If you had been around greater Boston during the 19-teens and early 20s, you might have heard Eunice Randall referred to as "ER," since radio announcers were not usually allowed to use their names on the air. To her ham radio friends, she was "the OW of 1XE," or "1CDP;" to some of her youngest fans, she was "the Story Lady." Eunice Randall was all of this and more-although she was born in an era when women's options were still extremely limited, she grew up to achieve a number of 'firsts' in the exciting new industry called radio broadcasting.
In the early 1900s, Mattapoisett (a town in southeastern Massachusetts) was still rural, and Eunice's father was a farmer, while one of her brothers ran a mill. As far as I have been able to ascertain, there were no 'radio bugs' in her family, and yet somehow she became fascinated by the rapidly-expanding world of ham radio. Her first station, which she built herself, was called "ER", and her technical skills impressed one of the men who received the code she was sending out-- he was the regional director of the ARRL, Irv Vermilya, a man who was very influential in amateur radio.
Irv was surprised that a young woman could build her own station, but he was also immediately supportive; he was the first to write about her radio skills, in the ham magazine, QST.
Not content to stay on her family's farm, Eunice moved up to Boston, with the plan to study art. But she found that she was good at drafting, and when she heard that the American Radio and Research Company needed draftsmen, she applied; in 1918, she became the first woman AMRAD ever hired. I would be lying if I said everyone welcomed her with open arms-- it was highly unusual for women to work in technical professions back then.
And while some women worked as receptionists or confidential secretaries, Eunice Randall was not typical of her generation: not only was she an experienced ham radio operator but she now wanted to work with the men building radio receivers. Needless to say, she underwent considerable hazing in the factory-- what would today be called sexual harrassment-- but gradually she won everyone over, because her drafting work was very precise and she wasn't afraid to learn new jobs.
AMRAD had opened a broadcasting station in 1916; it was mainly operated by Tufts College students (AMRAD's founder, Harold J. Power, was a Tufts alumnus), but now that the AMRAD factory was expanding, some of the non-student workers also took their turn keeping the station on the air. Among them was Eunice Randall. All the amateur stations were taken off the air during World War 1, but as soon as it was legal to do so, the AMRAD station (known legally as 1XE, but referred to in the newspapers as "The Amrad station" or "the Medford Hillside station") resumed its broadcasts.
At some point in 1919, Eunice Randall became an announcer for the station, the first woman on air in greater Boston. By 1921, she was not only helping with the engineering, doing announcing, and at times sending out code so that any amateurs listening could get some code practise-- she had also gotten a sponsor and was now the "Story Lady". At least three nights a week, she read bed-time stories to the kids, sponsored by Little Folks Magazine. (In QST, and even in some of the newspapers, she was still referred to as the "OW of 1XE"-- "OW" being an affectionate term for a female amateur.)
In February of 1922, 1XE received its license from the Department of Commerce and was assigned the call letters WGI. Eunice remained in her dual roles of AMRAD factory draftsman and WGI announcer. When the factory needed her more, she spent more time there; when the radio station beckoned, she did that-- in fact, when a guest didn't show up, she and another of the engineers sang duets! The newspapers referred to her the "Radio Mother" because her bed-time stories were very popular with kids all over New England. (The idea of radio bed-time stories was still very new, as were most of the things WGI had been doing. Unfortunately, the station operated on a shoe-string, and seldom got the publicity it deserved.) She represented AMRAD at several radio shows, and it certainly must have encouraged other young women to see her demonstrating equipment and doing broadcasts.
As for the men who heard Eunice speak and saw some of her radio work, they included Hiram P. Maxim, whom she met when she demonstrated one of AMRAD's newest radio tubes at a convention in Portland, Maine in late 1921. (In the early 20s, she was one of a very few women who were licensed radio operators-- some reports say she was the only one in New England.) Irv Vermilya, with whom she remained friends for many years, continued to write favourably in QST and elsewhere about her work; this certainly must have helped her to achieve even more credibility. Over the years, the two would sometimes attend hamfests together and compete in code-sending contests. (Eunice could even do 'foot-sending', and she was quite proficient at it!)
Unfortunately, Eunice Randall's radio career was cut short by the fact that WGI and its parent company AMRAD ultimately went bankrupt. The station left the air in the spring of 1925, never to return. Everyone who had worked so hard to keep the station up and running ended up in various other places. Some, like "Big Brother" Bob Emery, would become famous at another station and have a long radio career; others left radio and never went back to it-Eunice was one of those. She continued to work as one of the few women engineers, however, and she also continued her involvement with ham radio (her calls were 1CDP and later, W1MPP). During World War 2, she and a number of other amateurs did volunteer work as part of the WERS, and over the years, she taught many young amateurs what they needed to know to get their license. Eunice and her husband, Ken Thompson, a former AMRAD employee, moved up to Maine after she retired. She died in 1982.
Ever since I began researching the saga of 1XE/WGI and became familiar with this amazing woman, I have wanted to tell her story. My thanks to Barry Mishkind for giving me the opportunity.
--- Donna Halper is a famous lecturer and broadcast consultant based in Quincy, MA. Her love of radio history is evident in the way she captures the essence of her subjects. Look for an announcement of longer view of Eunice Randall, to be included in a special newsletter, soon.