The author recalls the early years of radio in the 1920s. He was one of the first people to sing on radio and later became an editor at KDKA, the first commercial radio station in the U.S.
Wireless and I had no contact to speak of until 1921, when all hell broke loose. I was in the choir at the time the first church service was “radiocast.” The first time I ever saw a microphone I saw a dozen microphones, each suspended like a bird cage from a kind of bridge lamp.
Into these black cylinders we poured our shrill song. Into these the Reverend Dr. E. J. van Etten poured his gospels, epistles, collects, and sermon. Nobody much except the station’s engineers could have been listening, since almost the only sets were in stores and they were closed on Sundays; nevertheless, that morning the great performance revolution began.
No more did the visible audience matter. Nothing mattered but that tiny, black tin can (and its descendant, the TV camera) inside of which were crowded dozens (and later millions) of people to hear (and later to sec) the performances of preacher, comedian, athlete, or pitchman. Present laughter was now nothing compared with absent laughter. There might be four hundred live people in the congregation and only four listeners “out there,” hut things had changed. People you could see might still have to be indulged, but it was the people you couldn’t see—the ones you reached out there—who really counted. Reality now referred to something a step away from the original: something you could neither sec nor count nor thank.
Whoever still went to the trouble of going out in the snow or rain, of walking five blocks to the trolley-car stop and riding through the night to watch you and applaud you and pump your hand afterward, and go out and wait for the midnight trolley home—forget him. The only people worth your trouble became the stay-at-homes, the lazy good-for-nothings who would not be caught dead in the rain when they could sit around in their socks, take off their stiff collars, and “tune in.” Thus, the age of the slob began in 1921, which is the year “live” audiences in theatres, churches, concert halls, and ball games turned into old-fashioned, fussy, die-hard squares, the kind of people who still studied Latin and opened their windows for fresh air at night.
Bearing in mind that I had thus performed on the radio before I had ever heard one—that I had seen a microphone before I had put on earphones—you will recognize my excitement when my father, a theatre musician, came home and announced that he had been hired to direct an orchestra over KDKA. My own thrill came from two facts: first, that now my father would have to get up in the morning like other fathers (he had always played till midnight and slept until noon), and second, that we would have to own a radio set.
But first he and my grandfather as tcnants-in-common bought a used Dodge touring car so Papa could drive to East Pittsburgh—five miles out of town and the site of KDKA’s studio. Grandpa got up his half of the money but never did learn to drive, so the only way he could enjoy his rightful share of the auto was to go to East Pittsburgh as Papa s passenger, which he didn ( like doing since East Pittsburgh was nothing but the huge Westinghouse plant, which, as Grandpa used to say, was not exactly a sight for sore eyes. Papa had the car greased, oiled, fueled, and washed. Hc put up the side curtains in case of rain, and we all came out front to wave good-bye as he roared down the hill toward East Pittsburgh.
The radio studio itself was very much like the inside of a burlap-lined casket. Burnt orange, a favorite decorator color in 1922, was chosen for the draped silk meringues that billowed from the ceiling to disguise light bulbs. The door was very heavy. A sign on the wall framed the single word, SILENCE. A tall vase of gladioli stood in the corner. And in the center of this still room stood the working part, a microphone whose unruffled, impersonal, inscrutable selfconfidence gave the whole place the feeling of an execution chamber. On one wall a glass window provided a clear view of the proceedings for the engineer who threw the switch and operated the rheostat that could go from “soft” to “loud.” It is worth reflecting on how fur radio has conic in these forty-three years. If you were to go into today’s radio studio, it would look like »burlap-lined casket with a single microphone, a SILENCE sign, and a disc jockey instead of a real orchestra. Alan, that s progress.
My father, who had been a symphony musician, held his standards high—at least as high as a twelve-piece orchestra composed of Westinghouse shopworkers allowed. With patience and encouragement he would lift them into the arms of Beethoven, Weber, Liszt, and Verdi. Among the appreciative letters a printed card from far away would regularly show up to spoil my father’s day. “ PROGRAM COMING IN FINE ,” it would report. “ PLEASE PLAY ‘JAPANESE SANDMAN .’”
Exactly eight months after its lowly birth on the Westinghouse rooftop, radio would broadcast the world’s heavy weight championship prize fight between Tack Dempscy and the Frenchman, Georges Carpentier, promoted by Tex Rickard at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in jersey City.
On that hot summer evening of July %, 1921, the Saudek family had moved the wicker furniture off the front porch onto the grass, where we might stir up a breexe by rocking and fanning. The wireless set, whose earphones could be passed around so that each listener by turns could relay the action, was deposited on the green wicker table.
Our neighborhood was populated with a good many fa thers in peacetime uniforms. Mr. Miller and Mr. Thomas were postmen. Mr. Farmer was a fireman, and Mr. Wagner was a chauffeur. Rut the most formidable uniform on the block was that of Officer Clancy of the city police force. No ordinary flatfoot, Clancy was a high-ranking officer whose name appeared in the papers with some regularity and who was generally referred to editorially as “Black-and-Tan” Clancy, an epithet that recalled those despised British soldiers who cudgelled the Irish rebels back in the Old Country. Anyway, Officer Clancy came down the street that evening in his shirt sleeves, an open collarhand witli the gold collar button in place, and his heavy blue uniform pants: his gait had the rolling dignity of a dreadnought.
My father invited the great man to share our experience and listen to the fight between Dempsey and (as we pronounced the challenger’s name) Georgex Sharponteer; but Black-and-Tan Clancy, sailing on past my family, and scarcely even favoring my fattier with a glance, snarled in his fresh brogue, “I don’t believe in wireless.”
Although I finally got around to proving my manhood by making my own crystal set, the slightly more powerful “vacuum tube set” was what our family first installed in the dining room; and on it, as I wheeled the vernier dial across the spectrum of stations, I once picked up the unmistakable wailing of the Morse code. Morse code on wireless was quite distinctive. Unlike the monotony of a clattering telegraph key, the airborne dots and dashes ran up and down the musical scale like a roller coaster. They changed quality, from thin, high dceteetects to middle-register bububups, and then they scooped as low as the sound of frogs in the twilight.
I did not know what to make of this frenzy of secret signals, except that it simultaneously alerted my imagination and my instinct for self-preservation. Within the preceding ten years sut h sounds had been associated wkh disaster— the Titanic, the Lusitania , and the Great War. Now I found myself, an eleven year old hoy, piercing the veil to share the mysteries of men of the sea. The urgent nature of the message and its source were corrolxiratcd by the sounds that accompanied it: the unmistakable hissing of wild waves, the roar of the mid-Atlantic scixed by a storm that had obviously crippled this ship whose cool wireless operator, lashed to his post, was filling up the night with his last SOS. that terrifying cry that means death on the night seas. I crisply reported what I had found to my gullible parents, then telephoned our class president, Kenny Westwood, who checked my findings on his own set. We fussed alwut, moving seriously between headphones and telephone, until my parents directed me to finish my homework and get to bed. The following morning the newspapers had completely missed the big story, whatever it was, which is still locked in my breast and that of Kenny Westwood wherever he may be.
Mr. Thompson, the grocer in our neighliorhood who sang bass solos at night, was not just a barbershop or bathtub performer. He was a serious student of the bass voice, singing such favorites as “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” and “The Road to Mandalay.” It was on people like Mr. Thompson that Station KDKA depended for its vocal recitals, and on whom my mother depended for a pound of round steak ground. My young brother managed to be the bridge to the daytime, or white aproned, Mr. Thompson because my brother had a poor appetite, as people around there pretty much knew.
So Mr. Thompson, a hearty and very affirmative grocer by day, told little Vicky to “tune in tonight” because he was going to sing a song in Russian directed straight at Vicky and saying (if translated). “Vicky, eat your spinach.” That night we all tuned in. He sang in a tongue none of us rccognixcd except little Vitky, who translated the gist of the lyrics and took a new lease on the hated leaf. G. David Thompson soon left his Lang Avenue grocery store and his vocal career to go into steel, and then to build one of the world’s foremost private collections of modern paintings. He was, until his death in June, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. Vicky, at fifty, now feels old enough to re vert to loathing spinach.
At five minutes to ten every night in the week, KDKA had a five-minute program called “The Arlington Time Signals,” a monotonously repetitive tone that burped every second for five minutes until, like a child forced to exhale after holding its breath too long, a single, strctched-out beep proclaimed the hour of ten. This expedition into a now neglected form of programming was treated with such solemnity in the upper echelons at Wcstinghousc that my father’s concerts had to end before g:gg or he would be “called on the carpet” the next morning for running into the Arlington Time Signals. What the time signals lacked as an aesthetic experience they made up for in purpose, since it was on the sounding of that first burp that all Wcstinghousc executives, wherever they were, would pull out their timepieces, stand as still as Lot’s wife, and await that last, long «(asp by which they would set their turnips. It was considered a public service to relay those baleful tones to the world each night.
I was in Grade 8-B in June, 1924, an election year, and Miss Arbogast was teaching us what a party convention was like. Since my family now had a superheterodyne set equipped with a cone speaker, my father thought it would I)C instructive as well as inspiring to have the whole eighth grade over to hear the Republican keynote address. He was a!so persuaded that my leather. Old Lady Arbogast, might remember the gesture when report cards came due.
The proposal unsettled my mother, since we had just moved to the house and it was not yet presentable: also it was far enough from school that a transportation problem would certainly present itself. The time of the keynote address—noon—would require preparation of fifty lunches, and eating them might conflict with listening to the keynote address.
Sweeping aside all these objections, my father offered to arrange for Mr. Thompson’s grocery to make and deliver fifty box lunches (a privilege it declined, leaving the job to my mother) and gallantly volunteered to drive the children from schoolhouse to radio set in a series of round trips: furthermore, as an encore, lie would return them to school in time for the afternoon session.
Tuesday, June 10, the day of the address, broke hot and dear. Mother was up early making sandwiches. At 11:30 A.M. my father was to leave the house to get the first load of children, but he was on one of his interminable phoi:e calls to musicians, which no amount of excited semaphoring could get him to abbreviate. At 11:55 he rand out to the Dodge and set out grimly on his first round trip. While my father was stul ferrying children back and forth like Saint Christopher, the keynote address had begun. The voice of Representative Theodore K. Burton (Republican from Ohio) battled its way through the static, bringing neitlnT information nor inspiration to the hungry pupils. Meanwhile, the food was running low, since the rolls had now been converted to ammunition aimed at the successive platoons of children as they arrived.
By the time Miss Arbogast staggered in with the last perspiring load the keynote address was finished, co’d cuts were all over the floor, the starving children were in an uproar, and it was clearly time for my father to start up the shuttle service back to school, which the last carload readied in time to hear the closing bell.
The keynote address itself, marred by static almost to the point of unintclligibility. was notable chiefly for its employment of the adjective “glorious.” which was applied in turn to Hag. party, country, tradition, heritage, past, future, and occasion. Yet it was the first time a national convention was ever broadcast, and it was an undeniably glorious event for the eighth grade—with the exception of Miss Arbogast.
Until 1926 radio, a local, home-town medium, held out against “nationalization.” Already the automotive field had been seized on by the three national giants, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Nationwide chain grocery stores were rapidly replacing the old neighborhood independents, and General Foods, General Mills, Colgate, Squibb, Stetson, and Hart Schaffner S; Marx were straddling the entire country with “national brand names.”
But radio, the most modern of all. was still old-fashioned enough not to have shaped up into a nationally uniform package. Every local station had its own homemade sound until late in the Twenties, when NBC sprang full armed from the brow of Zeus. Only then did radio begin to catch up with all the other canned goods that tasted the same in San Diego as in Kennebunkport. Along with national sports would come national soap operas; with “Amos ’n’ Andy,” the repetitive cigarette slogans: with H. V. Kaltcnborn and Raymond Gram Swing, hillbillies and Father Coughlin.
NBC and the other networks that followed it were formed to provide a national advertising medium that would soon shake Madison Avenue to its foundations, and then endow it with a new cast of millionaires. Network service would bring national figures to local radio stations, at once amplifying the voices of Presidents and creating a whole new family album of popular entertainers and “theme songs.”
Billy Jones and Krnic Hare, two stand-up vaudevillians, came on the “national hookup” with this song, which I quote from memory:
Julia Sanderson, I believe, was the Quaker Girl. She and her husband, Frank Crumit, were great Broadway stars before radio began ( The Girl from Utah, Tangerine , etc.). but her national triumph was over the radio when she came on singing (as I recall the lyrics):
Network radio, born in the Twenties, is largely responsible for the Great Homogenization of the United States. The country lost something but probably gained more in the process, for dependence on local entertainment was, by and large, quite limiting: and exposure to Will Rogers, Paul Whitcman, Raymond Knight (who created the sophisticated “Cuckoo Hour”), and Walter Damrosch gave a new lift to programming. Radio, along with movies, replaced vaude ville and “the road”: and it reduced prices at the box office.
It is worth reminding ourselves that this transformation took place in almost no time, for NBC was born only six years alter the first KDKA broadcast. In those seventy-two short months I’rom November a, 1920, to November 15, 1926—the night NBC^ went on the air—radio had become a high-strung, high-priced, highly organized, national medium that had already challenged the economies of advertising and the stability of the printing press itself. Broadcasting’s bone structure was thus formed in the nineteen twenties, and has never since been fundamentally altered or improved upon. Ahead was the parade of shows that stretch from 1930 to the present, from Joe Pciincr and Jack Benny to Barbra Strcisand and Jack Benny (seen as well as heard), by which time both broadcasting and I had long since outgrown our knickers, our cat whisker, and the Twenties.