A Short History of Radio

I am fascinated by early electronic communication–telegraph, radio, the transition to telephone and television. How did people figure that out? I live in a world where I’m writing on a computer the size of a spiral notebook with internet that can send my words instantly around the world, and I’m still fascinated. How did we get to this point?

Growing up, we always had the radio on in our house. Music was a must. We left it on for the dogs when we weren’t home so they wouldn’t fee lonely, and I remember crafting with my mom while she listened to her soaps on the radio, or to audiobooks on CD or cassette. Now, I listen to old radio dramas on Youtube, podcasts, and MP3 audiobooks. I can’t help but lament that radio as a form of entertainment just isn’t what it used to be. Now it’s dominated by annoying DJs and talk hosts, the same music over and over again across multiple stations, and long blocks of advertising.

Nicolai Tessla was the first to demonstrate the transmission of radio waves in 1893. Shortly thereafter, Italian inventor and salesman (he was really more of the latter than the former) patented his version of wireless telegraphy and encoding. This would later have huge ramifications on shipping–namely the Titanic, which might have gotten help sooner if they hadn’t been using proprietary encoding that other ships couldn’t understand, and if the Marconi telegraphers on nearby ships hadn’t left their stations (which was acceptable for Marconi employees, but frowned upon by professional seamen).

Nevertheless, the Marconi system would dominate wireless telegraphy well into the 20th century. The first transatlantic message was sent in 1901. It wasn’t long before amateur ratio (Ham radio) took off in the US, effectively creating the first “chat rooms” in which strangers thousands of miles away could connect and socialize, but this was still via telegraph. It wasn’t until 1906 that the first short program of speech/music was produced by Reginald Fessenden, just south of Boston. The experimental program ran for an hour and was picked up by other amateur experimenters in the area.

In 1908, Charles Herrold ran a small school teaching radio operators in San Jose. He began producing a short program of music and discussion that ran on Wednesday nights with help from his wife and students. They played records and songs requested by listeners. Though popular locally, few outside of the San Jose area knew about the broadcasts.

In 1917 as the United States entered WWI, all civilian stations were shut down as part of the war effort, freeing up the airwaves for government communication, and presumably to limit the ability of foreign spies (it was a very paranoid time). 6XF, Harrold’s station, had to shut down as well, but re-opened in 1921 after the ban was lifted. The station returned with twice weekly broadcasts on Monday and Thursday, but these were sadly short lived. In 1925 the station was sold due to financial troubles. Harrold stayed on as program director, but in 1926 his contract was not renewed. It was the end of an era, but his legacy lived on in the many operators he trained who went into battle or founded other stations after leaving the school.

The 1920s saw an explosion in audio broadcasting. The first permanent radio station was established in 1926 (NBC) with CBS following in 1927. There were so many competing signals that the Federal Radio Commission was also created that year to limit broadcast signals and determine what ranges could be used for what purposes.

Meanwhile, radio was also growing in Canada, England, The Netherlands, and all over the world. Short programs of 30 minutes to an hour of news and music began cropping up, broadcasting a few times a week. In the US, major companies too to the airwaves as a form of advertising. For example, an automotive dealer might start their own station to provide an advertising platform, just as today some authors (like me) start Youtube channels to help get the word out about their books. By 1922 there were more than 550 new radio license applications.

The 1920s also saw a burst in national radio stations, in France, Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, Poland, and others. In the 1920s nearly all radio broadcasters or hosts were male. My personal theory on this is less rooted in sexism (though it was definitely a factor), and more in the actual limitations of the medium. Broadcasts were not crystal clear, and the distortion is less distracting and annoying on the lower register of male voices than it is with higher pitched female voices. Though it would have also been “unseemly” for a woman to broadcast her voice to hundreds of strangers when she “should” be at home tending the children. This was also around the time that men were losing their minds because women could talk on the telephone to anyone they wanted while they were at work; working as a radio host was nearly out of the question. As the medium of the radio drama expanded in the 1920s-1930s, however, more and more women took up acting and singing for the station, providing live entertainment.

Women did take a roll in later radio shows, especially in the 30s-40s in Europe, as militaries mobilized once again. Mostly working as typist and in behind the scenes rolls, they made up a fair portion of BBC employees, and even took to hosting broadcasts themselves as men were shipped off to battle.

The 1940s, the “golden age” of American radio, saw a time when radio played it’s biggest role in American daily life to date. Everything was rationed, pennies were pinched. But if you had a radio, you had entertainment. You had news, right there in your living room. Radio stations broadcast news from the front. For the first time, Americans could hear updates from the front in real time–or nearly so.

Just as radio was really hitting it’s stride with game shows, variety shows, music, and live broadcasts from events around the world, television came onto the scene. By the 1950s the post-WWII boom in the US saw thousands of television sets finding new homes in living rooms across the country. Dramas and game shows moved to tv, variety shows were now something you watched, rather than listened to. This marked the decline of radio, a slow descent.

Some radio shows persisted into the 1980s and 90s in limited runs. Satellite radio has revived some of the old programs, dusting them off and digitizing them for modern audiences. You can now listen to The Black Cat and The Green Hornet as you drive cross country, or stream them via youtube or specialty websites. There are even a few local stations dedicating to reviving the feel of bygone days, like the 1920s Radio Network, and for me, KBRD in nearby Olympia.

Do you still listen to the radio, or are you a dedicated streamer? Do you wish some of these old programs and styles of programming were still around? Let me know in the comments!

Further reading:
Charles Herrold Wiki
History of Radio
FCC History of Radio booklet
Radio History Timeline
Elon University article

Like what you see? Check out Magic in the Headlines, a steampunk mystery inspired by retro-tech!