Radio - The First 50 Years

1906 - 1956

The first known radio broadcast in the United States was made by Reginald A. Fessenden from an experimental station in Brant Rock, Mass., on Dec. 24, 1906. This Christmas Eve program consisted of music from phonograph records, a violin solo, and a speech by the inventor. Fessenden's program did not prove to be a pioneering effort then. For several years radio remained a communications only medium, devoted to sending and receiving messages. It proved especially valuable to the armed forces during World War I. The broadcasting potential was not realized until after the war, though Sarnoff in 1916 envisaged the possibility of a radio receiver in every home. (He later became head of the Radio Corporation of America and the National Broadcasting Company.)

There is some dispute about which station was the first to go on the air in the United States. KQW in San Jose, California, has claimed the honour on the basis of starting regular programming as early as 1912. It is generally agreed, however, that the first successful commercial radio station was KDKA in Pittsburgh. It went on the air on Nov. 2, 1920 with election returns from the presidential contest between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. The success of the broadcast and of other programs introduced shortly afterward prompted the founding of other stations.

By the end of 1921 there were 30 stations in operation. So quickly did radio catch on that less than a year later there were more than 500 licensed stations. Similar events were occurring in other countries. Great Britain' s first successful broadcasts of a voice were made in 1919. By 1921 about 150 amateur transmitting licenses had been issued. To control the growing industry, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was chartered by Parliament as a government monopoly in 1925. Local commercial broadcasting was not permitted again until the 1970s, though the monopoly had been broken by the founding of the Independent Television Authority in 1954.

On the Continent regular broadcasting began at The Hague in The Netherlands in 1919. Experimental stations went on the air in Denmark in 1921, and the State Broadcasting System was started there in 1925. Radio broadcasts began in Montreal, Quebec, in 1920, in Paris in 1922, in New Zealand in 1921, and in Sydney, Australia, in 1923. The list of nations with radio stations lengthened quickly. In India, Bombay and Calcutta had stations by 1927. In most countries broadcasting was subject to government control. Commercial use was limited or prohibited. Most programming was of a public-service nature--news, commentary, lectures, forums, and music. In the Soviet Union, where broadcasting began in 1922, programs were confined to cultural interests or to government propaganda.

The first programming to reach a sizable audience (perhaps 1,000 persons--mainly hams, or amateur radio operators) was KDKA's 1920 broadcast of the election returns. The station was owned by Westinghouse Corporation in Pittsburgh. The returns were read by Leo Rosenberg, who later claimed to be the first professional radio announcer. KDKA also hired the first full-time announcer--Harold W. Arlin, who became the first sportscaster to do a play-by-play of a football game. The station broadcast the first remote--also the first religious service, the first broadcast from a theatre, and the first prizefight--all in 1921. The first commercial was sent out over WEAF in New York City in 1922. WGN in Chicago was first to broadcast a national political convention. It was a coincidence that radio matured during the Great Depression.

The economic collapse began in 1929. As unemployment rose and poverty increased, people found radio to be a reliable and inexpensive form of entertainment. Then during the presidential contest of 1932--at the depths of the Depression--a candidate emerged who could utilize radio as the perfect tool for political communication. Franklin D. Roosevelt began to make radio speeches during the campaign. The confidence inspired by his unmatched and easily recognisable voice aided in his overwhelming victory. Phrases from his eloquent inaugural address, broadcast on March 4, 1933, are still quoted today. Having realized the value of the medium, he used it consistently and effectively during his more than 12 years in office. His informal "fireside chats" drew millions of listeners. The first one was aired on March 12, 1933, and heard by an estimated 60 million people.

World War II brought a return to prosperity. The American public could afford a greater array of entertainments, but radio kept the loyalties of its vast listening public. Television was introduced shortly after the war, but its impact was not immediate. Traditional radio programming lasted until the early 1950s. Then, gradually, the shows that had been the core of radio programming began moving to television. The major comedy-variety shows, the soap operas, the dramas- -all left radio, never to return. Radio programming soon consisted mainly of disc jockey recorded music shows, talk shows, news programs, sports events, and public service programs. Sales of radios remained high and daytime audiences remained large, but the evenings--prime time--were reserved for television.

Thanks for the great start Mr. Fessenden.

Source: Lerner, Eric J., 1992, for Compton's Encyclopaedia