by Flip Michaels
Radio broadcasting has firmly established itself as an element of life. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, in 1990, only one percent of America's homes had no radio, and the average household owned at least five radios. Since its inception in the 1920s, radio has provoked a variety of attitudes (good, bad and outright stupid). My favorite being H. G. Wells--who condemned it in 1927 by stating radio was useful only to "very sedentary persons living in badly lighted houses or otherwise unable to read...and who have no capacity for thought or conversation."
It's amazing what you can find when you look back 68 years. When I first thought about writing this column on "radio," I honestly had trouble recalling its history. I mean, I can spell Marconi! I can even recall the first commercial ever to air. But to really remember radio and its founders...that's tough. And that's why. Yes, that's why I'm writing this column.
Radio is a medium which is unlike any other, deserving the utmost respect, for it has grown, and continues to grow, in every way imaginable. Remembering where it all started is the greatest gift we could ever return to its founders.
PART ONE: The Early Years: 1919-1924
Due to a World War I ban on non-military broadcasting, radio inventors Guglielmo Marconi, Lee DeForest, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, and Edwin Armstrong waited until the year of 1919 to introduce the technological foundations of radio.
In the early 1920s, hundreds of amateur stations sprang up across the country. As many as 500 signals had been licensed by the government, who assigned at first three, and then four, letter codes to every station.
American Marconi, the U.S. subsidiary of Marconi's highly successful British company, was bought by the newly formed Radio Corporation of America (RCA), in large part to keep some of the new technology of radio in American hands. Both American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and Westinghouse Corporation capitalized wisely on the broadcasting boom by establishing stations, large and small, that could share costs and bring a variety of popular entertainment from cities to rural areas.
In 1920, Westinghouse engineer, Frank Conrad, received the license for what is regarded today as the nation's true radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. KDKA's program schedule included music, sports, and the 1920 presidential election. In addition, Westinghouse was also the first to sell radio sets (with the least expensive costing $25). Westinghouse, General Electric, and AT&T then agreed to share all broadcasting patents each were developing. RCA entered the patent pool a year later. In return, each of the three original patent holders acquired interest in RCA.
AT&T inaugurated its New York City radio station, WEAF, in 1922. Soon after, WEAF aired the first paid commercial announcement, a ten-minute speech about real estate's Queensborough Corporation. Cost: $50. In just two years (1924), radio continued its surge into Americans' lives by reaching over 20 million listeners! WEAF's profits exceeded $150,000! America was now flowing with its first truly profitable radio waves. The lines began to form as many amateur enthusiasts decried the commercialization of radio.
I'll finish this historical glimpse next month, and wrap up this month with the words of Herbert Hoover, then Commerce Department Secretary: "It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter."