Subject Focus: WDET in the UAW Years

(30590) WDET FM Radio Flyer

Metro Detroiters recognize radio station WDET 101.9 FM as Wayne State University’s local voice for National Public Radio. Prior to 1952, however, WDET served as the local voice for labor. Unhappy with the critical representation of the labor movement in newspapers and on the radio, in 1944 the United Automobile Workers filed applications with the Federal Communications Commission to run independent radio stations in six markets with strong labor ties: the UAW’s hometown of Detroit; Flint, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Los Angeles; Chicago; and Newark, New Jersey.

The UAW already had experience in radio, with several departments producing short segments and shows that aired on radio stations around the country. The union had loftier plans for its own stations, though. As reported in the December 4, 1944 CIO News, UAW president R. J. Thomas declared that in addition to labor news, its stations would produce shows to, "'enhance the cause of our political, economic, and social democracy,' through affording 'all groups and classes such freedom of speech and opportunities for discussion as to be unparalleled in the history of the radio broadcasting industry.'"

For a variety of reasons, it took four years for the UAW’s first radio station to turn on the transmitters. As FCC paperwork and legal disputes with local broadcasters and landowners mounted, the union established the UAW-CIO Broadcasting Corporation and narrowed its focus to just the Cleveland and Detroit markets. Since the costs associated with building and operating radio studios were significant, the UAW launched a campaign encouraging members and locals to buy stock shares in the stations. After learning that the AM radio bandwidth was crowded and the audio quality was poor, the UAW received an FCC license to broadcast on 101.9 FM. However, FM radios were a new technology and not yet widely owned, and thus the UAW had to encourage its members to buy new FM radios.

Located at 12300 Radio Place, near I-96 and Evergreen Avenue, the studios of WDET-FM were dedicated on December 18, 1948. The UAW began airing its test schedule on January 23, 1949, and began its regular broadcasting schedule on February 13. WDET was the first radio station owned by a CIO-affiliated union. Four months later, the UAW went on the air at its Cleveland station, WCUO.

In addition to Guy Nunn’s Labor Views the News, early programming on WDET included You and Your City, You and Your Health, Betty Hicks’ Sports Fairway, Wayne University Faculty Roundtable, and Great Books Discussion. WDET also prided itself on its music programming, which spanned from classical opera to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to the Detroit Public Library Symphony to American standards to jazz. Reflecting the auto industry’s draw to immigrants, WDET also featured hour-long music and news programs in Italian, Polish, and Yiddish, and added programs in Ukranian, Dutch, and German later. As the station matured, it aired lecture series, political speeches, and civic events, as well as union meetings and conventions.

While WDET station managers Ben Hoberman and Mildred Jeffrey were successful in developing engaging programming, the station was not successful financially. The UAW permanently closed its Cleveland station in August 1951 in order to divert resources to WDET. Nevertheless, in November 1951 WDET paid $7,018.15 in expenses but made just $1,850.90 in advertising income. Faced with such steep financial losses, the public’s slow adoption of FM radio, and the new allure of television, in 1952 the UAW offered the station to Wayne University. In his April 1 letter to university president David D. Henry, UAW president Walter P. Reuther explained that, "…we are confident that the use of these facilities by the university will advance the principles and the philosophy of the UAW-CIO which are founded upon the belief that no group within a community can make progress except as the community moves ahead together." The unconditional gift of the studio facilities, radio tower, transmitter, and equipment was valued at $125,000. The station went silent on May 1 when the UAW ceased its programming, but Wayne University turned the transmitters on again on June 25, 1952.

More information about the UAW years of WDET can be found in the UAW-Radio and TV Activities vertical file in the Reuther Library Reading Room, the UAW Community Relations: Mildred Jeffrey Records, UAW President’s Office: Walter P. Reuther Records, UAW Secretary Treasurer's Office: Emil Mazey Records, and the Ted Andras Papers. The UAW continued producing labor news programs for more than a decade, which were syndicated on radio stations around the country. Transcripts of these programs can be found in the UAW Radio Department Records, and the Labor Views the News scripts collection. Transcripts from early radio segments can be found in the UAW Education Department’s Radio Scripts and in the UAW Health and Safety Department Records.

Troy Eller is the Archivist for the Society of Women Engineers.