This year will mark the 100th anniversary of commercial radio broadcasting.
As I mentioned in my January 2020 Historiography column, radio got a huge boost by broadcasting the results of the 1920 General Election in the USA, when Republican Warren G. Harding beat Democrat James M. Cox by what could be termed as a landslide for the time.
The timing was right for radio to kickstart the "Roaring ‘20s." It already had a pioneering start in the USA going back before the outbreak of World War I.
The station was has been cited as kicking off commercial radio programming in the USA was KDKA in Pittsburgh. This station was credited for making the first broadcast of the Presidential Election of 1920. Just as the country went to the polls to elect Harding as President, KDKA received its commercial broadcast license on November 2, 1920.
Sitting at 1020 on the AM dial, KDKA is still going strong. It is the news leader for Radio.com – also known as Entercom – in the Pittsburgh market. It began as a Westinghouse owned station, joining CBS after it merged with Westinghouse’s Group W network in 1996.
Here is something you might not have known about KDKA. In 1926, Westinghouse was one of the co-founders of NBC, along with RCA and General Electric. NBC became the premier national radio network broadcasting the news, national sporting events, and a variety of entertainment that would solidify the future of radio programming into the 1950s.
Meanwhile, KDKA were pioneers in programming locally during its first years. They would be the first to do a local remote broadcast in 1921 from the Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. They also pioneered on-site radio broadcasts from a major sporting event later in 1921 when the Pirates faced the Philadelphia Phillies at Forbes Field. The next year, Will Rogers made his first radio appearance on KDKA.
There is another station in the USA that will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year – Detroit’s WWJ. Its forerunner began broadcast trials on August 20, 1920, as the Detroit News Radiophone service.
However, WWJ received its "limited commercial" license by the government on October 13, 1921. From that point, WWJ would broadcast regular news reports – the first station to do so – and would develop similar programming that attracted the noteworthy celebrities of the day when they came through Detroit.
And, by the way, WWJ is also a Radio.com/Entercom station today, sitting at 950 on the AM dial across Southeastern Michigan.
Who was listening to these early radio stations? And, how?
Customers would buy a radio set from a local store that was pre-set to that specific station. In Detroit, a company called Tecla sold in-home radio sets that ranged from $10.00 to $300.00 – I wondered what the more expensive set would look like. Of course, earlier sets gave way to a wider band radio set that could pick up other stations that were established in each market. That was just a few years away.
This would lead to an interesting development a few years on. The idea of an in-car radio came about in the early part of the 1920s. It would be a crude and extremely cumbersome solution, but setting up receiver wires around the top of the roof, putting a heavy vacuum tube receiver set where a passenger would sit, with the sound coming out of a large speaker. It was said that that it was installed on top of a Chevrolet sedan.
Luckily things progressed as the 1920s roared through the years. We would not see the first Motorola radio in a car until after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
Meanwhile, both stations gave us the idea of what a broadcaster can do for their audience. WWJ took their cue from the newspaper that owned the station – the Detroit News. KDKA did not have any of the Pittsburgh newspapers backing them, so they had a bit of free reign – for the time – to broadcast what they thought the market would listen to.
We salute both KDKA and WWJ for being at the forefront of broadcasting and radio programming for the fledgling technology of the time. The fact that both stations are still on the air today – including additional channels that reside in the same building as these pioneer stations – is a testament of the risk they made to kick start a new decade of promise, celebration, and forging the future of broadcasting.
NOTE: The radios in the photos are part of the collection at the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, MN
All photos by Randy Stern