Telling the Stories of Women in Broadcasting

One of the intriguing aspects of working with the Library of American Broadcasting (LAB) collections is discovering, through routine processing, people who developed interesting careers in early network radio and television but are not well-known among broadcast historians. In particular, information on women in broadcasting can be especially scarce, making it challenging to discover the full scope of their contributions to the industry. The relative lack of archival documentation compared to their male counterparts certainly reflects their historic marginalization in the industry.

Sometimes, we have only a few items from which to assemble personal histories, such as those I find while working with our photo archive. Take, for example, this press photo of a woman seated in front of an early NBC “box camera” microphone. An included caption describes her: “Continually on the trail of celebrities to present on the National Farm and Home Hour, Helen Stevens Fisher generally succeeds in presenting at least one nationally famous personality each week. Her early experience as a newspaper reporter serves her in good stead when it comes to getting her guests to tell some of their most interesting experiences.”

A Google search turns up a little more information, such as mentioning her previous experience as a newspaper reporter. But nothing tells me if she was content to be the “The Little Lady of the House,” as the network called her, or if she was ambitious to expand her role on the program. Digital newspaper archives reveal that Fisher joined the Illinois Woman’s Press Association in 1927, later serving as president from 1945-1949 and that she was the author of five books on home entertainment. (She had the dubious honor of having one of her books unfavorably reviewed in the New York Times by famous radio curmudgeon Fred Allen.) That’s all I could find online in a brief search; perhaps an oral history with Fisher waits to be discovered in a different archive.

Another photo with little more than a cryptic caption describes one Claudine Macdonald, “charming mistress of ceremonies on NBC’s Woman’s Radio Review, [who] presides, via microphone, over hundreds of club meetings throughout the country. Her broadcasts… bring to America’s remotest hamlets distinguished speakers – both men and women – who would otherwise be available to only the largest and most wealthy organizations.”

I was able to find more information about Macdonald in Donna L. Halpern’s Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting (2014): “The Women’s Radio Review was almost like a magazine, featuring segments on music (sometimes written or performed by women artists), literature, art, travel, news… and no recipes. Macdonald was… opposed to the type of women’s show that talked to women as if they were stupid.” Newspaper archives turned up several articles, including a widely syndicated full-page biography. One of them offered details of her childhood, education, previous work experience, and how she came to create, direct, and host an afternoon “woman’s program” on NBC. However, as with Helen Stevens Fisher, I could find no information about when and under what circumstances she left broadcasting.

Fortunately, the LAB also contains more robust collections of women in broadcasting, providing much more complete pictures of their careers. For example, the Edythe Meserand (pictured below) papers include correspondence, clippings, memos, notes, and scripts. These tell us that she began her career in 1926, joining the Press Department of the recently formed NBC network in New York. Meserand was also a charter member and first national president of the American Women in Radio and Television (AWRT), the organizational records of which comprise one of our most popular collections. This article offers a more detailed description that Meserand and other early female figures in American broadcasting history, such as Inga Rundvold, Julie Stevens and Mona Kent, all of whom are well-represented in our archival collections.

Whether they’re comprised of a single photo or dozens of linear feet, materials that document women’s roles in all aspects of broadcasting are especially vital in not only preserving their legacies, but providing detailed accounts of how they navigated the challenges before them. 

Founding officers of the American Women in Radio and Television

Post by Jim Baxter
Processing, Reference and Outreach Assistant with Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture 

An Unknown Pioneer Takes Her Place in the Broadcast Archives

Mary Kelly, Today Show 1952Mary Ellen Agnes Kelly (1926-2005?) was an American television researcher, talent coordinator, and associate producer with the pioneering early morning television program Today on NBC. She was also a special assignments reporter, traveling far and wide to film feature segments. Kelly crisscrossed the United States many times and covered stories from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. Newspaper articles from the period compared her to Nellie Bly, the intrepid 19th-century reporter known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Kelly traveled around the world – on the first commercial flight over the North Pole in 1957 – in 71 hours and six minutes. Unfortunately, her remarkable career is little known today.

A remarkable collection of photographs and clippings from her career are now part of Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture. The journey of these materials to our collections is typical in how it was nearly discarded but later adopted by an appreciative collector. In the 1960s, Kelly sublet her New York City apartment to a man who subsequently discovered several boxes she left behind. He contacted her to offer to return the boxes, but she declined. However, he thought that the contents were fascinating and kept the boxes for over 50 years. When he passed away, his widow – realizing that Kelly must have been important as one of the few women working in early television – donated the material to the UMD libraries.

Early Career

Continue reading