Early Radio

Soon after KDKA began operating, early radio operators realized that they could easily interconnect stations. The concept of interconnecting stations began when the owner of WMAF in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts persuaded AT&T's WEAF, New York to supply it with programming. WMAF paid a fee for unsponsored programs. Sponsored programs were free. That same year (1922). WJZ licensed to Newark, New Jersey (now WABC New York) linked up with WGY in Schnectady to broadcast the 1922 World Series. In 1923 WEAF, teamed with WNAC in Boston to transmit a football game that was played in Chicago.

From this early beginning AT&T began developing what became know as chain broadcasting. This practice of interconnecting radio stations soon lead to the development of networks. By 1924, it was possible to broadcast from coast to coast over a chain of 26 radio stations.

AT&T for obvious reasons took the lead in developing chain broadcasting. The telephone company had also taken the lead with its development of toll broadcasting and by 1925 was turning a profit of $150,000. The telephone company's broadcasting operations, however, were proving to be costly.

Controversy was rising regarding restrictions AT&T placed on other broadcasters seeking to use the company's telephone lines. The company, which is government-regulated, felt it could not afford unfavorable publicity. Fearing the coming antitrust laws, AT&T decided to sell all of its broadcast stations. The phone company took the role of interconnecting stations.

General Electric, (GE), The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), & Westinghouse joined forces to develop a network of interconnected radio stations. The network know as NBC was formed in 1926. By 1927 the new company was operating two networks, the red and the blue. The NBC Blue network was sold in 1943. It became ABC in 1945. NBC also purchased WEAF from AT&T and operated the station as the network flagship. (The station became WNBC. It is now WFAN).

Radio developed quickly during the 1920s. KDKA received a license from the Commerce Department in 1920. AT&T developed the concept of toll broadcasting in 1922. That same year, WEAF and WMAF, followed by WJZ and WGY, began the concept of chain broadcasting. By 1924 it was possible to broadcast from coast to coast over 26 interconnected stations. AT&T's broadcast facilities were making annual profits of $150,00 by 1925. RCA, GE and Westinghouse joined forces to start NBC in 1926. By the end of the decade (1929) CBS became the second network.

Early Advertising: "Potted Palms"

Early visionaries saw radio as a way to bring so-called "High Culture" into the American home. Yet, the device had a knack for accelerating mass culture. Critics saw advertising as a compromise to radio's potential as a cultural force. Many even lobbied for laws prohibiting the use of the medium for advertising messages.

As a result, station owners approached advertising cautiously. Early presentation on radio emphasized high culture even if the programs did not. Announcers and performers wore tuxedos and gowns. Studios were elaborately furnished. Microphones were hidden in lampshades and potted plants. The era is jokingly referred to as the "potted palm" era of broadcasting.

Radio's ability to reach into the home gave reason for early programmers to be cautious. Things of common concern included: Is tooth brushing too personal a function to mention on the radio? Is it safe to mention the price of a product?

This early caution lead to an interesting adaptation. Shows and performers were named after the program sponsors. Among the more famous were the Gold Dust Twins, Goldy and Dusty, who advertised Gold Dust laundry detergent. The Happiness Boys for Happiness Candy Stores, The Interwoven Pair for Interwoven Socks, the Clicquot Club Eskimos for Clicquot Club soft drinks and the Taystee Loafers for Taystee bread. All of those characters were performed by popular singing duo Jones and Hare.

Sales pitches eventually were relaxed and became more common. Listeners soon grew accustomed to the idea of commercials on the air. Many of these commercials became familiar parts of the program and allowed programmers to exercise a degree of creativity.

Network radio radically changed communication in this country. For the first time, listeners from coast to coast could hear major events while they were happening. Audiences in various parts of the country could listen to the same programs. Radio became the country's first electronic mass medium.

Radio's Golden Age

Radio's so-called "Golden Age" was very short. It lasted from 1926, the year that NBC was formed, until 1949, the year after television's revenues surpassed radio's and the older medium's revenues declined for the first time.

During the "Golden Age" radio was a mass entertainment medium. Early programs were much like what we see on TV today, including: situation comedies, musical variety, drama, soap operas, and game shows. Popular network / shows included: the Shadow, (Who know what evil lurks within the hearts of men.) the Green Hornet, Mr. Keen: Tracer of Lost Persons, Gang Busters, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and Jack Armstrong: The All American Boy, which was brought to you each week by Wheaties.

The most popular of the network shows, Amos 'N' Andy was built upon a racial stereotype. The show began as Sam 'N' Henry on WGN Chicago. It moved to WMAQ in 1928 and became Amos 'N' Andy. Two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, created and played the roles of two black men who operated the "Fresh Air Taxi Company." Their $100,000-a-year salaries, paid by NBC, made them the highest paid radio entertainers at the time. The program was so popular that theater owners would not schedule their films and performances during the time the show aired on Tuesday evenings.

Early Radio News

Information was also important in early radio. News at early radio stations was often no more than reading newspaper stories on the air. Broadcasters soon figured that if they had access to the wire services, they could develop their own news departments. At first, newspapers tried to limit radio's access to the wire services. This was successful until United Press International (UPI) broke ranks in 1935 and began serving radio stations. Newspapers soon found that radio helped sales. People wanted to read in-depth what they had heard about on the radio.

During the Depression, radio began to assert itself as an information medium. On March 12, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his series of fireside chats. He saw radio as a way to reach the masses and calm their worries during the economic downturn. Roosevelt also set wheels in motion to create a government agency to regulate the new medium. The Communications Act of 1934 established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Radio soon began demonstrating its ability to take listeners to the scene of what was happening. One of the most dramatic examples was when listeners tuned in May 6, 1937, instead of hearing about the routine arrival of the Hindenburg a dirigible from Germany. They heard instead a play-by-play description of the dirigible's crash in Lakehurst, NJ.

By the end of the decade, Edward R. Murrow who became the most famous of the W.W.II correspondents, began broadcasting from London. He described the nightly Blitzkrieg (the German bombing raids), telling American listeners about the disruption of life in Europe.

Through Murrow and the other war correspondents Americans became familiar with the voices of the principal European leaders: Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Churchill. By the time Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese, U.S. public opinion was in favor of the nation going to war.

Radio carried the war action from Europe and the Pacific into American homes. The names Larry Lesuer, Charles Collingwood and Eric Sevareid became familiar to radio listeners. Radio reporters landed along with the troops on the beaches of Normandy on D-day and covered the war throughout Europe. On the Pacific front, radio reporters island hopped with the troops. Americans were informed of everything from MacArthur's return to the Philippines to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The war correspondents developed a gathering and reporting style that took advantage or radio's immediacy. It is a style common to radio and television reporting today. CBS became the model for network news reporting. By the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, radio was fully developed as a news medium.

W.W.II stunted television's growth. Development on television, which had been demonstrated as early as the 1920s, and was a hit at the 1936 World's Fair, was delayed by the war effort.

After the war, TV sets became available commercially in 1946. In just two short years, television's revenues surpassed radio's. Radio's revenues declined in 1949. this marked the end of radio's "Golden Age."

The programs that worked well on radio worked even better on television. Soon stars and shows such as Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Our Miss Brooks were redesigning themselves for the visual medium. The last of the network shows to leave radio were Ma Perkins a soap opera with a loyal radio following into the 1960s and Don McNeill's Breakfast Club a variety/talk show that was network radio's longest running program, 1933 - 1968.

Class note: The Breakfast Club is indirectly responsible for your instructor's interest in radio. As a child he took the family's kitchen table radio apart looking for the little people who sing and make the music. Don MacNeil's Breakfast Club heard on WKIP 1450AM Poughkeepsie, NY, was on the air at the time.


Greenfield, T. A. (1989). Radio: A reference guide. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT.

Keith, M. C. and Krause, J. M. (1989). The Radio Station Focal Press: Boston.

O'Donnell, L., Hausman, C. Benoit, P. (1989). Radio station operations: management and employee perspectives. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

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