By Guest Blogger Joy Bennett
The First World War created many new technological advancements, one of the major developments was in radio communication. This form of communication was especially vital for air and naval operations. After the war, numerous radio stations were created in the United States.
The first commercial radio news program in the United States was broadcast on August 31, 1920, on the station 8MK in Detroit; owned by The Detroit News. The station covered the local election results. This was followed in the same year with the first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA, established in Pittsburgh. The first regular entertainment programs were broadcast in 1922.
In early 1922, AT&T announced the beginning of advertisement-supported broadcasting on its stations. In July 1926, AT&T decided to exit the broadcasting field, and sold its entire network operations to a group headed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which used the assets to form the National Broadcasting Company.
With the formation of radio broadcast networks, new forms of entertainment needed to be created to fill the time of a station’s broadcast day. In the beginning, network programs were almost exclusively broadcast live. As a result, network prime-time shows would be performed twice, once for each coast.
Radio had many possibilities. The ability to get news and information to people quickly created several new types of programs on the radio such as headlines, remote reporting, panel discussions, weather reports, and farm reports. This later created a feud between radio and newspapers.
Not all radio stations could air all news all the time. The stations wanted to appeal to a wider audience, and began creating lots of different programs. The sponsored musical feature soon became one of the most popular program formats. A lot of the early radio sponsorship came in the form of selling the naming rights to the program, such as The A&P Gypsies, Champion Spark Plug Hour, The Clicquot Club Eskimos, and King Biscuit Time. They also had classical music programs on the air including The Voice of Firestone and The Bell Telephone Hour, and the Texaco sponsored Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Popular songwriters such as George Gershwin were also featured on radio. The New York Philharmonic also had weekly concerts on radio.
In addition to news and music, radio also attracted top comedy talents from vaudeville and Hollywood. Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Fanny Brice, Billie Burke, Bob Burns, Judy Canova, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Burns and Allen, Phil Harris, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Jean Shepherd, Red Skelton and Ed Wynn were all featured players on the radio.
Situational comedies also gained popularity. Shows such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, Easy Aces, Ethel and Albert, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Goldbergs, The Great Gildersleeve, The Halls of Ivy, Meet Corliss Archer, Meet Millie, and Our Miss Brooks were incredibly popular.
To get more radios in more homes, they even introduced children’s programming! The line-up of late afternoon adventure serials included Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, The Cisco Kid, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, Captain Midnight, and The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters. Badges, rings, decoding devices and other radio premiums offered on these adventure shows were often allied with a sponsor’s product, requiring the young listeners to mail in a boxtop from a breakfast cereal or other proof of purchase.
Radio also transformed how Americans enjoyed sports. The introduction of play-by-play descriptions of sporting events broadcast over the radio brought sports entertainment right into the homes of millions. It made it possible for everyone to listen to their favorite teams play, even if they weren’t living in the city! Radio also helped to popularize sports figures and their accomplishments. Jim Thorpe, who grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, was known as one of the best athletes in the world. He won medals in the 1912 Olympic Games, played Major League Baseball, and was one of the founding members of the National Football League. Other sports superstars were soon household names as well. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Helen Wills dominated women’s tennis, winning Wimbledon eight times in the late 1920s. “Big Bill” Tilden won the national singles title every year from 1920 to 1925. In football, Harold “Red” Grange played for the University of Illinois, averaging over ten yards per carry during his college career. The biggest star of all was the “Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth, who became America’s first baseball hero.
Radios were slowly making their way into most average American homes. In the mid 1920s, a radio cost around $150 dollars, which would be over $1,000 today. By the 1930s, the price had gone down drastically, and most homes in America had them. The radio quickly became a favorite family pastime, and it all began with the 1920s.
Joy Bennett is the Curator and Archivist of the Hancock Historical Museum, and has worked there for nearly 9 years. She graduated from Bowling Green State University in 2011 with Masters degrees in 20th Century American History and Public History. She loves the history of fashion, classic movies, and reading.