History of Radio: Communities of Listeners

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.


(Esther Bubely)

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.


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History of Radio: Tuesday, April 28, 1942

1942 and America is at war. During the course of the year the Japanese invade the Philippines, Malaysia and Burma. FDR signs an order for the internment of Japanese Americans. Gas is rationed and in Chicago the Manhattan Project team produces their first nuclear chain reaction. Pan American Airways schedules the first commercial flight around the world, Joe Louis successfully defends his heavyweight boxing title and the movie Casablanca premiers in New York. At the grocery store, Kellogg’s introduces Raisin Bran for the first time.

Oddly, the cover story in the April 25, 1942 edition of Radio Guide is written by film actress Irene Dunne, who stars in an upcoming movie “Lady in a Jam.” Dunne writes about life in Hollywood. Also, war correspondent Elizabeth Wayne tells her story about what it’s like broadcasting from a war zone. Readers learn that Chinese actors will be used to portray the Japanese in the film “Remember Pearl Harbor,” which was in production at the time. We find out that NBC news reporter Alex Dreier returned from Germany 20 pounds heavier due to a diet of cabbage and potatoes. And as citizens are urged to conserve on energy during the war, the editors of Radio Guide advise to turn the lights off while listening to radio. They suggest the listener “would not only be saving power but would find his radio appreciation increased.” There’s now a half-page ad on the inside cover. Pepsi touts itself as “Hollywood’s best bet for good taste.” And a little further in there’s a curious ad by the Newspaper Institute of America offering a free writing aptitude desk. Presumably the results of that test might qualify you to pay such institute for some further training.

Americans are anxious to hear the news from the war fronts. Many have friends or relatives fighting in Europe or who, like my father, are on ships in the Pacific. The first commercial television broadcasts began in 1941 but TV did not initially catch on and few families owned television sets during the war years. So on the night of Tuesday, April 28, 1942, American families instead turned on their radios. The network programming for the night was not that different from the 30’s. Lots of comedy, variety, drama and music. But there’s one big difference. There’s news on both the networks and the local stations and lots of it.

At 7 p.m. CBS aired its popular radio drama “Are You a Missing Heir?” It dramatized cases of unclaimed inheritances and actually employed detectives to find the missing heirs. They apparently found quite a few of them. One suspects that listeners tuned in for much the same reason that modern-day listeners tune it to lottery drawings. More drama follows in the form of Ned Jordan, Secret Agent. Jordan is an FBI agent and he often is involved in war-themed cases like protecting the U.S. from terrorists.

At 8 p.m. it’s time for a variety show hosted by the popular comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their guests this evening include the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Senor Lee and Jimmy Cash (not to be confused with Johnny who was only 10 at the time.) The comedy duo of Burns and Allen got their start in vaudeville in the early 20’s. Later they made several motion pictures. Their radio show first hit the airwaves 1936 and continued until 1950. After that they made a successful transition to television. What is perhaps most notable about Burns and Allen’s routines is Gracie’s portrayal as the air-headed wife whose seemingly inane comments end up being far wiser than her more practical husband.

One of radio’s most popular shows, Fibber McGee and Molly, is on at 8:30. This NBC comedy show had an even longer run than Burns and Allen. It was on the radio from 1936 to 1959. Like Burns and Allen these comedians were a married couple, Jim and Marion Jordan. On the show they were a working class couple living in a suburban hamlet called Wishful Vista in a home they won in a raffle. A common plot involved Fibber setting off on unsuccessful schemes to bring in some money. Here’s the episode that was on the air on April 28, 1942.

At 9 p.m. CBS offered Suspense, a radio drama that in 1942 was in its first year. It would prove to be among radio’s most popular dramatic series and continued on the air until 1962. It would win a Peabody Award and be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. But in 1942 it did not yet have a sponsor and was backed by the network itself until a sponsor came on board in 1944. The early shows were introduced by “The Man in Black” who sounds a little like Rod Serling. During its heyday the characters in this drama were often played by prominent films actors and actresses and many of the episodes were penned by well-known mystery writers.

While CBS was offering spine tinglers, NBC stuck to the tried and true comedy variety format. At 9:30 that meant the Red Skelton show. Skelton had followed the familiar path of vaudeville to film to radio to TV. His show went on the air in 1941 under the sponsorship of Raleigh cigarettes. Skelton was known for creating different characters, among the best known is Clem Kadiddlehopper. Some consider Kadiddlehopper a forerunner of the cartoon character Bullwinkle. No comedy program was complete on 1940’s radio without some music and Skelton’s house band was the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra. Nelson later was known for the TV sitcom the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. That show also started on radio. It included Ozzie and Harriet’s son Ricky Nelson who went on to have a successful recording career. As was typical of radio stars of the era, Ozzie and Harriet were really a married couple and Ricky was really their son. As for Skelton, his show was interrupted in 1944 when he was drafted into the army. Assigned to the entertainment corp, he entertained troops in the U.S. and Europe. He resumed his radio career upon his return in 1945.

By 10 p.m. news was the most prevalent program on the radio. Many local stations had their own news programs at 10 or 10:30. The networks had a full newscast at 11. It was during the war that news became a major part of the radio mix. Radio had by now replaced newspapers as the most up to the minute source of breaking news and with the war raging on two fronts, Americans followed developments on their radios.


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History of Radio: Thursday, Sept. 29, 1932

In 1932, the U.S. was in the throes of the Depression. 13 million Americans were unemployed, almost 25% of the population. Herbert Hoover was president but he was about to be defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide. Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped and later found dead. Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion. Amelie Earhart became the first women to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic. And in Oklahoma, the parking meter was invented.

The lead story in the current week’s Radio Guide, the issue dated Oct. 1, 1932, was headlined “Crime Pays – On Air.” It discussed the proliferation of crime drama on radio and the broadcasters search for more mystery writers. There was a news story that both networks, CBS and NBC would be carrying the upcoming World Series between the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs and the announcing teams would include two legends of early sports broadcasting, Graham McNamee for NBC and Ted Husing for CBS. Another story revealed that, under pressure from advertisers, the networks were dropping a long-standing ban on mentioning prices on air. NBC agreed to one-price mention per 15 minute program. CBS would allow two but added the further restriction that “sales talk” could not exceed 90 seconds during a 15-minute span. Radio Guide hailed this as the “most drastic step thus far in cutting down the sometimes tedious blurbs which clutter the air.” Ads in this week’s edition were few and far between but included a pitch for a new lighter microphone and a display ad from station WGES promising listeners official race results.

On the night of Thursday, Sept. 29, 1932, a typical American family may have been worried about finding work, keeping their home and maybe just finding the money to put food on the table. Radio though was free, and here’s what they might have heard that night.

There was canine drama on the NBC network at 7:30 with Rin Tin Tin.  The radio show was inspired by a German Shephard that had been rescued by an American soldier in World War I. Rin Tin Tin became a film star appearing in some 27 films, most of them silent. They had titles like Rinty of the Desert and Hero of the Big Snows. The radio program started in 1930 as the Wonder Dog and while some of the early shows had the real Rin Tin Tin offering a bark or two, most of the dog noises were created by man with the appropriate last name Barker. By 1932 the show had been renamed Rin Tin Tin. It was sponsored by Ken-L Ration and, after a move to the rival CBS network, lasted until 1934. It reappeared as a TV series, the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin in 1954.

Radio programs at the time were usually 15 minutes long. After the excitement of Rin Tin Tin you could calm down at 7:45 with the undoubtedly more serene National Oratorio Society program. And at 8, a switchover to CBS would deliver a solid block of music including “Music That Satisfies,” “The Mills Brothers,” and “Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra.”

The Mills Brothers were four African-American brothers, sons of a barber shop owner in Ohio. As a jazz quartet they are an example of how radio gave African American artists an audience at a time when many segments of American society was segregated. They originally became local radio stars through their appearances on WLW in Cincinnati. After appearing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Cincinnati they caught the attention of a record company that moved them to New York. After getting an audition with William Paley of CBS, he signed them to a three-year contract making them the first black artists to get a network radio show.

NBC at the time ran two networks, the blue network and the red network, and at 9 p.m. they offered options of Phil Lord, the Country Doctor, or the Lucky Strike Dance Hour. Most programs at the time had one sponsor. The opening for the Lucky Strike program went like this: “Ladies and gentlemen , the Lucky Strike Dance Hour presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Three times each week we bring you the Lucky Strike thrills, 60 modern minutes with the world’s finest dance orchestras, and, in addition, the melodrama and mystery of real New York Police cases on Tuesdays ; your New York correspondent Walter Winchell on Thursdays, and Bert Lahr, Broadway’s craziest comedian, on Saturdays.”

After 60 minutes of “Lucky thrills” 10 p.m. was Amos ‘n’ Andy time. (Radio Guide was published in Chicago so all times herein are Central time.) Amos ‘n’ Andy was the top rated show at the time. It was perhaps the most popular radio show ever, on for 15 minutes every night. It was also a show that created humor out of demeaning racial stereotypes. The basic plot was about two black farmers from Atlanta, portrayed as gullible stumblebums, who moved to Chicago and started their own business, the Fresh Air Taxi Company, so named because their car had no roof. The dialogue was characterized by one prominent black church official at the time as “crude, moronic and repetitious.” The characters were actually voiced by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who also were the writers of the show. Andy’s daughter was voiced by a Chinese American woman. It is estimated that at one point the show attracted 40 million listeners, a full third of the U.S. population.

In the 30’s, perhaps because of the struggles faced by so many Americans, comedy replaced music as the most popular radio programming.

CBS had no answer to Amos ‘n ‘ Andy’s popularity. The second network followed with more music, bandleader Little Jack Little at 10:30 and the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra at 10:45. There was no 11 o’clock news and the rest of the evening was given over to music programming, primarily dance orchestras.



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History of Radio: Music, Sports, News and More Music

It was nearly 100 years ago that an engineer named Dr. Frank Conrad decided to stick a mike a front of his phonograph and send the signal out over the radio transmitter he had built in his garage. Conrad’s Saturday night broadcasts not only gave rise to the first commercial radio station in the U.S. (KDKA Pittsburgh) but the Westinghouse employee was setting the tone for what would be the predominate type of programming over the airwaves for decades, music.

In the early years of radio, when most shows were local, the music came from wherever broadcasters could find it. According to Leonard Maltin, author of The Great American Broadcast, “In the earliest days of broadcasting, almost everyone who could sing or play an instrument found a home on radio.”

That began to change with the advent of radio networks, NBC in 1926 and CBS in 1927. The plethora of local stations were connected into networks and their programming began to dominate the airwaves. What didn’t change was the importance of music as a part of that programming. NBC’s first broadcast was a live event at the Waldorf Astoria which featured an orchestra, an opera and dance bands. Music continued to be the most popular form of radio programming throughout the 20’s. In addition to symphonies and opera, radio introduced wider audiences to jazz.

Almost all the music on radio, even as late as the mid-1940’s was performed live. The record industry and the artists themselves were opposed to playing recorded music on radio for fear it would impact record sales. They were about as successful as the recording industry would be decades later when they tried to stop MP3s. Recording tape was not invested until the 40’s. The first pre-recorded radio program was Bing’s Philco Radio Time in 1946.

But music was not the only way to find an audience in the ether and stations were quick to catch onto the attraction of sports. One of the first big sporting events on radio was the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier heavyweight championship fight in 1921. Receivers were placed in theaters and it is estimated that some 300,000 heard the call of the match. David J. Halberstam, author of Sports on New York Radio, believes “boxing is not only the root of sports on radio but it is the very root of all radio.” Of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight he says: “The experiment was such a smash success it resulted in the proliferation of radio stations and the spiraling of radio receivers.”

In 1927, the second championship fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey held at Soldier Field in Chicago drew a network listening audience of 50 million. To appreciate how popular heavyweight boxing was on radio, consider that the most recent World Series between the Cubs and the Indians, one of the most widely viewed baseball games in decades, drew a viewing audience of 40 million.

Other sports were also quick to find their way onto radio. KDKA broadcast the Pittsburgh-West Virginia college football game in 1921. That same year WJZ New York aired the Yankees-Giants World Series. Throughout the 20’s, 30’s and into the 40’s the most popular sports on radio were boxing, college football and baseball. And the biggest events were heavyweight championship fights, the Rose Bowl and the World Series.

In took a little bit longer for news to catch on. Radio gradually became the go to medium for important events. KDKA, already a pioneer in music and sports broadcasting, covered the Harding-Cox presidential election in 1920. In 1927, the new NBC network put together 50 stations and drew 15 million listeners for the Charles Lindbergh ticker tape parade. Two events in 1932 helped propel radio into the forefront of news media: one was the Hoover-Roosevelt election and the other was the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s baby. Until that time the newspaper “extra” edition was the primary source of breaking news. Radio disrupted that. By 1941 when FDR made his “day that will live in infamy speech” following the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is estimated that 79% of all American homes were listening on radio.

Some other changes in the popularity of programming began to appear in the 30’s. Some attribute this to the Depression causing American listeners to look to the radio for some escape from hard times. Others see it as a reflection of the fact that network programs were generally produced and controlled by advertisers. What they found is that nothing drew a bigger audience in the 30’s than comedy. The first comedy to achieve a mass audience was Amos ‘n’ Andy, a show that was based on demeaning racial stereotypes. It was also the most popular show in the nation by 1929. At one point Amos ‘n’ Andy reached 40 million listeners, about one-third of the entire U.S. population.

Many other comedy shows echoed vaudeville. Well-known comedians like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, who later went on to TV stardom, got their start in radio.

Another popular form of programming was drama. Two of the early dramatic series were Roy Rogers and Sergeant Preston, both of which came on the air in the late 20’s. Radio also presented condensed versions of novels, plays and even popular movies. Soap operas came to dominate daytime listening. WGN in Chicago introduced the first daytime radio soap, Painted Dreams, in 1930.  It lasted until 1943. And the first quiz show, Professor Quiz, made its debut in 1936.

This mix of sitcoms, live sports, adventure series, daytime dramatics and game shows is exactly what television would offer when it started to come into widespread use in late 1940’s and 1950’s. To this day, many of the types of programming that you see on TV had their origins during the heyday of radio.

While sports and news continue to have some place on radio, once the cowboys, the comedians and the weepy jilted lovers moved over to TV, they disappeared from the radio dial. And that sent radio back to its roots, music.  The authors of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life note that “By the fifties, broadcasters had finally settled most of their disputes with the wider music industry and there were no more legal obstacles to filling airtime with records. The transistor had been invented in 1948, so a radio receiver could now be cheap and portable. And around the same time society invented the teenager.”

All that translated into a new era of radio personalities, DJ’s. Just as radio had found a mass audience for jazz in the 20’s, it introduced many Americans to rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll in the 50’s. According to Listening In author Susan J. Douglas. “Perhaps radio’s most revolutionary influence on American culture and its people was the way it helped make music one of the most significant, meaningful, sought after, and defining elements of day-to-day life, of generational identity and of personal and public memory. Radio gradually made music available to people at most times of the day and night.”

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Who Was America’s Worst President?

I don’t know why I thought of this on Inauguration Day. I was following my usual morning routine of drinking coffee, reading news on my iPad and procrastinating about walking the dog. Then it suddenly occurred to me to ask Google a question that I figured would be too nuanced for Siri. Who was the worst American president in history?

James Buchanan

New York Pubic Library Digital CollectionU.S. News and World Report averaged the results of five different polls. Their answer was James Buchanan, president from 1857 to 1861, preceding Abraham Lincoln. He was believed to have influence over the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court that denied the government’s ability to prevent the spread of slavery into the Western territories. He helped precipitate and then presided over the Panic of 1857, assuring Americans that there was little he could do about it. His most definitive response was to reduce the amount of gold and silver in coins. As for foreign policy, he once sent troops into South America to try to annex parts of Paraguay. And he rushed troops to the Canadian border to participate in a standoff that resulted when a Hudson’s Bay Company pig was shot by an American settler. It was under his watch that Southern states began to secede from the Union.

Andrew Jackson

New York Public Library imageWhen the question was put to Quora users, a popular choice was the man whose oversized head defaces the $20 bill. Influenced by having watched the play Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson not too many years ago, he’s my personal choice. He is most widely reviled, and deservedly so, for the Indian Removal Act, which forced the relocation of 45,000 Native Americans and led to the Trail of Tears. This slave-owner virtually institutionalized the practice of patronage in his hiring to federal jobs thus paving the way for future generations of Cabinet nominees like Betsy DeVos. He openly defied the Supreme Court after the justices issued a ruling that was favorable to Native Americans in Georgia. With a human rights record that is about the same level as that of Attila the Hun, jail would have been a more appropriate home for this guy than the White House.

George W. Bush

Wikipedia commons imageNow that the Presidency is in the hands of a narciscistic blowhard, I have softened by view of Dubya. Here is a man who probably would know the right people to put together a dynamite backyard barbeque. But a History News Network poll of historians tabs Bush Deux as our worst-ever president. That reminded me of the fact that he sent us into war based on utter bullshit. He turned a healthy budget surplus into a massive deficit by reducing taxes for the wealthy while increasing spending. And he let Wall Street run amok until the combination of their greed and challenged ethics produced the recession of ’08. One of the surveyed historians characterized him as “glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self.”

Andrew Johnson

New York Public Library imageA 2006 Siena College poll that included 744 professors placed Andrew Johnson at the bottom of the pile. Johnson was president from 1865-1869. He had been vice president when Lincoln was assassinated. Based on some administrative rules that I don’t understand, Congress impeached Johnson in 1868 but fell one vote short of removing him from office. A former pro-slavery governor of Tennessee (how the hell did Lincoln pick this guy?), Johnson vetoed every civil rights bill Congress passed and condoned white terrorism in the south. He is generally considered to have set the stage for the Jim Crow south. His total unfitness to hold the office can be summed up in his own words. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it will be a government for white men.” This is not a president who was ever elected.

Warren Harding

New York Public Library imageA 1996 poll of academics by noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., points the finger of shame at Warren Harding. Harding won a landslide victory in the Presidential election of 1920 campaigning against Woodrow Wilson’s globalism and becoming the first Presidential candidate to play the red scare card. In office he refused to recognize post-revolution Russia. Harding is not so much reviled for what he did but rather for how little he did. He only lasted two years. He suddenly died of a heart attack in 1922 after originally being diagnosed with food poisoning. His brief time in office was characterized by charges of corruption against others in his administration, the best known of which is the Teapot Dome Scandal. Affairs with other women were also part of the buzz around his presidency and it is believed that the Republican Party paid hush money to one, Carrie Phillips, who was a German sympathizer during the war. No one has ever substantiated the rumors that his wife poisoned him.



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History of Radio: We All Sat Around the Wireless

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. At Hockey Hall of FameIt 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.

radio receiver at Ontario Science Center

1925 Atwater-Kent radio receiver

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.

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In a city full of museums, this one is my favorite.

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Stewart Uoo sculpture

No Sex, No City: Miranda, Stewart Uoo

Robert Bechtle painting at Whitney

’61 Pontaic, Robert Bechtle

Steyerl video

Factory of the Sun, Hito Steyerl

VanDerBeek mixed media

Movie Mural, Stan VanDerBeek

Warhol at the Whitney

Nine Jackies, Andy Warhol

Wax candle by Urs Fischer

Standing Julian, a wax candle by Urs Fischer

Nicole, Sunnydale Avenue

Nicole, Sunnydale Avenue by Katy Grannon

Brune Nauman portrait

Opened Eye, Bruce Nauman

Hanson sculpture at the Whitney

Woman with Dog, Duane Hanson

Herrara painting at the Whitney

Green and White, Carmen Herrara

Saar work at the Whitney

Sklin/Deep, Alison Saar


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Not Your Grandmother’s Vase; Chihuly Blown Glass

Blown glass by Chihuly

Sapphire Neon Tumbleweeds

Dale Chihuly is a 75-year old American artist who builds sculptures out of blown glass. A native of Tacoma, Washington, he holds masters degrees in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Rhode Island School of Design. He also studied glass blowing on the island of Murano in Venice, Italy. He is known for location specific installations in public spaces and gardens. In addition his work is featured in more than 250 museum collections. After an accident made it difficult for him to hold a glass blowing pipe in 1979 he continued his work by hiring others to do the glass blowing.

Chihuly blown glass

Red Reeds on Logs

Chihuly blown glass

Icicle tower and chandelier

Chihuly drawing

Basket and reed quad drawing

Chihuly blown glass

Royal Ontario Museum exhibit

All photos are from the Chihuly exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto

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Hockeytown Toronto

at the Toronto Christmas Market

Hockey equipment past and present

Hockey Then and Now, an Ontario Science Center exhibit

at the Hockey Hall of Fame

The first Stanley Cup

Souvenir T-shirt

Canadians vs. Leafs

Canadians vs. Leafs. As a child I played this exact game for a countless number of hours.

Sharks hockey shirt

the Hockey Hall of Fame

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It’s Christmastime in Toronto

Christmas in the mall

The Beaches

Eaton Center

Toronto Christmas Market

Santa at the Chelsea Hotel

Santa in the hotel lobby

Phillips Square

Christmas tree

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