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Radio Fever: James Hearst's First Publication

"Radio and the Farm Boy"

When James Hearst looked back on the beginnings of his writing career in his autobiography, My Shadow Below Me, he spoke about the publication of his first poem, “Voices,” in Good Housekeeping in 1924. However, it now appears that the first piece he published outside of Cedar Falls was a 1923 article for the Des Moines-based journal Wallaces’ Farmer entitled “Radio and the Farm Boy.” 

Title of Radio and the Farm Boy

It is not clear why this article was not mentioned by Hearst or included in Robert J. Ward’s James Hearst: A Bibliography of His Work, as Hearst would go on to publish other articles and poems in Wallaces’ Farmer. What is clear is that even in this first published piece, a celebration of the new-fangled technology known as “radio,” many distinct aspects of James Hearst’s style are apparent. The prose is conversational, written as if he was speaking to a close friend, “the fellow who builds his own set.” The article also displays Hearst’s trademark sardonic humor, as in the opening when he describes trying to dethaw a frozen radiator in a “flivver,” slang for a cheap automobile. Also, the intent of the article is practical. He sees how a “farm boy” like himself can be exposed to much of the news and culture that was otherwise often out of reach for those in rural communities at the time: up-to-date farm reports, concerts, Big Ten basketball. 

Wallaces' Farmer

All of these qualities remained hallmarks of James Hearst’s writing throughout what we now know were the sixty years of his publishing career, from this first article in 1923 until just before his death in 1983. 

— Jim O'Loughlin

"Radio and the Farm Boy" (click the title to view the original publication)

    One night, two years ago this winter I was in a garage trying to thaw out the frozen radiator on my flivver. After I had finally succeeded and was preparing to start home, the garage man turned to me and said, “Why don’t you get a radio set? Then you wouldn’t need to come to town for entertainment.”
    “Uh, huh,” I said, with my mind still on the radiator.
    “I mean it,” he said enthusiastically; “this radio business is great stuff. I should think you farm fellows would be the first ones to take advantage of it. Just wait until you hear a good set.”
     I let it go at that and went home. But later I began to think over what he had said. If the radio really did the things it was reported to do, why shouldn’t we have the pleasure of using it? And thus the radio fever came to our house.

    That spring, after several weeks spent studying radio magazines and reading catalogs, my brothers and I constructed a radio set of the type known as a single circuit regenerative and using only one vacuum tube. And may I say here that for simplicity of operation and yet ability to reach out and grab the distant stations it was a long way ahead of some of the more complicated sets we made later.
    We made one of the parts ourselves and the complete set cost us twenty-two dollars. That includes everything except the storage battery and as storage batteries are not necessary with the new tubes I need not include it in the estimate.
    After some trouble and considerable soldering and resoldering, we picked up from the University of Wisconsin one day at noon. So enthused were we that dinner waited and became cold while the whole family listened to the history of the Canada thistle. That night we tuned in concerts from St. Louis and Kansas City.
    One part of the program we greatly enjoyed was the daily weather forecast and numerous farm talks broadcast from Ames and Davenport. As the distance possible to receive in the daytime is only about one-half or less, than the range at night, we depended upon the nearby stations for many of the forecasts and agricultural features. We stopped work long enough one Saturday afternoon last fall to head to the University of Iowa triumph over Yale in a football game.
    Altho cold weather greatly increased the range of the set and the strength of the messages, we decided to add one stop of amplification (that means about twelve dollars more) and by the middle of December we had heard from stations as far east as Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York; as far west as California; from San Antonio and other Texas stations in the south; and Canada sent us messages from the north. One night under ideal weather conditions, I heard the station at Honolulu.
    There is no definite rule as to the distance one can hear with a set, but in the hands of a fairly skillful operator and under good weather conditions, a well constructed vacuum tube regenerative set, using one to three tubes will receive from eight hundred to fifteen hundred miles or more.
    A crystal set will usually prove satisfactory for distances up to fifty miles and there are authentic reports of reception by a crystal outfit of five hundred miles and more. However, such long distances with a crystal set are the exception rather than the rule. These sets may be made by the radio fan himself or purchased at prices varying from five to twenty-five dollars.
    To the fellow who builds his own set let me say that a radio outfit can beat a second-hand flivver when it comes to acting ornery. A broken connection, a short circuit, or a run-down battery can make your temper short and your hair gray before you discover the trouble. But in spite of these difficulties there is a thrill one gets from his own set that can’t be duplicated by the best set made.
    The farm boy is very favorably located for radio reception. Aside from thunderstorms and static, he is comparatively free from any disturbances that might affect his set. A friend of mine, living in town, and who is also a radio fan, came out to inspect my set. After listening to a talk on treating oats for smut, received from a station in Minneapolis, he turned to me and said: “You fellows in the country don’t know how lucky you are. All you need to do is fasten a wire from the windmill to the house and you have an antenna that can’t be beaten. You don’t have any trolley lines or high tension wires to make your set hum like a swarm of bees. And, thank goodness, you don’t have any half-baked amateurs next door trying to hammer out the code thru a Ford spark coil and using a bed spring for an aerial.["] It seems to me that radio is one of the greatest interests that ever came within reach of the farm boy. It brings any number and almost every variety of messages from the outside world; some that would be practically impossible to get in any other way. There is no hocus-pocus about the messages one can hear; they are a fact and a reality. I have heard sermons broadcast from churches so plainly that not a word was missed, and one could even hear the congregation when they rose and talked amongst themselves when the service was over.
    Last winter we heard a number of the Big Ten basket-ball games, and at times the announcer’s voice would be drowned by the cheering of the crowd and the music by the band. Jazz orchestras and grand opera may be heard, and, what is of more interest to the farmer, the weather forecasts, the crop reports and the farm talks broadcasted by men of national reputation in the agricultural field.
    In the long, cold winter evenings, instead of going four or more miles to town in search of recreation, and coming home with a frozen radiator on your car, “listen in’ on your radio-- the most fascinating game in the world. Really, fellows, it beats the effort of going to town and the long ride home, all to pieces. Of course hot weather, accompanied by thunderstorms, somewhat spoils the fun, but even then you can use your set a great deal of the time. If the city chap, who lives practically next door to all kinds of amusement, voluntarily stays at home night after night to listen to his radio, we farmer fellows should enjoy and appreciate ours so much more.