The First Lady of Broadcasting
On January 2, 1959, Professor Gordon Greb interviewed the first woman to ever broadcast a regularly scheduled radio program, Mrs. Sybil M. True, at her home in San Jose, California about the world’s first broadcasting station, founded in l909 by her husband Charles D. Herrold.
Q. Tell me, when did you first meet Dr. Charles D. Herrold?
A. I first met Mr. Herrold in July 1913.
Q. Can you remember the occasion? What happened?
A. Yes. Mr. Frank Schmidt, who lived next door to my home, invited me over that evening to spend the evening with him; and this Mr. Frank Schmidt was the assistant in the laboratory of Mr. Herrold. He called there that evening and that’s how I met him.
Q. Did you know that Mr. Herrold was broadcasting when you first met him?
A. Yes, I did, through my neighbor.
Q. How was that? Did he have a receiving set?
A. No, but he used to tell me he was very excited and interested in the work. He would talk to my folks and would tell me of the wonderful things that was happening at the radio station. After meeting Mr. Herrold, I visited the laboratory and the station where they were broadcasting.
Q. This was in July 1913.
A. July 1913. And Mr. Herrold and I were married in October 1913.
Q. He didn’t spend much time wooing you, did he? He just simply swept you off your feet, didn’t he?
A. (laughing) Well, I guess he did.
Q. Had you been interested in radio work? I supposed you hadn’t heard of wireless operations or anything of that sort up to that time?
A. No, I didn’t till that time.
Q. I understand, though, that you became a crackerjack of a Morse code operator.
A. Well, later on, in l914 during the World War, [when] Mr. Herrold started teaching classes for the radio, we put up tables in my dining room and there I had eight keys and eight receiving headphones. I would teach them the code and work them up till they could receive and send 20 words a minute. Then they would go to Mr. Herrold. That was how I got started in that.
Q. Now I want to start with the earliest period you remember of Dr. Herrold’s broadcasting. And by the way––I’ve referred to him as Dr Herrold––can you explain why people do refer to him as Dr. Herrold although he didn’t actually have a Ph.D.?
A. I really can’t say why they called him that. He was always known as “Doc.”
Q. In other words, it was a token of affection for him?
A. I believe it was.
Q. He was brilliant.
A. Yes, he was. He was also a wonderful musician also, played the piano beautifully and also way back––long before I knew him––he invented a telescope and was interested in astronomy.
Q. Now do you remember when you first heard his programs? What were they like?
A. Well, first it was the voice that they wanted to improve on. And the voice got so it was clear and the conversation––you could talk back and forth to Point Arguello and the St. Francis Hotel––and you could understand every bit just as you could on your telephone.
Q. Wasn’t that the Fairmont Hotel?
A. The Fairmont Hotel. Yes. I’m sorry. Then they began playing records. At that time the receiving sets were not like we have today. They were little pieces of galena with a fine little wire that you would turn the knob and it would hit the galena and pick up the different little ‘hams’––that we would call them in those days––[receiving] stations. At that time it was the ‘hams’ that were listening for this voice that was coming over their headphones.
Q. Would you say he was broadcasting voice and music when you knew him back in l913?
A. Oh, yes. In fact, I talked to the operators myself over the wireless.
Q. You did?
A. I did …!
Q. Tell us about that.
A. Oh, I would say––“This is KQW calling; this is KQW calling; we’re calling the Fairmont Hotel”––and of course, we would arrange beforehand the time we would be on the air. It was quite a thrill. On September 5, 1914, our first baby boy was born. When he was about––oh, I’ve forgotten it’s been so many years ago, I think he was about four or five months old––we have a picture of him where I’m holding him up to the transmitter and he was just crying as hard as he could cry. But that was the thing we wanted, to see whether that’s baby’s cry could be transmitted to the Fairmont Hotel.
Q. This was Robert R. True?
A. Robert Roy True, which was Robert Roy Herrold at that time.
Q. First baby probably to ever cry over the radio!
A. ––To ever cry over the radio! Well, at time it was wireless. We never heard the word radio––it was the wireless telephone that they called it in those days.
Q. They didn’t use the word radio?
A. Not a great deal. The voice––when we first started broadcasting was called the wireless telephone––and the human voice got it going––.
Q. Now when you first worked with Dr. Herrold in l913 and after you were married, the station didn’t have any call letters then, did it?
A. Not at first.
Q. What was it called? How did he identify himself?
A. He would say, “This is the experimental station calling from San Jose” and “This is ‘Doc’ Herrold. This is ‘Doctor Herrold’––I’ve forgotten exactly what he would say then––and the boys would give their own names like Mr. Ray Newby and Mr. Kenneth Sanders [who] were working with him at the time. And we would have one of our operators up there, and of course, they would call them by their first names with their call, “This is Ray from San Jose, calling the Fairmont Hotel.” And then, after we got the KQW license, that was our call.
Q. After you identified yourself this way, did you talk or sing? What did you do after that?
A. Well, the first I remember, it was just the voice. It wasn’t anything in particular. It was trying to improve the reception of the voice––the different adjustments that would be made on the instruments that Mr. Herrold had there. Finally that was improved and it was better each time we worked on it––till finally we began broadcasting the music. The music traveled very well.
Q. How would you do that? Phonograph records?
A. Phonograph records, we would play.
Q. Would the records be picked up by the microphone or did he play it directly into the transmitter? Do you remember that?
A. As I remember? I’m not too sure on that. I believe it was played into––I remember this big black horn––yes, it was played into this big black horn. In those days, you know, the phonograph had a large horn that looked that a big tulip. The music was played into that. You could even hear––it got to a point, after many experiments––that you could even hear other people talking in the room. You couldn’t understand what they were saying, but if someone would talk back and forth, back of the operator, why you could hear them. They really made good progress.
Q. What kind of records? Do you remember any of the songs, off hand? Or is that going back too far?
A. That’s a little back too far to remember that now.
Q. John Phillip Sousa, maybe?
A. Oh, yes, the military bands at that time. But some of the popular music––I was just trying to think––oh, you’ll just have to give me more time on that.
Q. But they were records put out for the phonograph at home. Later on, didn’t you make arrangements with a record store in San Jose that you had an unlimited supply of records?
A. Yes. We went to Sherman and Clay. And I really believe I was the first woman to ever broadcast a program. I went to Sherman and Clay and arranged to borrow records from them at no cost but just for the sake of advertising the records to these young operators with their little galena sets and we would play these–– oh, the up-to-date––young people’s records. They would run down the next day to be sure to buy the one they heard on the radio the night before.
I would call out and tell that ––“This is KQW calling. This is the Wednesday night program”––and we would ask them if they would come in and sign up––to sign their name, where they lived and where they had their receiving sets. That’s all they had to do. We would give a prize away. It would be some part or something that they could add to their little receiving sets. Either a new little galena set or one time I remember it was near a holiday and we gave a pair of little headphones.
Those little boys would come from all over the valley here just to visit and get acquainted and in that way, we became acquainted with all the young boys that were interested.
Q. Would you say this was before World War One? Or after World War One?
A. That was in––oh, let me see––1915, 1914.
Q. Before we entered the war––before the United States entered the war––because we entered it in l917.
A. Yes. Well, I believe that it was during that time––.
Q. Well, it was before the station was closed down temporarily because of the wartime order …
A. Oh, yes. We had quite a time. We used to call it my “Little Hams Program” every Wednesday evening.
Q. Was it on regularly?
A. Oh, yes, every Wednesday, and they would listen––goodness, they would just flock down to the store the next day to sign their name for the prize that would be given away once a month.
Q. About what time was it broadcast?
A. I believe––if I remember correctly––that was 8 o’clock on Wednesday evenings. I just happened to think of something, too, that might be of interest to you. When we would be experimenting, they tried experimenting from a launch and I think you have pictures of that. So we made big, five-feet Malaya kites––made them of cloth, I made them at home––and we would send our aerial up on the Malaya kite––out on South First Street, where the circus used to put up their tents. We would go out there and send up our Malaya kite with the aerial and we would broadcast from that––.
Q. This would be around l913, l914?
A. That was a little later than that. But it was to interest these little “hams”––we called them––with their little galena sets. And I have another interesting thing that comes to my mind at this time. Our home in San Jose here on Hollywood Avenue was the first one to have an aerial and Mr. Herrold used to say to me, “You just wait and see, someday every home in San Jose will have these poles atop their houses.” And I used to laugh and think it was quite a joke. But the time came when I saw the aerials on every home.
He fixed it so that I could have a receiving set at the home. When he broadcast I could receive the music there. And it was of great interest at that time and it got to be of such an interest that schoolteachers used to come out to our home and bring their classes to hear the radio broadcasts. And the children used to think that I was playing records behind the screen or that had a phonograph hidden under the table or somewhere. I had quite a time proving to some of them that I was not playing any music in my living room but that it was coming from the Garden City Bank Building.
Q. Now the Garden City Bank Building was the location of Dr. Herrold’s College of Engineering and radio broadcasting station?
A. The radio broadcasting station was on the roof.
Q. Do you remember getting any fan mail yourself?
A. Oh, yes, we used to get cards from the little “Hams” asking us to play––after we started playing the records for the little program on Wednesday night. I would get the penny postals telling me, “Oh, please play this on your next program … I would really get some old timers to play for them. I enjoyed it very much as I look back over it I’d like to do something like that again.
Note: For more on Sybil True’s pioneering work, see Gordon Greb and Mike Adams, Charles Herrold: Inventor of Radio Broadcasting. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2003).