Friday, May 24, 2019

Top of the state, top of the dial

WMCW 1600 AM radio station in Harvard, was the first commercial radio station in McHenry County and the first in Illinois owned and operated by a woman. Esther Blodgett was her name and she went on the air in January 1955 at the age of 52. She broadcast with 500 watts of daytime power from her farmhouse on Route 14 just north of downtown Harvard (near Autumn Glen). A 206-foot-tall transmitting tower was attached to an old windmill and the station’s call letters were mounted to the barn roof. The WMCW call letters stood for “Milk Capital of the World.” It is said that you could often hear the tea kettle whistling or sounds of cooking in the background during her radio shows.

At the station’s tenth anniversary, in 1965, the Harvard Lions Club and other organizations honored her and “devoted the entire evening to dinner and speeches lauding Miss Blodgett” and her “broadcasting up-to-the-minute news, notes, weather and announcements aimed at civic betterment to McHenry and surrounding counties.” Then Harvard Mayor Ronald J. Morris and the City Council passed a resolution in appreciation.

In the book “Valley Voices: A Radio History,” it is said that Esther was known to chase Federal Communications Commission inspectors off her property telling them she was too busy running her station to fill out their forms. Apparently her feistiness drew many a chuckle from delegates at the National Association of Broadcasters. But in 1968, the station came close to losing its license after an eleven-year battle. In their ruling (FCC 68-821), the FCC fined Blodgett $500 while at the same time acknowledging WMCW’s valuable service to the Harvard community.

The Harvard Herald wrote “Over the years, Esther became a polished announcer. Her gentle voice never hinted at either excitement or boredom as she read through advertising scripts, or adlibbed (SIC) her way through programs of recorded music. She read through news copy from the AP teletype machines like an old pro and never became flustered when the broadcast schedule went haywire.” Her live interviews included many celebrities including Gov. Adalai Stevenson, Sen. Everett Dirkson, football great Red Grange, baseball great Ernie Banks, boxing champ Jack Dempsey and country western’s Tex Ritter and Del Wood. She was especially pleased when President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lucy, came to Milk Days and presented Esther with three dozen yellow roses.

Robert Sorensen, former publisher of the Harvard Herald said, “She was a great part of Harvard’s success. Her heart was all for Harvard.” Esther not only gave young people an opportunity to get into the broadcast business, but also cared for her mother and sister until their deaths. She said, “No, we didn’t get rich in money, but we did in personal satisfaction.”

In 25 years, Esther only missed two morning broadcasts due to deaths in her family. Even with some help from family and friends, imagine the dedication and commitment required of her to fulfill her chosen path. But as she told the Harvard Herald, “I knew what I wanted when I started 25 years ago, and as far as I’m concerned, I got it!” She sold the station in 1979 at the age of 76 and, following several other station owners, the license was surrendered to the FCC in 2008. Esther died in her 85th year, never marrying, and is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery with many other Blodgetts.

Let’s help continue Esther’s legacy by supporting our fledgling all-volunteer radio station, Harvard Community Radio AM 1610 and