May 25, 2011
New PhD Blazed Trail for Women in Radio
Donna Halper at her 2011 UMass
graduation. "Let me say a special thanks
to Jarice Hanson for mentoring me
through the PhD dissertation, and
Michael Morgan and Briankle Chang
for believing in me back in 2002."
Walking across the Mullins Center stage to receive her PhD in communication a few weeks ago marked another milestone in 64-year-old Donna Halper’s rather extraordinary life in radio and print. A well-known media historian, radio consultant, author of five books, and assistant professor at Lesley University, she also holds claim to discovering the rock group Rush back in the 1970s. In fact, Rush dedicated two albums to her. Halper appears in Beyond the Lighted Stage, the 2010 documentary about them, and when the band was honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year, she handed over the star. Perhaps most important though is Halper’s role as a second-wave feminist who changed broadcasting in the 1960s and 1970s when equal opportunity rulings finally made radio open up to women.
“I attended Northeastern University (undergraduate, MEd, and MA) where eventually I became the first woman announcer in the school’s history, after enduring nearly four years of being refused the chance,” Halper says. “I was told I could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary—not that there’s anything wrong with those professions—but my heart was in the media. Nobody would give me the chance to show what I could do. I never wanted to be given a job just because I’m a woman, but I never wanted to be arbitrarily rejected from one for being female either.”
Persistence paid off for Halper. She finally DJ’d her first program in October 1968 and never looked back. “My career has had its ups and downs. The ups: working in four major markets (Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland), discovering Rush (and remaining friends all this time), meeting and interviewing many celebrities, becoming one of the few women radio consultants, and being a pundit on many radio and TV shows. The downs: I never got equal pay, I endured sexual harassment at several stations, and wasn’t always taken seriously—even though I was a manager. But if you’re going to be the first woman to do something, it helps to have a sense of humor—and determination.”
It was in Cleveland as music director at WMMS FM that Halper gave Rush their big break. A friend from Canada had sent her their first LP, “Rush.” “I’d never heard of the group, but as soon as I dropped the needle on the song “Working Man,” I knew it was perfect for that working class town.” The news about Rush began to spread, and the buzz soon led to a record deal for the band, who thanked Halper in the album’s liner notes. A wonderful friendship has endured all these years. Read more.
As Halper’s career in radio developed, she hired and trained staff, worked with and developed talent, helped to choose or improve formats, conducted music and market research, and helped her consulting clients get better ratings. In fact, she was one of the first women in the U.S. to become a radio consultant. For 18 years she was an adjunct at Emerson College, mainly in journalism, before Lesley University whisked her away in 2008.
This past semester, while Halper was putting the final touches on and defending her dissertation, she taught Intro to Communication, Intro to Journalism, Global Communication, and Public Speaking, did a fair amount of freelance writing, and advised the student newspaper. She also had a number of speaking engagements to promote her latest book, Boston Radio: 1920-2010, that came out this spring (click here for WBUR interview). A form of lupus means Halper experiences a fair amount of pain, but she says that keeping busy helps. “I’m pretty good at setting priorities, and I’ve always been good at multi-tasking!”
“Because I wanted to advance my academic career, getting that PhD was important—but no one in the Boston area would take me in,” Halper says. “Even though attending UMass meant lots of driving (200 miles roundtrip, 3-4 times a week), I had to go for it. I got in, and in turn I agreed to develop and teach some courses—I even was nominated for the Distinguished Teaching Award twice. I LOVED the program—a whole new world of new and interesting theories, plus the small classes lent themselves to discussion and critical thinking. I’ve recommended the Comm program to others and recruited several students.”
Halper’s dissertation focused on Neil Postman, often considered the father of the school of thought known as media ecology, and best known for his analysis of television. His 1986 bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is a classic and Halper actually helped Postman’s son update it in 2005. “But despite having been on radio, having grown up with radio, and by all accounts being a fan of radio, Postman never wrote an analysis of radio,” explains Halper. In “Neil Postman’s Missing Critique: A Media Ecology Analysis of Early Broadcasting, 1920–1935” Halper provides that missing critique.
“Follow your dream,” Halper advises. “I was told I’d never make it in media. And I was told I was too old to pursue a PhD. Sure, you need to be practical and have some skills that will get you a job, but you should try for the career you want. I’m glad my parents insisted I get a teaching degree—being a high school English teacher paid the bills while I fought for the right to be in radio. Success wasn’t guaranteed, but I tried. And for people going back to school after a number of years in the workforce, well, maybe I can be a role model.”
Photo by Jon Jacobik