both were instantly hooked.


FIRST GENERATION AMERICAN


Marie Ciesielski was born in Iowa on March 1894. Her parents, Andrew and Julia, had emigrated from Germany and settled on a farm in Jesup, in Buchanan County. Marie was the second of eleven children.


In 1915, she married Robert Zimmerman, a native of Taylorville IL who had come to Independence, IA to work in construction.


Marie Zimmerman


(1894-1973)


Robert, who had the nickname “Zim,” pursued an interest in electronics, becoming the city electrician in nearby Vinton, while Marie focused on learning as much as she could about how radio worked.


FROM LISTENERS TO BROADCASTERS


At first, she and her husband built their own small receiving set. But by 1921, what was then called


“radiophone” broadcasting had come to Iowa, and Marie and her husband began listening in to it. Zim soon found creative ways to put a receiver in their car, so they could enjoy the music and speeches from distant stations.


Early in 1922, Marie decided it might be fun to operate their own radiophone station, and her husband agreed. Although neither he nor Marie had the $300 that the equipment would cost, Zim set out to raise enough money to buy the necessary equipment. A sympathetic article in the local Vinton newspaper called attention to their plan, and the money was raised.


On July 21, 1922, the Department of Commerce (which licensed stations before the creation of the Federal Radio Commission) issued a limited commercial license to “Mrs. Robert E. Zimmerman” of “Venton” Iowa, to operate station WIAE. The name of the city may have been misspelled – and the station went on the air with only 40 Watts – but the people in the area were very pleased to have their own local station (in those early days of broadcasting, 40 Watts could go a considerable distance).


LOCAL RADIO


The station itself was in a separate building, adjacent to their home; Zim also built a special studio for the performers. Marie was able to organize some local musicians, and they became WIAE’s regular orchestra. The studio also had a Brunswick phonograph so records could be played when there were no live guests available.


Like most of the small stations of that era, WIAE was not on the air every day. It broadcast on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, usually from 9 PM to 10 PM, featuring music and news. On Wednesdays at 8 PM, there was a band concert; and on occasional Sundays at 2:30 PM, there was another live concert.


WIAE also became a source for local events. In late August, Zim set up a remote broadcast from the Benton County Farm Bureau’s annual picnic. Few Vinton residents had ever seen a live radio broadcast, and even the local newspapers reported on it. WIAE also provided political news.


A LADY AT THE TOP


But unlike the other stations of that time, Zim was not the one who ran things; Marie was the person in charge. Zim had bought the equipment and installed the transmitter, but Marie did the rest – she booked the guests, found the performers, and even did the announcing. (Marie told a reporter that she hoped to expand the broadcast day, and she wanted to offer morning concerts for school-children, so they could learn music appreciation at a young age.)


Within several weeks of the station going on the air, Marie was getting fan mail from as far away as Connecticut and Louisiana, proving that the station’s signal could travel a surprising number of miles.


By late 1922, many candidates had discovered that broadcasting a speech, it enabled them to reach a potentially larger audience. Among the first local candidates to use WIAE was Vernon J. Youel, Republican candidate for the office of county auditor. After he gave his talk in early November, he received a number of phone calls from listeners, and area newspapers wrote about the new innovation of campaigning by radio.


DIFFICULT TIMES FOR A TINY STATION


Unfortunately for little stations like WIAE, late 1922 saw the radio craze take hold nationwide, as hundreds of new stations took to the air. In Iowa, several of those stations were bigger, more powerful, and


better funded than WIAE, most notably WJAM in nearby Cedar Rapids, owned by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. WJAM was able to give listeners free radios as prizes; some of their contests offered the chance to win as much as $100 in cash (a large sum in those days).


In those years before spot commercials were common, more than a few radio entrepreneurs kept their stations out of their personal funds – until their money ran out. For Marie, too, running WIAE was a labor of love, but it was becoming more and more expensive. Soon the Zimmermans found themselves unable to compete.


By early 1923, the Zimmermans knew they could no longer afford the station’s expenses. Marie did not renew WIAE's license in April (in those days, licenses were renewed every three months), and so the Department of Commerce officially deleted the station in late June. It had lasted not quite one year.


AFTER RADIO


After WIAE left the air, the Zimmermans left Vinton and moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Zim found some work in advertising, while Marie took a job in retail at Block’s Department Store. She would stay there, moving from saleslady up to buyer.


Marie and Robert “Zim” Zimmerman


While there is evidence that both remained fans of radio, neither was able to get back into broadcasting.


After Zim died suddenly in December 1946, Marie moved back to the farm in Jesup, where she cared for her ailing mother, as well as several other siblings.


Marie Zimmerman died on 23 January 1973, at age 77. Half a century removed from WIAE, her obituary said nothing about her pioneering involvement in radio, nor did her relatives recall her even speaking about her days as a station owner. (In fact, when the 75th anniversary of WIAE occurred in August 1997, I wrote an article for Vinton’s newspaper, the Cedar Valley Times, and in researching Marie’s story, I spoke with several of her relatives. They said she was not the kind of person who would have bragged about her achievements. Perhaps she felt that since the station did not last very long, it was nothing special. They were quite surprised to learn that she had been the first woman to own a station.)


Although WIAE’s time on the air was short – as was life for many early broadcasters – what Marie Zimmerman did in radio’s early days was unique. With a supportive husband and a shoestring budget, she proved to the local community that even a small station could have an impact.


And as a reporter who visited her station wrote, “Mrs Zimmerman is ... the first to show [the men] what a woman can do in radio.”

The link for this story can be found here on The Broadcasters Desktop Resource.




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Comments (1)

Thanks for sharing my article. I'm a media historian (and a former broadcaster); I spent about two years researching Marie Zimmerman's story, because as one of the few women in radio when I got into it, I wondered who came before me.

Regarding names, yes I understand that back then, women were referred to as Mrs [name of husband], but to her friends, she was Marie, and I wanted her to be known both ways-- as Mrs. Robert and as Marie, the first woman to own a radio station. There are so many forgotten women who contributed to our lives, and I've made it my life's work to research and write about them, as well as giving credit to the men who helped them achieve their dream. Thanks again for letting me do that.

Donna L. Halper, PhD
Associate Professor of Media Studies
Lesley University, Cambridge MA
By: Donna Halper on March 22nd 3:22pm

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