When people tuned in to their sets for sports, weather, news, and entertainment during the first half of the 20th century, they heard what they looking for, but, ironically, did very little “looking.” This was radio-a stepping stone to what would eventually become television-and it had a history of its own.
Those who had a hand in its foundation, however, did not know at the time what they were inventing. James Maxwell, for example, was one the first to investigate electromagnetic fields and in 1888 Heinrich Hertz succeeded in sending electromagnetic signals through space.
Perhaps the most significant early milestone was achieved by Guglielmo Marconi, who conducted several important tests with radio equipment in 1901 and then managed to send a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Radio, in essence, was born that day.
Hardly an exact science, it took more structured form five years later when Lee De Forest organized electronic signals in a vacuum tube, facilitating voice transmissions, and interest in both the device and its potential steadily increased.
Equipped with little more than a crude set located in his garage, for instance, Doc Herald began broadcasts three years later and helped others build crystal sets with the knowledge he had so far amassed. Numerous amateurs quickly followed suit.
The first organization to exploit this innovation was the American Marconi Company. Headed by David Sarnoff, who first served as its messenger and ultimately worked his way up to its executive, it was able to broadcast within a 50-mile radius, thus bringing entertainment into the homes within this area by 1916 and replacing what had previously been little more than amateur-run “talks” given by “tinkerers” with crude sets.
The ability to reach so many with a single device, however, soon signaled potential for radio equipment manufacturers, such as Westinghouse, General Electric, and AT&T. Pooling their patents, they purchased the American Marconi Company and formed the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA.
The first division within it occurred when Westinghouse and General Electric employed their patents to manufacture broadcasting and receiving equipment, while AT&T concentrated on telephone communications. Nevertheless the most successful of the original three, the latter demonstrated the impact communication could have when it was offered $100, then a considerable sum, by a Long Island real estate firm to disseminate information about the homes they had available for sale during ten minutes of air time, and listener response proved overwhelming. Radio advertising was born.
Placing it on the path to unprecedented growth, AT&T itself became independent and formed its own station, WEAF, connecting it with Boston radio station WNAC in 1923. It was only the beginning of its network of affiliations and reach.
Still comprising the other half of RCA, Westinghouse and General Electric, aware of its partner’s growth, followed suit, forming their own station, WJZ. Since they did not receive advertising support for the venture, however, it barely limped along for two years until AT&T sold them its own WEAF station in 1926, enabling the combined Westinghouse and General Electric concern to develop into the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC, which owned half the stock, while the original RCA held the other half.
Reflecting their US broadcast areas, a chart with either red or blue lines indicated the cities to which, respectively, WEAF and WJZ transmitted.
With success came monopoly-and federal government intervention. Deeming the arrangement anti-competitive, the government itself forced NBC to sell its blue transmission network, shedding itself of its WJZ station, which subsequently became the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC.
A third, independent network, soon controlled by William S. Paley, was formed the following year, CBS.
What began as a hobby for amateurs had evolved into a multiple-corporation business with incredible reach. But, because of the extensive use of the airwaves, demand soon exceeded their capacity and the system’s overburdened use often resulted in unclear transmissions, with one station overlapping others.
Although Congress had anticipated this dilemma when it had created the Radio Act of 1912, its solution of requiring station licenses for all transmitters did little to ameliorate the system’s overtaxed usage, since the license was easy to acquire and offered no operational restriction.
While conditions were improved when a separate license category for commercial broadcasting companies was created, President Hoover went a step further by determining which radio stations would be granted air access and which ones would not.
The act, needless to say, sparked controversy and was deemed unconstitutional. Eugene F. McDonald, for example, who owned station WJAZ in Chicago, claimed that the president had exceeded his authority by making such determinations and this prompted the subsequent Radio Act of 1927, which advocated that broadcasting services could only be provided by private enterprises and that the public itself would determine the types of programs they wished to hear.
Although it ameliorated most of the early obstacles, the definitive Communications Act of 1934 was ultimately established.
“Control” during these nascent times, however, was often subtler. Sponsors and advertisement agencies, for example, needed to reach as many listeners as possible in order to insure the maximum sales of their products, but felt this exposure hinged upon the quality of the shows with which they were associated. If they paid stations for advertising time and they coincidentally ran poor quality programs, they felt that the number of people reached would decline as they turned the dial in search of better features and that the shows themselves were reflective of their goods and services. Resultantly, they were able to exercise a certain amount of control over a program’s production and arrangement.
During the 1930s, radio and the advertising it attracted prospered. Three large stations provided news, information, and entertainment to millions across the country who only needed to turn a dial to access it.
The foundation of many later-popular television mysteries, comedies, adventures, juveniles, and even soap operas, including “When a Girl Marries,” “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, “I Love a Mystery,” “Gangbusters,” and “The Shadow,” was laid during this time, while these venues enabled many early actors and actresses to gain their initial exposure.
Radio became the mainstay of American entertainment for some two decades, until another emerging technology, television, appeared in the 1950s, offering both audio and visual aspects. Nevertheless, it was both the beginning and the future, since it continues to serve the purpose for which it was created-provide the information and entertainment listeners wish to hear.