BY KATHLEEN KULLBERG
WHAT DO WCCO RADIO and Eleanor Nesbitt Poehler have in common? Wait, you haven’t heard of Eleanor Nesbitt Poehler? Without her, WCCO may not have begun transmitting across Minnesota’s airwaves in 1924. And the popular radio medium might have taken more years to get off the ground. Who was this remarkable personality you’ve never heard of?
A LITTLE RADIO HISTORY
WCCO has been a legendary mainstream radio channel for almost 100 years, not only in Minnesota but across the country. But WCCO was not the first station to fill the airwaves in Minnesota. There were several hundred requests for radio licenses from 1920 to 1922 and many were primarily owned by newspapers and other private companies. Because they all shared the same signal waves, the competition between each station for prime time was less than amiable. In Minnesota in 1922, Governor Preus sorted out some of the competition. He ordered all privately owned stations sharing the same bandwidth to split the airtime between them. Since the stations were privately owned and funded, and commercials and advertisements were not permitted on the air, newspapers often found it too expensive to continue. Many stopped broadcasting in the 1921–1922 season, due to the high cost of equipment and staff. But privately owned WLAG 1 hit the air on September 4, 1922. Station transmitters sat high atop the Oak Grove Hotel at Loring Park to broadcast its share of 13 hours a week. WLAG’s goal was to be more than just a news and weather channel; it wanted to offer a broader program selection to reach more audiences. In a grand opening speech, Thomas W. Findley, owner of the Findley Electric Company and active supporter of the station, pledged that the station would also serve “the public by aiding the police in the apprehension of criminals.” 2 The business partnership of Cutting and Washington, which owned the license for WLAG, was a small company that made radio receivers. Realizing they were not fully trained in the business of operating a station, the company needed a program manager to run the station on a daily basis, schedule the performers (who would agree to work for free), and literally run the show. Walter Harris, co-owner of WLAG and co-founder with Cutting and Washington, searched the Twin Cities for the person with all those abilities. According to radio historian Donna Halper, one name kept coming up: Eleanor Poehler. She was well respected for her musical talent and teaching skills. Harris had approached William MacPhail, director of the local music school, looking for a manager candidate. MacPhail put forth his friend Eleanor Poehler’s name. After being given only 12 hours to decide, assuming “it would not take up much of her time,” 3 Poehler accepted the offer. Neither WLAG nor WCCO would have become household names without the unique services of Eleanor Nesbitt Poehler. As station manager, she was solely responsible for determining the schedule and filling the allotted time with programs designed to capture the audiences of this brand-new technological wonder.
Eleanor Nesbitt was born in 1885 in Minneapolis to Robert and Minnie Nesbitt. Her brother, Robert, was born in 1887. Their father died unexpectedly in 1889 while traveling in Denver. In 1893, Minnie married Charles Townsend, a furniture salesman with Minneapolis Levin Brothers Manufacturing Company. Eleanor graduated from Central High School in 1904. On June 1, 1905, she married Dr. Frederick Carl Poehler, a physician at St. Mary’s Hospital. The young couple moved to Herreid, South Dakota, where he took a job as a physician. Eleanor was pregnant when Dr. Poehler contracted typhoid in July 1906 and died — just 13 months into their marriage. Three weeks later, Frederick Carl Poehler Jr. was born. The 21-year-old distressed mother buried her husband in the Poehler family cemetery in Henderson, Sibley County, Minnesota 4 and Eleanor and Frederick Jr. moved in with family in Minneapolis. In 1912, encouraged by her mother and stepfather, Eleanor embarked on a journey to follow a dream — to study voice in New York City under composer-conductors Louis Koemmenich and Walter Golde. She applied for a passport in 1913 to travel to England to study further, leaving her son with her parents and brother while she was away. When she returned in 1916, she continued teaching at the Metropolitan Music Building and taught voice at the MacPhail School of Music. She also performed throughout the metro area, both as an accomplished soprano and often as an accompanist.
A FIRST ON THE AIR
A couple years after Poehler returned from England, the founders of WLAG were embarking on an ambitious endeavor to produce meaningful radio programming in Minnesota. They sought Poehler as an organized, intelligent go-getter who could run the station. Seeing an opportunity to educate the audience on the joys of classical music, Poehler jumped aboard. The first broadcast was announced by Paul Johnson, one of her MacPhail students, on September 4, 1922, from the Oak Grove Hotel mezzanine. 5 Johnson blurted out the new mantra: “WLAG, Your Call of the North Station.” With that, the new station was born. Poehler was a remarkable employee. She not only contacted and scheduled the featured speakers and performers, but she often accompanied them on the air. One time, during bad weather, the featured guest did not appear. Poehler played the piano and sang from her repertoire to fill the slotted time. The allocated 13 hours soon expanded into many more hours on the air and in the studio. Poehler found almost 100 groups and individuals a week who would willingly come to the Oak Grove Hotel studio and perform live for the expanding Minnesota audiences. By the end of 1922, WLAG was on the air nearly every night of the week. WLAG took their equipment to venues such as the Westminster Presbyterian Church, St. Paul Athletic Club, and the 1923 Automobile Show. Other performances were given by local churches, hotel orchestras, and dance band musicians. A 6 p.m. Children’s Hour was especially well received followed by the 6:30 p.m. Lecture Hour. There were farm-based lectures, household helpful hints, and various magazine readings — really something for everyone. According to Donna L. Halper, 6 “since radio was so new, there were no real expectations of consistent quality. People were excited to hear whatever came through the ‘ether.’ Eleanor, however, wanted to use the airwaves as a means to reach an audience beyond the city limits and ‘bring good music’ 7 to as many people and places as possible.” In an interview with Wireless Age magazine in December 1924, Poehler said she was told she would only work three hours a day. After six weeks it was many more and she had to give up many of her other activities, such as her church choir and teaching at MacPhail. 8
ACTION AND ACCOLADES
An article in the Minneapolis Star reported that Poehler experienced many memorable broadcasts: “On the night of President Warren Harding’s death in 1923, she alone kept the station open all night to handle any additional news. 9 In an emergency once, she broadcast a world champion prize fight although she didn’t know an uppercut from a left hook.” In a 1939 interview with Minneapolis columnist Virginia Safford, Poehler recalled “being responsible for 90 programs a week and there was no money to pay anyone. . . .” Poehler also recalled “the night [in 1922] General Pershing came to broadcast at the station and Earl Gammons, an editor with the Washburn Company, (wanting to give the general the right send-off) had eight trumpeters let loose and their fanfare nearly blew the roof off the Oak Grove Hotel. It put the general in such an ugly humor that all he would write in the guest book was — ‘Bad pen.’” 10, 11 Poehler was mentioned and praised in several national magazines for creating an excellent radio station and programming. In Radio Broadcast, columnist Jennie Mix praised Poehler: “Mrs. Eleanor Poehler, director and chief announcer of station WLAG has been sufficiently successful in her work to bring her any commendations from radio fans far and near. . . . Anyone regularly listening to her programs can readily see that she is . . . affording the radio public opportunities to hear enough good music to gratify those who already appreciate it and to create a taste for it among those who, hitherto, have listened to little but trash.” 12
WCCO IS BORN
Even though WLAG received kudos from national magazines and critics, after two years the business, it could no longer afford to broadcast without a source of income. The station went into receivership in the spring of 1924. Shortly thereafter, the Washburn Company bought the license, moved to the Nicollet Hotel, and created new call letters for WCCO. When WLAG went off the air on July 31, 1924, the station was so well respected nationally that it was asked, and given permission, to broadcast one more time on September 12, 1924, for a special National Defense Day Program. “In the mid-1920s the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) sought to establish radio technical order. They selected the signals of WLAG (and KDKA Pittsburgh) as ‘Wavelength References’ citing the reliability and stability of the two stations and the fact that both operated long broadcast days. WLAG became their ‘Western Calibrating Station,’ noted for its precision frequency-adherence.” 13 According to radiotapes.com, the Defense Day “broadcast was a really big deal in the USA that day, so the parties negotiating the funding and founding of WCCO (out of the ashes of WLAG) agreed to put station WLAG back on the air for this one night so that the station could join this early coast-to-coast experiment.” Although the program was not recorded, the announcement for the test on WLAG can be heard at the Pavek Museum from its radio tapes collection: radiotapes.com/WCCO.html. 14 Poehler worked for WCCO for three years, serving as the program scheduler and carrying on her work as radio pioneer.
A FINAL NOTE
Poehler did not drop out of society after leaving WCCO. She worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as an auditorium manager and continued her vocal career. In 1941 she moved to Seattle, Washington to be closer to her son, Frederick. She died in 1949 there but her remains were returned to Henderson, MN.
1 Of the 11 stations broadcasting in Minnesota in 1922 during the first nine months, only three were still operating in 1969: WLAG, which became WCCO in 1924, WLB, and WCAL.
2 “WLAG Station Opens With 12-Hour Program,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 5, 1922.
3 Donna L. Halper, “Eleanor Poehler — A Minnesota Radio Pioneer,” June 12, 2009. Harper is associate professor of communications, Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
4 The Poehler family residence is now the home of the Sibley County Historical Society.
5 “Lost to Time,” Cathy Wurzer, January 18, 2018, onairmn.com/2018/01/18/lost-to-time/.
6 Donna L. Halper, “Eleanor Poehler — A Minnesota Radio Pioneer,” June 12, 2009. Harper is associate professor of communications, Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
8 Wireless Age, December 1924.
9 “Former One-Woman Radio Station Now Operates a Shop,” Minneapolis Star, April 28, 1940.
10 Virginia Safford’s Column, Minneapolis Star, October 29, 1939. 11 “Preparedness Plea Features Pershing Visit,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 29, 1922.
12 Radio Broadcast, August 1924. 13 Mark Durenberger, “100 Years of WCCO — A module of the Pavek Museum’s educational mission,” radiotapes.com/WCCO/WCCO-WLAG_Durenberger.pdf, April 20, 2022,
13. 14 9/12/1924, radiotapes.com/WCCO.html.
Kathy Kullberg is a preservationist, house historian, and tour guide of Lowry Hill East’s early residents including beloved author Maud Hart Lovelace. She was a recipient of City Council of Minneapolis Outstanding Contribution Award in 2010.