On January 4, 1943, Fran Harris became the first woman to broadcast news in Michigan on WWJ radio in Detroit.
In 1931, Fran Alvord Harris began a long and successful career in broadcast journalism when she made her debut as “Julia Hayes” on radio station WWJ in Detroit. As “Julia Hayes” she shared household hints with listeners on a half-hour program for three years. For another women’s program, she played the role of “Nancy Dixon,” offering shopping advice over WWJ and WXYZ. This broadcasting experience and her general visibility at the radio station, positioned her well for a transition into newscasting.
Fran Harris benefited from the effects of the Second World War, as the men left for combat or for war reporting. In 1943 she became the first woman newscaster in Michigan. Three years later Harris pioneered in television when she became the first woman on TV in Michigan. In 1964 she achieved further recognition when she moved into management as features coordinator for WWJ-AM-FM-TV, until her retirement in 1974. Fran Harris blended dedication to her work and commitment to the profession with active involvement in community affairs.
Born in Detroit in 1909, Fran Alvord was the only child of a father who pioneered in the field of orthodontia and a politically active mother. Her close-knit family, which included caring grandparents, provided support for her mother’s state-wide women’s club involvement and her elected position on the local school board. Fran Alvord was educated in suburban Highland Park and attended Grinnell College in Iowa. In 1929, she graduated with a B.A. degree in psychology and English.
Following graduation, Fran Alvord returned to Detroit. She married Hugh W. Harris in 1932. They had three children. In Detroit she began working in the retail business at Himelhoch’s, a local specialty shop. Experience in sales, advertising and personnel prepared her for the roles of “Julia Hayes” and “Nancy Dixon,” consumer-oriented radio personalities who appealed to women audiences. During the Second World War, when WWJ lost several of its male newscasters, Fran auditioned and after some consideration was given the job of reading news on the air. In addition to daytime news, she had her own radio talk show in which she interviewed film, stage, literary, and political figures. In 1949 she received a Peabody Award for a show on sex offenders. She also developed a “traffic court” program on television that was widely copied across the country and was the precursor of “People’s Court.”
Fran Harris continued doing both radio and television broadcasting until 1964, when she moved into management as the features coordinator for WWJ radio and television. She retired in 1974 to assume an active role in her family’s business. She served as treasurer of I. C. Harris & Company (an international transportation firm) from 1957 to 1982, as president and chief executive officer from 1982 to 1984, and as board chair from 1984 to 1985. During these years she also carried on an active role in a wide range of community services, including organizations promoting women’s concerns.
Awards, Honors, and Achievements
- George Foster Peabody Award (broadcast’s Oscar) for her radio program dealing with problems of sexual deviants, 1949.
- Chaired the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in Service.
- The first woman–and only broadcaster–installed in Michigan’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 1986.
- The only woman ever selected to win the Governor’s Award from the National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences (EMMY) in Detroit (1987).
- The national president of Women in Communications, Inc., 1971 to 1973
- Established an Associate Degree in Child Care Administration at Ferris State University.
- Appointed to Status of Women Commission by Governor Swainson in 1963 and then served through 1976 with appointments by Governors Romney and Milliken.
- Author of Focus Michigan Women, 1701-1977 under the auspices of the Michigan Women’s Commission in commemoration of the International Year of the Woman., 1977
Anne Ritchie, Washington Press Club Foundation, 1992
Broadcast Pioneers, Washington, D.C.
Fran Harris (1909-1998), Papers, 1930, 1943-1976 at the University of Missouri National Women and Media Collection
Sue Carter, “”Women Don’t Do News”: Fran Harris and Detroit’s Radio Station WWJ”, Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall, 1998), pp. 77-87