Radio emerged as America’s favorite pastime in the mid-to-late 20’s. It would stay that way for a little more than two decades. It emerged at a time when Americans contact with those in other parts of the country was much more limited. Travel was not as common nor as widespread. For one full decade during the heyday of radio, the country was in a Depression, and that was followed by several years of war.
For many, radio was their primary connection to the world outside of their immediate neighborhood. It connected people with similar minded folks all around the country. It connected the German speaking immigrant in Queens to the one in Milwaukee. It connected Cubs fans in Chicago with those in North Dakota and it connected teenage fans of jazz with others around the country discovering new music. Listening to radio created communities.
The first community of radio was the radio operators themselves. In the early days of the medium, it wasn’t that easy. Radio kits were do-it-yourself projects that required some know-how. And up until the mid-20’s, the airways were unregulated, interference was rampant and so was static. The amateur radio operators of the day, or hams as they came to be called, weren’t dialing in for programming. They were hobbyists looking to make connections, the further away the better.
One of the early goals of the hams was to make a trans-Atlantic connection. That happened for the first time in 1923 when two hams in Connecticut connected with a French station. Ham radio is now more than 100 years old and shows no sign of going away. On a recent visit to the Ontario Science Center in Toronto I stopped by a booth offering an amateur radio demonstration. The ham on duty explained her set and then connected with a man in Ireland. I was impressed. Imagine how it felt 100 years ago.
One of the earliest forms of popular radio programming was live sports broadcasts. The feeling that you would have in a stadium as part of a community of fans was now expanded to all those fans listening on radio. In Sports and New York Radio, David Halberstam, describes the impact of sports radio where he grew up. “At the barbership, the Chinese laundry, or on the Sixteenth Avenue bus in Brooklyn, the game on radio was seemingly always on, especially baseball.” There were three baseball teams in New York until the mid-50’s. Being a Giants fan, a Dodgers fan or a Yankees fan was part of your identity. And you participated in communities of like-minded fans not only by turning your radio on but by listening in public places.
At the time the westernmost baseball team was in St. Louis, the southernmost in Washington D.C. If you were a baseball fan in Colorado or Texas or Georgia your connection with other fans was through the radio. If you were a college graduate you may also have maintained your identity as an alumnus of your college by listening to the Saturday broadcasts of college football games that were a staple on all the radio networks.
American cities have long been the site of ethnic neighborhoods and radio almost from the start reflected the diversity of the area where it operated. Foreign language radio stations helped keep the language alive and fueled nostalgia for the old country through music and news. In Philadelphia, the Polish American Radio Program, offering polka music and news, started in 1926 and is still going strong today. In Rockford, Ill., a 30-minute Swedish radio program recently went off the air after 75 years.
One only needs to press scan on your car radio in most areas to discover the breadth of Spanish-language radio in the U.S. Spanish-language radio also dates from the 1920’s. At that time some mainstream stations would rent off-hour times to Spanish broadcasters. Today there are more than 700 U.S. stations that broadcast either in whole or in part in Spanish.
Pretty much every genre of music has its community of listeners. For decades, as new types of music become popular, usually to the dismay of adults, teenagers discovered and listened to it on their radios. As with sports fans, this was not just about a private session with your set, but something that you shared in public amongst those with similar tastes. That might have been on a car radio parked outside the drug store or at a dance at the local church or community center.
No example of this is more dynamic than the DJ-fueled emergence of AM rock ‘n’ roll radio in the 1950’s. “Listeners were made to feel that…they constituted a vibrant energetic community that mattered to the DJ.,” according to Listening In author Susan B. Douglas. “Cousin Brucie addressed us as cousins, we were all part of the same cool family.”
At the same time a new type of community radio was emerging. Shunning advertisers and corporate sponsors, listener funded radio gave the community of listeners a voice, often literally, through call-in shows. The first listener sponsored radio station was founded by the Pacifica Foundation in San Francisco. KPFA went on the air in 1949 as the voice of Bay Area Bohemia.
Other types of community radio emerged through microbroadcasting, low powered signals in an isolated georgraphic area, some licensed and some not. In Rebels on the Air, Jesse Walker describes one example station in Canada’s far north. “Distant Indian communities had been experimenting with low-power radio since 1958, if not earlier, scavenging equipment from white bureaucrats and Mounties. Those first stations were unlicensed, and their programming bore little resemblance to the radio of the south. They were more like village centers, informal places where neighbors could share information, be it local gossip or an emergency announcement.”
WTRA, described by some as pirate radio, started in a housing project in Springfield, Ill in 1986. It was run by the Tenant Rights Association as a community organizing vehicle. Three decades later it’s still going, still unlicensed and is now known as Human Rights Radio.
No amount of corporate ownership and consolidation, government regulation and enforcement, has stopped the offbeat and off-center from finding a voice on radio. That’s not going to change as new forms of radio mature, digital and Internet based, and freed from the limitations of bandwidth and geographic reach.