The first nationally recognized commercial radio broadcast took place on November 2, 1920. Radio was the earliest electronic mass communications medium. It provided previously unimagined instant breaking news and entertainment, all in the comfort of one’s home. Radio’s underlying technology also paved the way for future innovations in wireless communications, such as televisions and mobile phones. Let’s celebrate this special occasion by looking back at the impact of radio in the United States this past century.
What do these people have in common: David Letterman; Oprah Winfrey; Jimmy Kimmel; Howard Stern; and Ryan Seacrest? All of them started their careers in broadcast radio. Radio has held a special place in many peoples’ lives. Some of my earliest memories involve listening to Paul Harvey delivering the news as we drove to the beach each summer, eagerly awaiting the most popular songs on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown, and being riveted by Sally Jessy Raphael’s call-in advice show. These radio personalities, and others like them, did not just offer news and entertainment, they became embedded in the fabric of American life. Radio has the power to unify. This is especially true during the pandemic. It makes many people feel less alone knowing that they are listening to the same show along with their family, friends, and neighbors.
So how did this transformative technology get its start? Let’s take a look back over radio’s century-long history, beginning at the time when it was considered a novel experimental technology.
Established by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, KDKA is widely recognized as the first commercial radio station. Westinghouse used vacuum tube transmitters to develop this audio communication, a stark contrast from earlier spark-gap technology that could only transmit Morse code. Realizing its new capabilities, Westinghouse added radio receivers to its home appliance line and planned to produce regular radio programming. Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer operating his own weekly amateur “ham” radio broadcast, was enlisted to help launch the station.
In October 1920, Westinghouse obtained a commercial broadcasting authorization from the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Navigation. On November 2, 1920, KDKA transmitted its first scheduled broadcast, airing the continuous live returns of the presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. The station went on to provide regular programming thereafter. It was first to broadcast professional baseball by announcing a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies on August 5, 1921, and on October 8, 1921, KDKA aired the first live football game between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Within four years of the initial broadcast, there were 600 commercial radio stations in the United States. By 1954, there were more radio receivers in the world than printed daily newspapers. The popularity of radio ushered in a shared national culture. Syndicated programs like the Grand Ole Opry and American Top 40 hosted by Casey Kasem, mentioned above, connected listeners across the country. During times of hardship and hope, Americans tuned into their local radio stations to receive the latest news. On March 12, 1933, President Roosevelt used the broadcast radio to speak directly to the nation in the first of his famous “fireside chats” to help the country manage the Great Depression. And, yes, I understand he was actually sitting in a room at the White House next to a fireplace during the broadcast! He went on to hold about 30 of these “chats,” giving the public unprecedented access to a president’s policies and decision making. On December 7, 1941, KTU in Honolulu, Hawaii broadcast several hours of live updates during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Millions of Americans tuned in to hear Harry Truman announce Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon.
Radio remains a vital way to communicate today. It provides local programming, community messaging, and local business advertising in a way other broadcast media do not. For example, after a major weather event such as a hurricane or tornado, your home may lose power. When this happens, you lose access to the television, the Internet, and possibly even your mobile phone service. But your battery-operated radio receiver still works! In such circumstances, radio broadcasts have proven, time and time again, to be the most reliable outlet for public safety information. Importantly, radio remains freely available to anyone with a receiver, unlike many new sources of audio information and entertainment, which require subscriptions or costly equipment. Radio continues to play a unique role in society due to its ability to reach nearly all of the U.S. population with free news and information no matter where the listener is located. As such, radio is unparalleled in its ability to provide listeners with news, weather, sports and other information that is specific to their particular community.
The Federal Communications Commission continues to work hard to support this historic industry by modernizing its radio regulations. In 2000, the Low Power FM radio service was created to provide highly local, noncommercial broadcasts. In the early 2000s, the FCC approved digital operations for AM and FM stations, allowing for significant improvements to the quality of radio signals. Today, there are an estimated 4,200 digital broadcasts on air. Earlier this year, the LPFM rules were updated to make sure the service remains viable. Additionally, since 2013, the Commission, through its AM revitalization initiative, updated the rules for the AM service allowing AM stations to own FM translators, modifying daytime and nighttime community coverage standards, eliminating the “ratchet rule,” and relaxing minimum antenna efficiency standards. Most recently, last month the Commission took a further step in the digital radio transition and authorized AM stations to voluntarily end analog broadcasts and adopt all-digital broadcasting. This will allow AM stations to offer listeners higher quality audio, more reliable digital service and new ancillary data services.
Radio was one of the first electronic technologies to permeate the lives of the American people. It has shaped not only our memories, but how most of us experienced the events of the past century. It is a highly adaptable technology and perhaps the most access