History of the Radio – New Communications Technology in the 1920s

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Early radio only reached a local audience. As technology improved, the entire nation could listen to the same radio program at the same time.

KDKA in Pittsburgh

KDKA in East Pittsburgh received the first radio license ever issued on October 27, 1920. The next week, on Tuesday November 2, 1920, the station began broadcasting election results from the Harding-Cox presidential race, becoming a pioneer in a brand new technology.

There were only a few thousand receivers at the time, but within a few years the industry was booming. In January 1922, there were only four radio stations. By the end of the year there were 576.

NBC and CBS

At first, local stations served a local audience. Once NBC and CBS were founded in 1926 and 1927, programming became national, and Americans from coast to coast began to hear the same shows.

People started having “radio parties” where friends gathered to listen to a show. Young people danced to the latest jazz sounds. Preachers broadcast Sunday services, a welcome addition for shut-ins who could not go to church. People even started planning their daily activities around the radio broadcasts of their favorite shows!

Radio Advertising

It wasn’t long before radio stations tapped into the advertising market to help with expenses. Entire shows would be “brought to you” by a single company, who often had editorial control over the content of the program. Early corporate-sponsored programs included the variety shows “The Eveready Hour” and “The Voice of Firestone.”

In addition to regular shows, people tuned in to hear sporting events, news, weather, political speeches, dinner recipes, and household hints. Special news events, like the Scopes trial, were also quite popular. An estimated 30 million listened to coverage of Charles Lindbergh’s return to the US after his transatlantic flight.

Better Sound Quality

By 1924, radios were producing better sound quality than phonographs. Radio stations led the way in presenting classical music the way it was supposed to sound. The radio also increased the popularity of other forms of music like jazz and country.

Intense voices, particularly high sopranos, had a tendency to blow out tubes on radio transmitters. Many singers developed a new soft, gentle style that became known as “crooning,” which came across better on the radio.

More Sophisticated Radio Programming

Early radio shows resembled the kinds of acts you would see on the vaudeville stage: musical numbers, short skits, and comedy acts.

By the end of the 1920s, radio stations began to broadcast more sophisticated programs with well developed characters and plots. Westerns, detective shows, soap operas, comedies, children’s shows, and romances appeared.

Amos ‘n Andy

Radio’s first serial program, Amos ‘n’ Andy, became an instant sensation when it debuted in 1929. A 15 minute episode was broadcast daily. The show centered around two African American characters who were portrayed as the stereotypical “buffoons.”

The show became so popular, movie theaters scheduled showings around it, and restaurants started playing it to satisfy their customers.

Sources:

  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber