Imagine your family spending the evening sitting around the living room. No TV. No smartphones. No screens of any kind. Instead everyone’s attention is focused on a small piece of furniture with a speaker and a wire leading to an antenna. It was the wireless of the early 20th century. Radio. And for a little more than two decades, from the late 1920’s to mid-century, listening to radio was the prime time pastime for a pretty large percentage of American homes. It may not have been the first widely used home entertainment device, that was the phonograph, but it was surely America’s first mass medium. It was, in the words of Listening In author Susan J. Douglas “a mass medium that stimulated the imagination instead of stunting it.” And while its reign as the king of home entertainment may have been relatively brief, it inspired the home entertainment industry for decades after that.
The standard history of radio starts with Marconi, proceeds through the U.S. Navy and moves on to the corporate manufacturers, RCA and Westinghouse among them. But most of these guys, including Marconi himself, primarily saw radio as a point-to-point communications device, a substitute for the telegraph and a way to communicate with ships at sea. The realization that radio could send out more than dits and dots was more likely laid out by a group of what today we might call freelance hackers. These guys, and they were mostly men, took their batteries and their wires, maybe some tobacco tin foil and a tomato can, and headed to the garage or attic to build wireless devices and find new ways to use them. There’s clearly a parallel with pre-web internet users.
A few stories about the accomplishments of these hackers have been passed on. There’s the Canadian engineer Reginald A. Fesseddon who set up shop in Brant Rock, Mass., and on Christmas Eve of 1906 sent out a signal that included him playing “Oh Holy Night” on the violin. His audience was unsuspecting ship telegraph operators. Charles ‘Doc’ Herold, who has been called radio’s first DJ, planted himself in 1909 in a San Jose bank and transmitted music, news and some casual banter. And then there was Lee de Forest, a man who invented the triode vacuum tube and who described himself as the “father of radio.” de Forest set up a transmitter on top of his Bronx lab and in addition to playing music, reported on the 1916 President election between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Hughes. A harbinger of future uses of radio but unfortunately de Forest reportedly made the wrong call tabbing Hughes as the winner.
Most historians start the story of commercial radio in 1920 with a Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse engineer named Frank Conrad who set up in his garage and used a microphone pointed at his phonograph to start transmitting music on Saturday nights. Westinghouse took notice and Conrad’s efforts led to the creation of KDKA which may have been the first commercial radio station, although WWJ in Detroit makes the same claim. WWJ also went on the air in 1920 as “Detroit News Radiophone.”
Before long radio began to explode. There were 32 broadcast licenses issued in 1921. The following year there were 600. In the U.S., radio was not held back by government monopolization. This led to a period in the first half of the decade that was both free and chaotic. Universities started radio stations. So did churches, newspapers and department stores. Interference was rampant and by the mid-20’s the airwaves in some areas were completely clogged.
The early radios were not plug and play. You usually had to buy the parts and put it together yourself. The early broadcasters were also the early audience. From 1920-1925, radio was the domain more of hobbyists than family listeners. It was what dad did when he disappeared into the garage after dinner. Nonetheless, sales of radio sets and parts jumped from $60 million in 1922 to $136 million in 1923 and $358 million the following year. Programming was mostly local and might have involved anyone in town who could play a musical instrument. But it wasn’t the programming itself that attracted these early listeners. They were more excited by what they could find and what distant signals they could tune in.
Several developments after 1925 set the stage for radio as the preferred home entertainment option. Radio sets themselves began to produce better sound and were easier to use. There were lower entry price points. In 1927, the Federal Radio Commission, the predecessor of the Federal Communications Commission, was established to assign and fix radio frequencies and to manage disputes. RCA formed the National Broadcasting Company in 1926, establishing two network feeds, the Blue and Red networks. CBS arrived a year later.
These networks would define radio programming for the next two decades plus. Their existence enabled stations to buy into a network with the top stars of the day, like Rudy Valee, or the biggest events like a heavyweight championship fight.
As a result of these developments the percentage of American families with a radio jumped from 10% in 1925 to 62.5% in 1933. By then the networks were offering a full slate of not just music and sports but drama and comedy as well. Even the Depression didn’t slow the growth of radio as the percentage of families owning a set jumped to 81% by 1940. Radio was in fact free to listen and the nature of the programming that had evolved offered some escape from tough times.
While commercial TV was introduced in the early 1940’s it didn’t immediately catch on. It wasn’t until later in that decade, as the number of radio sets began to reach full penetration, that both the manufacturers and the networks decided that their future was going to be shaped by TV. By 1950 the networks had pretty much abandoned radio.
But radio never lost its audience. It just changed. Families were no longer sitting around their devices listening to Roy Rogers or Jack Benny. Instead a new audience emerged that included teenagers with a transistor radio at the beach, people commuting to work in their cars and in later years the audiophiles who migrated to FM.
In next week’s post I’ll take a look at the history of the programming that captivated the American audience.