The Golden Age of Radio

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.  

Long before videos or DVDs, even before television, families used to gather nightly for their favorite programs. They'd sit around the family radio and listen to popular comedies, dramas, and variety shows. Here's how it all started.


Have you ever heard this joke about Alexander Graham Bell? "When he invented the phone, who did he talk to? He was the only guy with a phone!" It was the same with radio when it started out. The only people who owned radios were hobbyists who built their own sets. There were no radio stations as we now know them -these radio amateurs, or "hams," built their own transmitters and receivers so they could talk to each other. They were enthusiastic about their hobby and spent a lot of time talking on their radios: what kind of equipment they had, how much power they were using, and how well they were receiving each other's signals. But even dedicated hams got a little tired of the conversation after a while.

One day in October 1919, Frank Conrad, a ham in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, got so bored with talking that he pushed a phonograph up to his microphone and played a record of the Stephen Foster song "Old Black Joe." In the past, Conrad's transmissions had always been directed toward one particular person. This time, he sent "Old Black Joe" out over the air waves to no one in particular …and made radio history. He called his new form of communication "broadcasting."


Conrad continued to play records over the air and was soon deluged with letters from other radio operators thanking him an requesting specific songs. He couldn't honor them all, so instead he announced he would play records on Wednesday and Saturday nights, from 7:30 to 9:30 PM. After he'd gone through his own record collection a few times, a local record store offered to lend him more. Conrad returned the favor (and made history again) by telling his listeners that the records were for sale at the store. It was the first commercial ever aired.


Over time Conrad's regular broadcasts became so popular that the local Joseph Horne department store began selling $10 ready-made crystal radio receivers to people who wanted to listen to Conrad's broadcasts but didn't want to build their own radios. The store advertised its radios in local newspapers.

Taking out newspaper ads might not sound like a very big deal, but it made all the difference. Although a few other people had played music over the air even earlier than Conrad (Reginald Fessenden, the man credited with inventing AM radio, played Christmas music and read Bible verses to ships at sea on Christmas Eve, 1906), nothing had come of those early broadcasts. Conrad worked as an engineer at Westinghouse, a company that manufactured electrical equipment for power plants, and he had been urging his company to get into the radio broadcasting business. But it wasn't until Harvey P. Davis, a Westinghouse vice president, saw the crystal radios advertised in the paper that someone in a position to do something about it finally realized that radio had potential far beyond the small pool of hams who built their own sets.


Davis figured the big money in radio would come from manufacturing and selling receivers, but he also knew that people had to have more to listen to than Conrad's records two nights a week.  He decided that Westinghouse should build its own radio station, one that would broadcast every night.

The 1920 presidential election was less than a month away- why not start the new service with a bang, by broadcasting the results of the race between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox? Davis put Conrad to work building a radio station on the roof of the Westinghouse plant in east Pittsburgh; he finished with time to spare. The station received its license -with its call letters, KDKA- on October 27, 1920, and began broadcasting election returns at 6PM on election day, November 2. Listening audience: between 500 and 1,000 people. During the broadcast, Conrad stayed home and manned his own station, ready to take over in case KDKA went off the air. But it didn't -the broadcast continued without a hitch until noon the following day (Harding won in a landslide). The station is still on the air today.


Radio started slowly at first and then exploded. In 1921, only eight more radio stations received licenses to broadcast; by the end of 1922 another 550 stations around the country were on the air. Now that there was something to listen to, Americans began buying radios as fast as manufacturers could make them. Sales went from almost none in 1920 to $60 million in 1922; they more than doubled in 1923 and doubled again in 1924, and kept climbing after that. By 1926 radios were a $500 million business.

Another important development paralleled the tremendous growth in radio sales: the linking of individual radio stations- first into regional "chains," as they were called, and them into national networks. AT&T started the trend in 1923 when engineers figured out how to link the company's 18 radio stations by telephone lines so that a program originating in one station could be broadcast simultaneously over every station in the network. By 1924, AT&T was broadcasting from coast to coast.

In 1926, AT&T sold its radio stations to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which combined them with its own stations to form the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The founding of NBC is considered the start of the golden age of radio.

The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network was formed in 1927, and a third network -Mutual Broadcasting- went on the air in 1934. In the early 1940s, an anti-trust decision by the Supreme Court forced NBC to split into two independent companies. One part was sold off to Lifesavers president Edward J. Noble in 1943 and was renamed the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).


Radio offered numerous advantages over phonographs in 1920s: Listeners weren't limited to the records in their own collection, and they didn't have to get up every five minutes to flip the record over and wind the record player back up. (Long playing, or "LP" records, which had about 30 minutes of playing time on each side instead of four and a half minutes, weren't introduced until 1948.) Even better: radio broadcasts were free. Yet as early as 1926, opinion polls began showing that listeners were hungry for something to listen to besides music. The networks responded by developing a variety of shows for every member of the family.


Comedies: Comedy shows were some of the earliest hits on radio -it was easy for vaudeville stars like Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, and the husband/wife teams of George Burns and Gracie Allen to move their acts to the new medium. At first these comedians did their usual standup routines, but over time they pioneered the "situation comedy" format that's still being used on TV today. A situation is set up at the beginning of the episode -Jack Benny has to go to the doctor, for example- then it's milked for jokes for the rest of the show.

Kiddies Shows: These shows were on in the afternoon when kids got home from school, in the early evening, and on Saturday mornings. Established movie and comic-strip characters like Superman and Little Orphan Annie were quickly adapted for radio. In later year the trend reversed itself, as characters created for radio -like Captain Midnight, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy- moved on to comic books, movies, and eventually television.

Soap Operas: Soaps appealed primarily to housewives, and dominated the daytime. The soap opera format came about only by chance in 1932, when NBC moved a show called Clara, Lu 'n' Em from its evening prime time slot to the middle of the day because that was the only place for it in the schedule. Clara, Lu 'n' Em was more of a satire than a soap, but it did so well that NBC began programming other shows for women during the day. Soaps proved to be the most popular shows; by 1940 the four networks offered more than 60 hours of soap operas a week.

Dramas: One of the nice things about radio is that you can transport the listener anywhere using only sound effects. You want to tell a story about space colonists on Mars? About cops in L.A.? Maintaining order in Dodge City, Kansas? You don't need fancy costumes or sets -you just need the right background sounds. Police and detective shows came early to radio. They were easy to produce because they were dialogue-heavy, filled with characters who spent a lot of time standing around trying to solve crimes. And they were polar with audiences.

Surprisingly, science fiction shows and Westerns targeted at adults appeared relatively late in radio and never really caught on. All four networks introduced science fiction series for adults in the 1950s, but only two of them, 2000 Plus (Mutual 1950-52) and X Minus One (NBC, 1955-58) lasted longer than two years.

Gunsmoke, the first adult-themed Western, didn't appear until 1952, but it fared much better than science fiction shows. It became one of the most popular programs on the air and ran until the summer of 1961. (The TV version ran for twenty years, from 1955 to 1975, making it the longest-running drama in history.)


What ended the Golden Age of Radio? TV, of course. In retrospect, it's amazing that radio lasted as long as it did -both NBC and CBS began making experimental television broadcasts from their New York stations in 1939, and both stations were issued commercial licenses in 1941. Were it not for World War II, TV might have swept the country over the next few years. But when the United States entered the war, further development was halted as the stations cut their broadcasts back to nothing and TV manufacturers switched over to making electrical equipment for the war effort.


When World War II ended in 1945, fewer than 10,000 American households had a television, and most of the sets were in the New York area. The industry got a boost in 1947, when the World Series was broadcast on television for the first time. It's estimated that of the nearly 4 million people who watched the game, at least 3.5 million of them watched on sets in their neighborhood taverns. Many of these patrons then went out and bought TVs for their own homes -and when curious neighbors came over to watch, they wanted TVs, too. The TV craze was on.

BY 1951 television broadcasts were available coast to coast and six million homes had TVs. People were buying them as fast as manufacturers could make them. By the end of the decade more than 60 million homes had TVs, and as American abandoned their radios in favor of television, so did advertisers, and so did the stars. The most successful radio shows like Gunsmoke and The Jack Benny Show moved to TV (Gunsmoke stayed on radio for a time as well); less successful shows just went off the air.

As the big advertising dollars left radio, big-budget shows became impossible to air. Many radio stations with hours of programming to fill and little money to do it went back to what radio had been in the beginning: a single person, sitting alone in a booth, playing records for anyone who happened to be listening.


Today the classic shows of the Golden Age of Radio are largely absent from AM and FM radio, but thanks to satellite radio and the internet, they're more widely available now than they've been since they originally aired. Both XM Radio and Sirius offer channels that play classic radio shows 24 hours a day; and you can buy collections of old shows in bookstores or download them on iTunes. If you've never heard them, you're in for a treat.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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It's not on the air any more, but radio theatre isn't entirely dead. The Atlanta Radio Theatre Co. and some others still produce either re-productions of classic shows or original work, presented either live (often at science fiction conventions) or recorded (CD's / MP3's or downloads). And the reason is that radio theatre is still a wonderful medium for sparking the audience's imaginations for nearly no production money.
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Ten years or so ago, I spent nights working by myself in a little room running printers and things for the company I still work for. I had limited radio reception and ended up getting hooked on old radio shows as one of the few stations I could get carried the syndicated "When Radio Was" show that replayed a lot of great stuff from the 40's & 50's. A lot of the comedy was just brilliantly written and hearing some of the old commercials that are included is kind of fascinating. I still listen every weekend.
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Kinda funny how people are looking ( staring ) at the radio as if it was a television. I wonder how many times some one said to get out of the way, like when some one blocks your view of the TV. I can imagine my Dad, who regularly said not to sit so close to the TV because it will damage my eyes ( yes, this was years and years ago ) telling me not to sit so close to the radio for some similar reason.
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