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Radio Grows Up
How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
IN 1921 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was charged with what meager regulation of the airwaves there was, called radio “an instrument of beauty and learning.” Waldemar Kaempffert, who, as editor of Scientific American , had followed the beginnings of the technology, in 1922 imagined “a radio mother … crooning songs and telling bedtime stories” while “some future Einstein” could elaborate his theories “to a whole world with an ear cocked to catch … his voice as it wells out of the horn.” M. P. Rice, manager of General Electric’s pioneering station in Schenectady, New York, hoped in 1922 “that the power to say something loud enough to be heard by thousands will give rise to the desire to say something worthwhile.”
And indeed, to the growing audience, the sounds that could be discerned above the squawks, screeches, hums, and cracklings of the ether were pure enchantment. The sports columnist Red Barber listened for the first time in 1924, at the home of a high school friend in central Florida. “A man … in Pittsburgh said it was snowing there. … Somebody sang in New York … a banjo plunked in Chicago … it was sleeting in Atlanta.” Barber walked home at dawn filled with “intimations of a new life … I was excited completely.”
So were millions of others as they braved an ear-rending racket on primitive earphones. Hundreds of manufacturers leaped into production, but most audio fans in the early 1920s built their own sets from a chunk of germanium crystal hooked to a coiled copper wire, both attached to a “breadboard.” The most expensive component was the headset, at $1.98; families often would place it in a soup bowl and cluster with their ears close to this primitive loudspeaker. What they heard was “ AWK … RAACK … hello out there … hello ouBriee … crackle … snap … weee … this is … ROAR … HISS … STA tion 8 xk CRASH -hiss … ROA rrr … pop.…”
The transmitters were equally crude. The first microphone at WLW in Cincinnati was a huge morning-glory horn eight feet long and three feet across. “You shouted into the big end,” an announcer recalled, but to be sure of being heard, “you stuck your head halfway down into it.” Phonograph music was transmitted “by putting the morning-glory horn of the phonograph player against the morning-glory horn that was the microphone.” Similar contraptions were the rule at most of the stations, which erupted, like measles, across the American landscape in 1922. At the beginning of that year there were 28 stations, by the end, 570, all operating on just two frequencies. Total confusion was averted only because most of them had little power—twenty to fifty watts—and none of them operated full time. During the next two years, however, the situation degenerated into complete chaos. Some 1,400 stations, said one critic, filled the air with “shrieks and groans, cross-talks, muddled and garbled music and announcements” to create “a radio reign of terror.” Hoover declared the license book “filled” and refused to issue any more until compelled by court order.
While what was perhaps the first commercial had already sullied the airwaves on August 28, 1922—a plug for Long Island real estate aired by WEAF New York for $100—most people in the industry saw stations chiefly as a means of promoting sales of radio sets. And despite the din on the headphones, Americans bought more than $350 million worth of radios and parts in 1924; one-third of all money spent on furniture actually went for receivers.
Radio people everywhere were quickly learning that the brash new medium was incredibly voracious. The sheer quantity of material required was staggering. Darwin Teilhet, a critic for Forum in the early 1930s, wrote that his worst problem was to find enough time to listen to all the offerings on radio. Gilbert Seldes, the philosopher of popular culture, compared it to a circus in its “extraordinary mixture of good and dull things, this lack of character,” which, like the circus, made it “easy to like and useless to think about.” The critics recognized early radio’s ability to affect taste and perhaps even thought. Hilda Matheson, a sociologist, hoped radio would “stiffen individuality and inoculate” listeners with “some capacity to think, feel and understand”; otherwise it would become, she thought in 1933, “a huge agency of standardization.” Lee De Forest, inventor of the triode valve, believed that international broadcasting would create “a single audience taking part in a universal forum of enlightenment,” the greatest contribution to world peace ever made.
But whether it provided noble sentiments, uplifting messages, or inoculations of individuality, radio’s major requirement remained material. A visitor who watched the writers of a popular comedy program riffling through gag files asked the producer Carroll Carroll why these haggard folk spent so much time retreading old jokes rather than creating new ones. “There isn’t time,” Carroll said. “Radio needs too much material too often. It eats up copy too fast. No one is capable of being that creative all the time… so men who are funny have to develop a technical skill for reconstituting comedy so that there’ll be enough to supply the market.”