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The Decade That Roared

46g. Radio Fever

David Sarnoff
Courtesy of the MZTV Museum
David Sarnoff was the first president of RCA and helped revolutionize radio.

Commercial radio in America had humble beginnings. Frank Conrad, an engineer for Westinghouse, set up an amateur radio station above his garage in a Pittsburgh suburb. Since the wireless technology was developed by Guglielmo Marconi in the late 19th century, thousands of enthusiasts across the world experimented with the new toy. After World War I, Conrad began broadcasting a variety of programming from his "station." High school music groups performed, phonograph records were played, and news and baseball scores were reported. Conrad had dramatically improved the transmitter, and soon hundreds of people in the Pittsburgh area were sending requests for air time. The bosses of Westinghouse knew that Conrad was on to something and convinced him to make his hobby commercially profitable.

Bill Stern
Sports broadcasts helped boost the popularity of radio.

KDKA on the Air

On the night of November 2, 1920, Conrad and his Westinghouse associates announced that Warren G. Harding had defeated James Cox to become the next President. The message was heard as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Louisiana. The federal government granted the call letters KDKA to the Pittsburgh station and a new industry was born. For nearly a year, KDKA monopolized the airwaves. But competition came fast and furious; by the end of 1922, there were over 500 such stations across the United States. The federal government excercised no regulation over the nascent enterprise, and the result was complete chaos. Stations fought over call letters and frequencies, each trying to outbroadcast the closest competitor. Finally in 1927, Congress created the Federal Radio Commission to restore order.

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1922 radios
Bellingham Radio Museum
RCA Radiola Senior and the Radiola Jr. The Junior was a Crystal set, and the Senior was a one tube radio. These radios were made in 1922.

One of the great attractions to the radio listener was that once the cost of the original equipment was covered, radio was free. Stations made money by selling air time to advertisers. The possibility of reaching millions of listeners at once had advertising executives scrambling to take advantage. By the end of the decade advertisers paid over $10,000 for an hour of premium time.

The Radio Corporation of America created a new dimension to the venture in 1926. By licensing telephone lines, RCA created America's first radio network and called it the National Broadcasting Company. For the first time, citizens of California and New York could listen to the same programming simultaneously. Regional differences began to dissolve as the influence of network broadcasting ballooned. Americans listened to the same sporting events and took up the same fads. Baseball games and boxing matches could now reach those far away from the stadiums and arenas. A mass national entertainment culture was flowering.

On the Web
The Hammond Museum of Radio
Imagine a world without radio? How did people survive?! The development of the commercial "squawk box" came about in the 1920s and revolutionized music and information sharing in the United States. This awesome site full of pictures and sound clips takes you deep among the tubes and transistors into the history of radio!
United States Early Radio History
This site is not for the faint of heart as it has a terrific amount of text and information. But with that out of the way, this site provides the reader with an excellent breakdown of the importance of radio in the 1920s. Check out each and every link to make full use of this page.
Al Jolson Society
Al Jolson was the preeminant radio personality from the birth of that form of entertainment. This site is dedicated to preserving his legacy and his memory. Full of pictures, links, and audio clips, this is a wonderful site for anyone who wants to unwind with entertainment of the hayday of radio!
The Radio Hall of Fame
What better place to learn about the massive impact that radio had than from its offical hall of fame. Of real note here is the massive archive of past radio broadcasts. From news to sports to everything in between, this site has it all.
The Radio Corporation of America
This brief page gives you a wonderful overview of the importance of RCA in the development of radio. After you are finished with this brief page, go back and explore the rest of the web site.
Early U.S. Radio History
Thomas White, an expert on the history of early radio, has put together a superb history of early radio in narrative form. There are sections on early radio pioneers, transmitter development, fifteen articles about pre-WWI amateur radio and much more. Sadly, no pictures. Well it is radio after-all.
Radio pioneer David Sarnoff predicted the following in 1964: "The computer will become the hub of a vast network of remote data stations and information banks feeding into the machine at a transmission rate of a billion or more bits of information a second..." Not bad, huh. Check out what else Sarnoff predicted.
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Before there was Pay Per View there was radio broadcast heavyweight boxing fights. The first was Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpenter in the "Battle of the Century".
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