Radio During the Early 20th Century

In the 1920s, the United States government publication, "Construction and Operation of a Simple Homemade Radio Receiving Outfit", showed how almost any person handy with simple tools could a build an effective crystal radio receiver.

Before television, radio served as a primary form of entertainment, with families gathering around the radio for the day’s entertainment, music and news broadcasts.

“Old-Time Radio” is a phrase that is often used when describing radio broadcasts that occurred during the first half of the 20th century. Wireless radio was initially conceived as a tool useful for military and business purposes rather than for entertainment. By the mid-1920’s, however, radio stations began to sprout up across the United States, Canada and around the world. In those early days, radios were homemade creations fashioned using crystals, tubes and other equipment. Broadcasts consisted primarily of phonograph records played “over the air”.

The Early Years of Radio

Radio quickly caught on with the public and companies such as RCA began development of radio consoles. Within four years, RCA radios had $60 million in sales according to film critic Leonard Maltin who noted in his book The Great American Broadcast that “within a decade of its widespread introduction to the public, radio became indispensable.” As radio’s popularity continued to grow, a need for more diverse programming quickly emerged.

Although music still filled an important role in radio programming, so much so that stations built stages where whole orchestrast performed, stations began to present shows that were a precursor to modern talk radio. Commentators offered their opinions on the issues of the day while delivering the news. Fictional programs were slower to develop than other genres due to the challenges of taking a film or stage play and adapting it for a non-visual medium. There was also a fear that the public might not accept this concept. Early attempts at the genre involved actors reading mystery stories or recreating stage plays.

The Radio Network Era

One of the key turning points that took radio into its “golden age” was the development of broadcast networks. Early on, radio stations were owned and operated by individual organizations that had limited resources available to them but after joining a network they gained access to greater financial support as well as a larger personnel pool to draw from. NBC was the first national network to form, in 1926. Over the next few years CBS and the Mutual Broadcasting System would come into existence. The creation of these networks ensured that “the shows that came out of the three national radio centers – New York, Chicago, and Hollywood – informed, entertained, and shaped the opinions of three generations” says novelist and radio historian John Dunning in On the Air: The Encylopedia of Old-Time Radio.

As radio reached its heights during the 1930’s and 40’s, networks began to employ writers who created shows in a variety of genres including mystery, comedy, and soap opera.In his 1944 book Open Mike, Jerome Lawrence stated that writing for radio “has no stage to keep it within the limits of a proscenium arch, no camera to confine to things that may be seen. The imagination of the listener is our most ardent and helpful collaborator.”

Radio Sponsors

Radio programs typically had one sponsor that “owned” the show and had significant influence on a show’s presentation. For example, The Great Gildersleeve, a long-running comedy series, was sponsored by Kraft. “Advertising” on radio was significantly different than it is in television. Rather than having a series of commercials for a variety of products and services, two or three advertising segments promoted the show’s sponsor. On shows such as Fibber McGee and Molly, advertising was incorporated directly into the show’s plot with the announcer being one of the show’s characters.

Famous Broadcasts

Perhaps the most famous dramatic radio broadcast, the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds presented a documentary style retelling of HG Wells’ novel by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre. “Reporters” and other characters described an alien invasion. The show generated hysteria amongst some of its listeners, especially those who tuned in midway through the show. Although warnings were given that the broadcast was fiction, those tuning in late missed the warnings and some accepted that a Martian invasion was actually taking place or, at least, that Germany had invaded the United States.

Old-Time Radio Revival

It is impossible to determine how many different shows were created and broadcast from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. The recordings of many shows have simply not survived. However, some shows have been preserved and fans of Old-Time Radio have taken steps to maintain this history. Because most shows are no longer under copyright, they can legally be shared by enthusiasts. This has been made easier with the Internet. Now most surviving shows can be obtained through file sharing websites. There are also a few companies that make shows available for purchase.

Besides many shows still being available, film and television shows continue to pay tribute to these programs. For example, film versions of The Shadow and The Saint have been made in the past decade few years. As well, comedic radio characters such as Chester A. Riley and Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve may have influenced the creation of recent television characters such as Homer Simpson and Al Bundy.


  1. Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. Lawrence, Jerome, Off Mike, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1944.
  3. Maltin, Leonard, The Great American Broadcast, Penguin Books, 1997.