Happy birthday, Howard Stern! The Shock Jock is a household name, thanks to his unique and, at times, controversial radio show—but before he was making waves on the airwaves, there were others who'd preceded him in breaking new ground. To celebrate his birthday, here’s a look at seven notable pioneers in radio history.
Father Charles Coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin harnessed the power of radio in order to become one of the most influential men in the country. His radio journey started off with sharing sermons in 1926, but he expanded his repertoire to demand populist solutions to the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. Many people listened—in the early 1930s, Coughlin’s astoundingly popular broadcast was heard by a third of the country.
FDR appreciated the value of Coughlin's support when he ran for president in 1932 (though Coughlin turned on the president after he kept his distance once in office). As the decade progressed, Coughlin's broadcast included increasingly bigoted and anti-Semitic rants—yet still retained a committed audience. A combination of broadcast regulations and disapproval from his higher-ups in the Catholic Church is what ultimately forced the priest to end his radio show in 1940.
Mary Margaret McBride
For her 1934 radio debut, journalist Mary Margaret McBride was hired to play a grandmother character who would dispense advice to women—but she soon began talking as herself on the air. And though she continued to discuss domestic topics, McBride would use her journalistic talents to conduct incisive interviews (her subjects included burlesque dancers, zookeepers and figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Zora Neale Hurston and Bob Hope). Her show also addressed important issues like the struggle for civil rights.
At its peak, McBride's audience numbered 6 to 8 million listeners; in 1949, Yankee Stadium held tens of thousands of fans there to celebrate her 15th anniversary in radio. Given her impact, McBride was deemed the "First Lady of Radio." She left her network show in 1954, but stayed on the airwaves by broadcasting from her living room three times a week until just a few months before her death in 1976.
Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg
Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg started out in 1954 at a Memphis radio station with a strong African-American lineup. Though her airtime initially focused on homemaking, Steinberg soon became an R&B disc jockey, making her one of the first black women in the male-dominated profession.
In 1963, Steinberg was invited to move to Michigan, and she became a fixture on Detroit's airwaves who offered counsel to the community while spinning records. She was also a voice for calm as she broadcast for 48 hours during the city's 1967 riots. In 1982, she and several partners created talk and gospel station WQBH (the call letters may have stood for "Queen Broadcasts Here"), which became the home of her "Inspirations with the Queen" show. Steinberg later went on to purchase WQBH, thus becoming the first black woman to control her own radio station.
In 1956, Jean Shepherd started a late-night broadcast on New York City's WOR that would make his name. During the show, he told his devoted listeners (dubbed "night people") humorous, yet poignant, stories about his childhood and military service. The freewheeling broadcasts could also wander into musings about life, songs and more—at one point, Shepherd directed his "night people" to go to bookstores and ask for a non-existent novel called I, Libertine. So many people inquired about the book that the public began to believe it actually existed (after the hoax was exposed, a publisher worked with Shepherd to create the novel).
Shepherd spent two decades at WOR. And though he also worked in film and TV, it's his use of radio to tell stories that shapes his legacy (it also paved the way for personalities like Garrison Keillor). Even the perennially popular holiday movie A Christmas Story (1983), which Shepherd co-wrote and narrated, has a direct link to the tales that originated on his radio broadcast.
In 1963, Wolfman Jack (real name Robert Smith) began to broadcast from XERF, a radio station located across the border in Mexico (XERF had a 250,000-watt signal, more power than was legal for any U.S. station, and therefore could be heard across America). Via border radio, Jack enthusiastically shared a variety of R&B and rock 'n' roll tunes with his listeners. When not spinning records, his audience heard ads for a variety of mail order products, as well as his growls, howls and exhortations like "Get naked!"
Wolfman Jack next broadcast from XERB, a Mexican station serving the Los Angeles market, until forced to leave in 1971. Struggling for funds, he found work as the Wolfman for an L.A. station, and was also asked by George Lucas to appear in the film American Graffiti (1973). The movie cemented his image and career as an iconic DJ—in fact, the Wolfman Jack persona was so important to his life, he opted for a legal name change.
Petey Greene started broadcasting in prison, entertaining both guards and his fellow inmates by delivering music, jokes and cutting rants over the public address system. He was paroled in 1965, after he'd convinced an inmate to climb a water tower and threaten suicide so that Greene could talk him down. Once free, Greene landed at a Washington D.C. radio station and became one of the first shock jocks to hit the airwaves.
However, Greene aimed to do more than titillate and surprise his audience—he wanted a show whose humor and honesty about black culture could reach listeners. Besides being a broadcaster, Greene worked as a community organizer, which helped him address civic issues like addiction, education and politics on the air. Being committed to his community also meant that people listened when he broadcast a call for calm amid the riots that started after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Dr. Ruth Westheimer survived Nazis, military service to help found Israel and relocating to the United States before she was tapped to start a radio show about sex in 1980. The show, “Sexually Speaking," consisted of 15 pre-recorded minutes that aired once a week after midnight. The timeslot didn't indicate huge audience potential—but it turned out that lots of people had been waiting for frank sexual discussion delivered in a strong German accent.
Dr. Ruth talked—and joked—to her audience about birth control, sexual identity, seeking pleasure, sexually transmitted diseases and more. By 1981, her show was a live call-in broadcast; a few years after that, it was nationally syndicated. Most important, Dr. Ruth's radio sessions helped change a culture that had shied away from discussing sex into one where people were able to get accurate, compassionate counsel.