An American revolution on the radio dial

part 1, 2

Canadian scientist Reginald Fessenden produced the first radio broadcast of words and music.

On Christmas Eve 1906, wireless radio operators on board ships from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico heard something startling through their headphones. Normally, the radio men would listen through the static for the dots and dashes of Morse code, but on that night a century ago, they heard something different. They heard music. No one recorded that historic broadcast, and historians aren't even certain the birth of radio broadcasting happened precisely on Christmas Eve, 1906. That's just how the story goes. But we do know that about that time, a Canadian scientist named Reginald Fessenden used a microphone and a transmitter to launch a sea-change in American life. And at the same time he became the world's first DJ.

"Radio in the teens was mostly Morse code, dots and dashes," says Susan Douglas who teaches communications at the University of Michigan.

She says in the decade and a half after Reginald Fessenden's experiment, radio was the domain of hobbyists and tinkerers. They'd send their voices out into the air, hoping another nerd somewhere would hear them.

"So it was quite revolutionary when, in 1920, some people put on their headsets and they heard music," says Douglas.

The public loved the idea of radio. But, until there was something coming out of the air that people actually wanted to listen to, it was never going to take off. Then music radio came along.

"These were called wireless concerts," explains Douglas, "and they basically shoved a phonograph in front of a microphone and began playing records."

Newspapers wrote about a tidal wave of radio engulfing the country. At the beginning of 1920, there were no radio stations, two years later there were about 600. Most were just started on a whim.

"It could be a dry cleaning business or it could be a chicken farm," says Michelle Hilmes who teaches at the University of Wisconsin. "People who would come on the air for a few hours a day and simply play the music that they liked, or bring on neighbors or their associates."

There are very few recordings of actual radio broadcasts from the 1920s. The technology to record radio just wasn't widespread and beyond that, no one really thought any of this stuff was worth keeping.

Cliff Doerksen, radio historian and author of American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age
Photo by Nate DiMeo

Cliff Doerksen is the author of American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age. He tells this story of how one of those small station owners got his start, a guy named George Schubel who ran a community newspaper in Queens.

"He hears about this radio thing in 1922 and he says, 'I'm going to get a radio station,'" says Doerksen. "He looks around the neighborhood and finds this kid who's one of these wireless amateurs, he's a recreational technophile. And he says, 'Can you build me a transmitter?' 'Certainly.' The kid throws together this transmitter and they get a government guy to come out and inspect it and they're in business as broadcasters."

George Schubel's story is typical of the time. Station owners like him were improvising American broadcasting. They were figuring out what audiences wanted to hear by trial and error. By the mid-1920s, in a big city like New York or Chicago, you could tune in to upwards of 35 different stations, with a remarkable diversity of programs. Some more appealing than others.

One example went like this:

Announcer: We'll bring you now the dental clinic of the air program, sponsored by dentists using the E-R Parker Dental System everywhere. This program is designed to try to help you with your dental problems in the home. To give you such advice and assistance, such information, as we believe will be conducive to better teeth and better health.

Even on a show about oral hygiene, music was the dominant sound.

Announcer: I'm going to ask Sydney Dickson to play for you as our first number on the dental clinic of the air program. A little number called "Little Grey Home in the West."

But these mom-and-pop broadcasters weren't the only ones starting stations. On the one hand you had small business people maybe hoping to use their stations to raise the profile of their hotel or their shoe repair shop or their dental clinic. And on the other you had stations owned by RCA, and GE and Westinghouse. And they were folks that made the radios.

"The bigger stations were using their stations as public relations outlets to a certain extent," says Michelle Hilmes. The big New York companies started powerful stations to get Americans hooked on buying radios. "They weren't really in the 1920s expecting to make a lot of money out of them. But they were facilities that promoted radio, a better kind of radio, something that would create a good impression with the public."

The companies needed to assure Americans that radio was going to be good for America. And that wasn't necessarily an easy thing in the '20s. You need to try to understand what it was like for, say, a New Yorker to move across the radio dial at the time. She could sit in her apartment near Central Park, tune the dials on the front of the heavy wooden cabinet on her new RCA radio, and on RCA's flagship station WEAF, she could hear the New York Philharmonic by exclusive arrangement with the radio corporation.

But the mom-and-pop stations were usually playing earthier stuff: the songs that were popular in the neighborhood, the bands that were playing in the local dance halls. So on another station, our New Yorker could hear the incomprehensible singing of one of the new ethnic groups swelling the tenements of the lower East side. Turning the dial, she could hear black jazz from Harlem. And she could do all that during a tense time in America.

Continue to part 2

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