August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Milwaukee-born Hans von Kaltenborn, Spanish War veteran, Harvard graduate and former tutor to Vincent Astor, describes his earliest experiences with the instrument that was to make him famous. He was at the time radio beckoned a member of the staff of the Brooklyn Eagle. Later Kaltenborn organized the Radio Pioneers, the club which launched the project of recording radio history through the reminiscences of the men and women who had developed radio.
The first radio talk I ever made was in 1921. I was a director of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and one of its officers. There was a good deal of talk about this new invention which made it possible to hear a human voice at a distance. I had developed a crystal receiving set in my own home and had experienced that marvelous thrill for the first time—to be able to pull sounds down out of the air.
I remember vividly the first evening when we got the cat’s whisker on the crystal and actually heard the sound of music. A wild shriek went through the house. Everyone was called up to the room on the top floor to listen to this miraculous instrument which enabled you to hear something that was just taken out of the empty air. It was early in 1921 when I had that first radio thrill.
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce got to talking about this new thing called radio or wireless and decided that for the annual banquet it would be a wonderful stunt if I should go over to New Jersey where WJZ was established as an experimental station in a factory building. From there I would deliver an address to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce assembled for its banquet. A loud-speaker system was installed in the auditorium. I went over to New Jersey, delivered a brief address, and then hurried back to Brooklyn to see whether it had actually been received. As I came into the banquet room there was tremendous applause, and I was informed that the experiment had been a perfect success—they had heard every word. The miracle of radio had established itself with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
My first analysis of news on the air was carried by an Army Signal Corps station on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor on April 4, 1922. That was the real beginning of my radio career.
In the summer of 1923, the Eagle arranged with WEAF, an experimental broadcast station established in the Telephone Building on Broadway by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, to carry my talks. The paper felt that the prestige created by these broadcasts justified them in paying me a $100 fee to do the talk. They got the radio time free in exchange for my services. The furnished studios at WEAF were much more pretentious than the unfurnished New Jersey studios of WJZ. The telephone company, which operated WEAF, had lots of money and was spending it rather freely on this broadcasting experiment.
I remember that when I spoke over Station WJZ, it was located in a loft curtained off with a heavy red curtain to deaden the sound and prevent echoes. The mike itself was an elaborate affair on a solid wooden stand—a round metal contrivance. You had to stand in front of it in a prescribed position. You were not supposed to move to the right or left and you had to face it directly. Your mouth was supposed to be approximately fourteen inches from the microphone, no more, no less. If you came closer the voice blasted, if you went farther back your voice faded out.
There was complete indifference then about exact timing; nobody had thought to time you by the second. You could finish a couple of minutes early or you could run over a couple of minutes. They always had a pianist stand-by who would fill in any unexpired time if anyone who was speaking finished too soon. Of course the pianist would also pinch-hit if a guest were late. There were, of course, no commercials, so that you were supposed to fill out the full allotted period.
I acquired great respect for the possibilities of radio when the reaction to these talks began to come in. At first I had a sort of uneasy feeling that this was an artificial, unnatural thing, and I wasn’t at all sure that anyone heard me. I recall my pleased amazement, on coming out of a studio after one of my first talks, to be handed a cablegram from Captain Cunningham of the steamship George Washington , with whom I had crossed the ocean several times, and who was then at sea, two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic. He said, “Heard you perfectly, good work, keep it up. Signed Cunningham.” I recall my astonishment to realize that this ship was closer to Europe than to America, and yet its captain had been able to hear what I said within the walls of an office building in New York.
It was the listeners who converted me. The mail began to come in and that told the story. A tremendous variety of people—a true cross section of the population—was listening. But after a few months the response changed in character. At first, it was only the fact that they heard you that listeners reported. What you said was relatively unimportant. The phrase, “Your voice came into my living room as clear as a bell,” occurred in hundreds of letters. That was the miracle, the marvel; that you could actually be heard. It was only later that listeners began to comment on what I said, and not on the fact that they heard what I said.