WEAN became the first radio station in Rhode Island on June 5, 1922

By Larry Reid

WEAN was founded by John Shepherd, grandson of the founder of Shepherd’s Department Stores. Shepherd was a controversial figure in the early days of radio. Some found him ruthless and abrasive, but he was also an innovator. His slogan was “news while it is news.” Two months after he founded WEAN, Joseph and Leon Samuels of the rival Outlet Company launched WJAR, just a block from the Shepherd’s Store in downtown Providence.

Among his many achievements, John Shepherd was one of the original board members of the National Association of Broadcasters, having been elected the group’s first vice president in 1923. Shepard co-founded a New England radio network, known as the Yankee Network, along with his brother Robert, in 1929–1930. Shepard was also an early proponent of frequency modulation or FM broadcasting: he established the first FM network when he linked his station in Massachusetts with one in New Hampshire in early 1941.  He also was an early experimenter with home shopping, creating perhaps the first all-female radio station, WASN, in early 1927; the station broadcast some music but mostly focused on shopping news and information about merchandise that listeners could purchase. Additionally, he created a local news network to serve New England, the Yankee News Service.

John Shepard and his brother Robert were born into a family of merchants. Their grandfather, John Shepard Senior, and business partner Henry Norwell founded Shepard-Norwell, a Boston dry goods, and retail store, in 1865. That business later expanded to include a store in Providence, and the two companies became known collectively as the Shepard Stores in 1911. John Shepard III’s father, John Shepard Junior, assumed operations that year when John Sr. retired. By that time, the Shepard Store in Boston had become one of Boston’s most popular department stores. The large building, located at 30 Winter Street, occupied most of the city block created by Winter Street and Winter Place. John III Jr. worked his way up to a department manager at the Shepard Stores, becoming the third generation to go into management there. Meanwhile, his brother, Robert, became the manager of the Shepard Store in Providence. In 1920 and 1921, people were still building their own radio sets, and only a few commercial stations were on the air. That changed in 1922, as radio developed into the latest craze and new stations proliferated. By this time, John Shepard III was the general manager of the Shepard Stores.

During WNAC’s first several years, John Shepard III was not only managing the Shepard Store and selling radio sets; by early 1923, he was taking an occasional turn as one of the announcers, using his initials, JS. Meanwhile, as radio continued to grow in popularity, the Shepard Stores had to expand their radio department] and the number of hours the station broadcast. By the mid-1920s, John Shepard III and his brother Robert, who managed the Providence Shepard Store and operated station WEAN, began experimenting with linking their two stations by telephone landlines to share and exchange programming. As far back as January 1923, Shepard’s WNAC had already done a brief experiment with WEAF in New York, in which the two stations were linked for five minutes, proving that such a linkage could be achieved. Then, on December 24, 1925, both WNAC and WEAN aired a program of Christmas carols, sung by several choirs. The two stations also relayed individual programs, with a Providence broadcast being sent to Boston, or vice versa. These experiments were well received by the audience, and by the late 1920s, they became a regular part of the broadcasting schedule, ultimately leading to the creation of the Yankee Network.

John Shepherd fought hard to give his radio reporters like Mowry Lowe and Fred Friendly the same access as newspaper reporters. Mowry Lowe began his career in radio with WEAN and continued active broadcasting for the next 40 years. During the 1938 hurricane, he kept a 24-hour vigil at the microphone and reported all activity within sight of the studio, from which he could view most of downtown Providence. Providence was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet, and the hurricane was responsible for 564 deaths in Southern New England. He was assisted by a young intern named Fred Friendly, whom Lowe mentored from 1937 to 1941. Lowe leaned out the window of the Crown Hotel, where the station was located, to interview stranded flood victims. Friendly described his role as going out into the flooded streets for coffee and sandwiches.

Friendly went on the air in the early 1930s as a high school student on WJAR in Providence to perform a one-act play. He began his broadcast career at WEAN in 1936 with Lowe as his mentor. One of Lowe’s most popular broadcasts was his “Man in the Street Program, which he conducted for seven years, with the assistance of Friendly. Lowe helped Friendly produce “Footprints in the Snow,” a five-minute biography of famous people. Lowe and Friendly broadcast a quiz show called “What’s Your Name? asking listeners to identify people in the news and historical figures. They also produced an award-winning documentary on the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Friendly and Lowe produced the most popular shows on local radio before Friendly left in 1941. Friendly later became president of CBS News and, with Edward R. Murrow, created the popular TV program, “See in Now.” Friendly also originated the concept of public-access cable TV channels.

In 1948, Lowe was appointed WEAN sales manager, and in 1950, he became the station’s general manager. In 1955, he left Rhode Island to become general manager of WTRY in Troy, New York, and president of Tri-City Radio. He returned to Rhode Island in 1961 as the general manager of the new radio station WLKW. Under his guidance, the station soon gained popular acclaim for its excellent musical programs and concise and informative newscasts. He was a member of Governor Chaffee’s advisory commission on educational television, an officer of Yankee Communications, Inc., and a member of the Board of Trustees of Roger Williams College. His civic contributions included service on the Governor’s Commission for Tourism. Chairman of the Communications Committee of the Rhode Island Heart Association, and Director of the Providence Chamber of Commerce. An avid golfer, Lowe was past president of the Ledgemont Country Club. He also served for many years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, inducting his friend and former radio partner Fred Friendly in 1968.

Lowe was a founder and first president of the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association. He received that organization’s distinguished service award in 1971, joining Fred Friendly, Chris Schenkel, and Senator Pastore as recipients. For his long pioneering career as a radio broadcaster and executive, Mowry received the Shepherd Award in 2017. It is named after John and Richard Shepherd, founders of WEAN and WNAC in Boston, and awarded to those who have made major contributions to broadcasting.

His first wife, Sally Deluty, pre-deceased him in 1947. He was remarried in 1956 to Edna Giblin, and the couple had a daughter. Mowry Lowe died on Oct. 1, 1973. “Mowry was at once a father figure, a colleague and a brother,” Fred Friendly said in his eulogy.

Mowry Lowe was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1974.

Larry Reid is the president of The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

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