The purpose of this research is to trace the history of radio broadcasting in the United States until the advent of television. We will see how the work of amateurs such as Frank Conrad led to the broadcast of the presidential election returns on November 2, 1920. A subsequent rush to build and buy receivers helped boost Westinghouse sales of radio sets. Radio Corporation of America won itself an audience of 300,000 broadcasting the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in 1921. AT&T presented the first commercial a year later. Yet a year after that AT&T began the establishment of network broadcasting. Government antitrust action in 1931 resulted in RCA, GE, and Westinghouse making their patents generally available. Meanwhile, the Radio Act of 1927 had established the Federal Radio Commission s “traffic policemen” of the air.
While early radio programming featured music, drama and comedy,, the broadcasting of news and more intellectual fare emerged in the 1930’s. After the arrival of the Federal Communications Commission in 1934, the number of radio sets in the United States grew to 13 million. After World War II radio broadcasting faced problems such as the allocation of FM to higher frequencies and the breakup of radio monopolies. By 1948, competition from television forced a drastic change in the makeup of radio programming, leading to the kind of special interest programming we enjoy today.
The world’s first radio broadcast was made by Reginald Fessenden on December 24, 1906 when he transmitted voice and music to nearby ship-to-shore stations within 15 miles of his transmitter on Brant Rock on the Massachusetts Coast. But because of technical problems and lack of economic support, Fessenden did not pursue his accomplishments to the further development of broadcasting.
It was in 1920 that radio broadcasting to the home began, originating in the work of amateurs. Frank Conrad was a prominent hobbyist who began a series of broadcasts from his garage near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Henry P. Davis, vice-president of Westinghouse Corporation saw a newspaper advertisement for Conrad’s broadcasts, he gave Conrad a transmitter, erected a station at the Westinghouse plant in Pittsburgh, and set up a regular broadcast schedule listed in advance — KDKA was born! On November 2, 1920 the station broadcast the presidential election returns, setting off a boom in the establishment of transmitting stations and the buying of receivers.
David Sarnoff, the radio operator who had listened in to the Titanic disaster, had suggested back in 1916 that his employers broadcast music to encourage sales of receiving sets. Now Radio Corporation of America named the thirty-year old Sarnoff general manager in charge of broadcasting. He established a station for a single day to broadcast the Dempsey-Carpentier fight. An indication of radio broadcasting’s tremendous growth was the number of receivers tuned to this event on July 2, 1921: “Two hundred thousand heard this broadcast as compared with the 500 who heard the election returns of the previous year.”
Westinghouse countered with the first pitch-by-pitch account of the World Series between two New York teams on October 5, 1921. Westinghouse’s station in Chicago, KYW went on the air in November 1921 with the Chicago Civic Opera, and carried the entire opera schedule for the 1921-1922 season and nothing else. The number of receivers in Chicago that year rose from 1300 to 20,000.
By the end of 1924 there were 583 stations on the air and about three million receiving sets in use. Since 1919, General Electric Corporation, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and Radio Corporation of America had a quiet agreement to share all their radio patents. Westinghouse was brought into the cartel in 1921 when it acquired rights to Edwin H. Armstrong’s superheterodyne circuit and a number of Fessenden and Michael Pupin’s patents. Under this agreement AT&T’s province include the manufacture of transmitters, their sales, and wireless and wired telephony. Thus, in 1922, AT&T established “toll radio,” putting on the air WEAF, New York, to broadcast the first commercial, a ten-minute advertisement for apartments in Jackson Heights. The next year, AT&T engineers developed a special cable to link WEAF with WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island. Setting the pattern for network broadcasting, WJAR was offered two hours of unsponsored programs for each hour of sponsored programming placed on WJAR by WEAF. In 1924, AT&T linked 26 stations coast to coast as it pursued the establishment of network broadcasting.
Problems rose, however. AT&T came under attack for limiting transmitter sales in favor of licensing agreements, and it faced government action for possible violation of antitrust laws. WEAF was, therefore, sold to RCA in 1926 and the station was incorporated at the National Broadcasting Company. By January 1927, NBC was operating on two networks: the Red, based on WEAF, New York; and the Blue, based on WJZ, now also New York.
Throughout the country confusion over wave-length allocations and their use threatened the very existence of broadcasting. Congress recognized the emergency and responded by passing the Radio Act of 1927. The Act provided for a five-man Federal Radio Commission with full authority over station licensing, frequency allocation, and power regulation, making the Commission the “policeman” of the air. It also established the basic philosophy of the American system of broadcasting: that stations must operate “in the public interest” and that the licensee did not own his frequency because the air belongs to the people of the United States.
While there were 732 stations operating at the time of relicensing, the FRC was particularly hard on educational stations in its allocation of frequencies and broadcasting hours. In 1924, there were 148 college and university stations, but the FRC granted most of them part-time licenses, often only for daytime hours that were useless for adult education.
In 1927, the United Independent Broadcasters was formed. This twelve-station group became the Columbia Broadcasting System under the presidency of William S. Paley a year later.
Programming on NBC, CBS, and the independent stations relied on music, drama, and comedy for its staples. Early radio had to focus on technical problems: with no time for experimentation anything that produced sound was considered for broadcasting: singers and comedians from vaudeville, lecturers and readers, concert artists, and hotel and department store entertainers. Later dance orchestras, the A&P Gypsies, the Cliquot Club Eskimos, the New York Philharmonic broadcasts on CBS and Walter Damrosch’s Music Appreciation Hour on NBC were popular features.
Drama was introduced by WGY in Schenectady, New York in 1922 and by 1924 the players were on network radio. By the end of the 1920’s drama programs such as the Everready Hour, Great Moments in History, and True Story were offered. First Nighter debuted in 1930 and Lux Radio Theatre arrived in 1934 the same year that saw the creation of the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Radio’s first huge success was Amos ‘n Andy put together by Freeman Gosden, banjo virtuoso and teller of Negro dialect stories, and Charles Correll, pianist and soft-shoe dancer. By 1928, almost thirty stations carried it via recordings — radio’s first syndication. NBC bought Amos ‘n Andy for their network in 1929 and for many years more than half the sets in the United States were turned to that program.
By 1933, CBS had Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Burns & Allen, as well as Kate Smith and Bing Crosby. NBC had Eddie Cantor, Jack Pearl, Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, and Rudy Vallee’s Vallee Varieties. So popular was radio listening that it came to be blamed for causing the Great Depression by keeping people indoors and at home and not active and consuming.
News programming was slow to develop, perhaps because “newspapers, afraid of radio’s competition, resisted its efforts to become a news medium.” As late as 1933 there were only four network news broadcasts. CBS’ The March of Time was an unusual success, a half-hour dramatization of the week’s news events.
Other criticisms of radio programming at the time include such excesses as the coverage of the Hauptmann trial for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1935. In 1937, the American Bar Association moved to eliminate such “circuses” by banning microphones and photographers from any courtroom. Political use of radio was made by Father Charles E. Coughlin, an incendiary demagogue, Huey Long (to organize his “Share-Our-Wealth” movement, and Liberty at the Crossroads, sponsored by the Republican Party. The networks responded by banning the dramatization of political argument.
In contrast, fresher programming such as the University of Chicago Round Table, America’s Town Meeting of the Air, and the beginnings of more creative fare were starting to appear. The future of radio brought such achievements as the experimental series Columbia Workshop presenting Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Norman Corwin’s We Hold These Truths was broadcast eight days after Pearl Harbor to the largest audience ever to hear a dramatic performance — over forty million people. No performance, however, could match the impact of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds which panicked listeners coast-to-coast in 1938. NBC countered CBS’ supremacy in quality programming when it established the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini in 1937.
Yet the basic characteristics of the American radio broadcasting system had been set by 1935 when Orrin E. Dunlop outlined them as follows:
1. A privately owned and competitively operated
system of stations and networks.
2. The support of this system by means of the
sale of broadcasting “time” for advertising
3. The safeguarding of the public interest under
this system by means of a government agency,
such as the Federal Communications Commission.
When the Federal Communications Commission took office in 1934, there were 593 broadcasting stations in the United States. Sales of receivers continued to grow: there were three million sets manufactured in 1932; six million in 1935, and 13 million in 1941. In 1935, Edwin H. Armstrong gave a public demonstration of frequency modulation; four years later his FM station, WXMN, was operating at its full 50,000 watt power. FM growth was held back during World War II and afterward when the FCC reallocated FM frequencies to make all pre-war FM equipment obsolete.
During the 1930’s and the war years the FCC coped with a variety of problems. It forced radio lotteries off the air, and achieved a ban on the radio advertising of hard liquor. Its 1941, study of monopolistic network practices, despite attack from the radio industry and congressmen resulted in modification of the networks option-time agreements with their affiliates and divestiture of their artists’ bureaus. NBC had to sell its second network, NBC-Blue. Furthermore, no one would be allowed to own two standard broadcasting stations in any one market.
Following the war, programming lost much of the excitement it had contained during the experimental 1930’s and during the fighting of World War II. There were still challenging programs by Norman Corwin and Edward R. Murrow. On the other hand, disk jockeys became a rising phenomena and jackpot and giveaway programs multiplied rapidly on the networks.
It was in 1947 that the FCC issued its report “Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees,” also known as the Blue Book. It asserted that a great disparity sometimes existed between the promises and performance of broadcasters as stated on their license applications and what was put on the air. The report also noted a paucity of non-commercially sponsored programming and an absence of adequate discussion of public issues, as well as excessive amounts of airtime devoted to commercial messages themselves.
By 1948, radio was under attack from another side — the emergence of television broadcasting, despite the FCC’s “freeze” on new television licenses. The freeze was lifted in 1952, and all the major advertisers jumped to the new medium. In that year, the president of NBC, Robert Sarnoff declared “Radio is dead” as the top-rated entertainers deserted to television or railed, like Fred Allen, to adapt. Even the daytime serials lot out to television soap operas.
Yet, radio has not died. It has survived by catering to the lesser majorities and significant minorities overlooked by the primary media. New formats such as talk-shows have been added to the staple news and music and sports programming. Helicopters and specially equipped mobile units enable news-radio stations to broadcast instanteous traffic information and on-the-scene news reports.
Despite the competition of television, radio remains a medium of a scope few imagined in 1920 when KDKA first broadcast.