On November 2, 1920 radio station KDKA in Pittsburg, PA, which was owned by Westinghouse, became the first commercially licensed radio station in the United States. It transmitted a signal of a whopping 100 watts. Radio existed prior to 1920, but it was only a toy for the same sort of people who played with early computers – which also seemed to have no obvious use.
Radio was conceived as a way for one person to communicate with another over the airwaves, but the nature of the signal was such that anyone could pick up any transmission. There was no privacy whatsoever, so the big question became “Is there anything useful that we can do with radio?” There weren’t any good answers until someone came up with the idea of using radio to sell radios. Then others decided to use radio to sell their products, and so they set up their own stations. In between commercials for themselves they came up with various ways to fill the time such as weather reports, farm crop reports, and even live music.
Soon there were hundreds of radio stations around the country and that created total chaos. Stations interfered with one another because they used the same frequencies, plus the range of frequencies used by the stations was unregulated. So the federal government stepped in to bring order to the world of radio. The Federal Radio Commission (later to be called the Federal Communications Commission) stepped in to set limits on the frequency range that stations could use, set times when the various stations could be on the air, and even regulated the content of radio broadcasts. For instance, only live music was allowed. The use of recordings was prohibited.
All early radio stations broadcasted using AM, that is Amplitude Modulation, signals. FM, or Frequency Modulation, which was invented in 1933 by an engineer named Edwin Armstrong, had the advantage of giving much greater fidelity, and it was not affected by adverse weather like AM. For many years automobile radios were only equipped to pick up AM stations because FM was not very popular and because the signal didn’t carry as far as an AM signal. Now, most of the radio stations we listen to are FM stereo while AM is mostly used for talk shows since bandwidth and fidelity aren’t issues in the range of the human voice. Some home radios no longer even include the AM band.
Any evening during the 1930s and 1940s you could hear live broadcasts featuring the most popular bands and vocalists of the time – Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, The Andrews Sisters, and Al Jolson. You could even tune in to the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the renowned Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, and you could hear the greatest operas in the world on the Saturday matinees from the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City. All came into our homes to entertain us free of charge.
Well, almost free of charge, because commercials eventually became ubiquitous. Many evening shows were sponsored by cigarette companies including Camel, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, Philip Morris, and Pall Mall. Daytime serials, such as The Guiding Light, The Goldbergs, One Man’s Family, Ma Perkins, and Stella Dallas were often sponsored by soap companies because women were the primary audience. Thus, the “soap opera” was born. The Dinah Shore Show was sponsored by Mum deodorant, though the word “deodorant” was never used. Instead, the commercials stated that Mum would keep the ladies “dainty” all day long. Any woman who failed to use Mum, the sponsor warned, would be “undainty.” For some reason, Mum was never suggested for men.
Many of the dramas on radio every evening made their way to television. Examples include Superman, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and Dragnet. Some programs, such as The Lux Radio Theater offered adaptations of popular films – many with the original cast members – while other evening programs did adaptations of classic novels.
Comedy was a staple of radio during its golden age. Jack Benny had a very popular program as did his foil Fred Allen. Lucille Ball starred in My Favorite Husband from 1948 to 1951, and then moved on to television with the immensely popular I Love Lucy which aired from 1951 to 1957. The popular comedienne, Fanny Brice, portrayed a little girl named Baby Snooks in a series that ran from 1937 to 1951. One dummy even had a comedy series on radio: Charlie McCarthy (accompanied by his mouthpiece Edgar Bergen).
In fact Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on the air on the night of October 30, 1938 when the most famous radio show ever broadcast on radio scared the hell out of many Americans. While their very popular program, The Chase and Sanborn Hour was on, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air presented their adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on another network. It was announced at the beginning of the program that the evening’s offering was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel, but many tuned in after that announcement and thought that a Martian invasion was actually under way. People tuning in late heard a live music program that was frequently interrupted by news bulletins having to do with strange flashes of light coming from Mars. Later the bulletins came from a live remote at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey where the Martians had landed. Soon the announcer said that the Martians were using flames to incinerate the humans near the alien spacecraft, screams were heard, and the announcer said the flames were coming in his direction. Then the remote abruptly ended. That’s when people went crazy – many of them heading to their automobiles to escape the area. Car radios were available in 1938, but they weren’t as popular as they are today, so many people were late in learning that they had been fooled by a cleverly produced radio show. Noted critic and wit Alexander Woolcott sent a telegram to Welles that read, “This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and that all the dummies were listening to you.”
On Sunday morning, November 1, 2020 I’ll feature a three hour broadcast of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH that will feature “live” music from the golden age of radio and some recordings that discuss the history of this wonderful medium. The program will air between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Central Standard Time. You can hear the program locally by tuning in to WBRH at 90.3 FM or at wbrh.org on the internet. During the final part of the third hour I’ll feature excerpts from the famous 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Don’t miss it.
There are many books about the history of radio. I suggest the following:
Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio (2008) by Anthony Rudel
The Great American Broadcast (1997) by Leonard Maltin
Raised on Radio (1998) by Gerald Nachman
The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (1996) by Lynne Olsen and Stanley W. Cloud
On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (1998) by John Dunning