EARLY RADIO IN AMERICA
American physicist Reginald Fessenden made the first radio voice broadcast in 1900. Until that time, messages had only been sent in Morse. In 1906 a ships radio officer was astonished to hear through his earphones, not the usual Morse code, but a voice saying ‘If anyone hears me, please write to Reginald Fessenden at Brant Rock’. Reginald had succeeded in broadcasting his voice out to a ship at sea. He also broadcast phonograph music – all of this nearly twenty years before radio broadcasting began.
In 1919 Westinghouse engineer Dr. Frank Conrad, broadcast music in Pittsburgh, and a David Sarnoff saw how this stimulated crystal set receiver sales. The Radio Corporation of America was formed by Westinghouse, General Electric, and the American Telephone
and Telegraph Company to explore David’s broadcasting suggestions, with David as General Manager.
On 2-11-1920, the first regular broadcast by a radio station was from KDKA in Pittsburgh. They commenced with the results of the Harding/Cox presidential election, which is now celebrated as the first big popular event in broadcasting history. Radio advertising began in 1922 when a Jackson Heights real estate firm sponsored the first commercial broadcast. By 1923 the names of radio personalities had become household words with over 500 stations broadcasting concert hall programs, theatre plays, and sports events.
By the 1930s radio had become part of life for people in Britain, Europe, America, and Australia. Technical competence had improved with regular and dependable broadcasts using a degree of fidelity. The listening audience had grown enormously with programs covering news, theatrical dramas, quiz shows, and classical and popular music. Advertisers became an integral part of production as increased running costs made radio stations dependent on commercial support. The network system in America and Australia developed, whereby stations across the country were linked together for national advertisers programs. The stations all shared the production costs with advertisers. In America, where broadcasting now plays so large a part in the national life, advertising was non-existent in 1924, but by 1930, nearly $100 million a year was being spent on radio. At first, advertising was stilted and limited, and the prices of products were rarely mentioned. During the late 1920s listeners heard the sponsors name linked to programs, e.g. the ‘Ipana Troubadours’ and the ‘General Motors Hour’.
Radio and the movies existed together without great opposition because radio was wholly aural and the movies essentially visual. Like the cinema, radio too had its great stars, who were paid enormous salaries and had an incredible number of fans. Some people were stars of both radio and cinema. The stars of vaudeville often became stars of radio, and many broadcasts were conducted in front of live audiences, with the sound of laughter and applause being an integral part of the early live radio broadcasts. Stars included Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, and Bing Crosby.
Radio started to reach a mass audience and was creating popular singers, orchestras, and sport stars. The dance band era of the 1930s was given great impetus by radio, with Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn miller being listened to by millions of people. It was also an era of exciting newscasts from Government leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt grasped the potential of radio with his ‘Fireside Chats’ being heard by millions. On the day of his inauguration, Roosevelt had to avert a crisis in banking. He called for calm over the NBC and CBS networks and gave assurances that the monetary crisis would pass. His ‘Fireside Chats’ became a great success as the President seemed to be talking to listeners individually. These subdued ‘Fireside Chats’ contrasted sharply with the hysterical shouting of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Europe, who used radio to promote their propaganda.
Radio grew as a source of news, and so did the role of radio journalists and commentators. By 1942 the voices of H.V. Kaltenborn, Ed Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Walter Winchell (and Richard Dimbleby on the BBC), were well-known. Radio kept people in touch with what was happening on the war front in Europe, but it also offered an escape into entertainment, music, and comedy.
As WWII came to a close in 1945, electronics firms returned to radio manufacturing. From 1946 to 1948, over 50 million sets were sold. As television was introduced into America, radio went through a depressed era of skeletal news services and sports commentaries, and disc jockeys simply played more records and less live performances. From 1960, radio gradually made a comeback, with more than 170 million radios being sold during the 1960s – 1970s. The growth of FM station also added to the resurgence of radio. There is now a wide range of program formats available with different stations catering for diverse interests e.g. KADS broadcasts only advertisements, WSDM uses only female announcers, and several stations broadcast continuous news. By 1980 there were over 350 million radios in use throughout America.