How America Listened: The Rise of Radio Broadcasting


By Patrick AllittEmory University

Radio broadcasting was made possible by advancements in radio technology and the invention of the audion tube in 1906. The first regular broadcasting station was KDKA in Pittsburgh. The Federal Radio Commission was created in 1927 to regulate airwaves, and President Roosevelt used radio broadcasting to appeal to voters.

Old wooden radio
After the introduction of the radio, listening to songs, conversations, and speeches from a remote location became possible. (Image: OlEnglish/Public domain)

From Morse Code to the Audion Tube

Radios extended communication possibilities. Radio technology developed out of telegraphy. By 1900, it was already possible to send Morse code messages wirelessly, that is, for example, from ship to shore, without relying on a wire to carry the message.

The invention of the “audion tube” in 1906 was the crucial breakthrough that made it possible to broadcast a voice or music as well as just a pattern of dots and dashes.

An amplifying radio receiver with the audion tube
It was the invention of the Audion tube that made radio broadcasting possible. (Image: Lee De Forest/Public domain)

At first, this was regarded as a fascinating development. In 1917, though, when the United States went to war in the First World War, the U.S. Navy took control of radio for fear of its espionage possibilities. It was understood that radio messages could be sent remotely.

KDKA Radio

It wasn’t until about 1920 that regular civilian broadcasting began. The first regular broadcasting station, as historians of radio tell it, was KDKA in Pittsburgh, owned by the Westinghouse Corporation, and is usually credited as being the first regular broadcaster. 

Very quickly, all kinds of people understood the possibilities of radio. Ownership of radios in America grew from zero in 1919 to 12 million in 1930. It was, therefore, one of the massive growths of the 1920s and contributed to the great business boom of the 1920s.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Revenue and Regulations 

The usual technique for running radio stations in America was commercial, that is, to pay the costs of the radio station through advertising. Consequently, the classic pattern in American radio became that you’d have a broadcast of the news, concerts, or popular music interspersed with commercials. The advertiser would pay the radio station, and cover its costs, to make everything else possible.

It didn’t have to be that way, though. At the same time, in Britain, radio was developing in a very different way. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was financed through licenses. If you wanted to run a radio, you had to have a license for it, and the licensing fees paid the cost. 

The American government quickly realized that radio could be used or it could be abused, so the Federal Radio Commission was created in 1927, which became the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934—an organization that has persisted up to the present to regulate the use of the airwaves and prevent them from being misused.

Franklin Roosevelt giving a radio speech, Washington D.C.
President Franklin Roosevelt used radio to its full political capacity. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats

It was President Franklin Roosevelt who first understood the immense possibilities that radio provided. Warren G. Harding was the very first president to broadcast, but it was Roosevelt who really made the medium his own, and with the “fireside chats”, was able to appeal directly to American voters so that for the first time, many of them could listen to their president’s voice directly, which previously would have been an unknown experience. 

By the time of the Great Depression, radio ownership was virtually universal, and Roosevelt’s fireside chats were regularly deployed to shore up his policies. 

Amos ‘n’ Andy

Radio, like the movie industry, created a wide range of fictional characters. It wasn’t only a matter of news accounts; it was also storytelling. A popular show in the 1930s was Amos ‘n’ Andy. Amos and Andy were two imaginary African American men, but the roles were actually played by two white men, Freeman Gosden, and Charles Correll. They created the characters in 1928. They posed as two men living in Harlem, the black ghetto, and spoke in heavy dialect. 

Now, “Amos ‘n Andy” is widely regarded as a racist show, although in its day, it had a daily audience of nearly 40 million and was incredibly popular and loved. In fact, it had a wide black audience, too, many of whom loved it, apparently. It was also the very first show to be put on every night. Every night at 7:00 p.m., during much of the Great Depression, you could listen to Amos ‘n’ Andy for a few minutes. 

How Influential Was Radio Broadcasting?

Well, the power of the radio was vividly illustrated in 1938. Orson Welles was the crucial figure here. He did a broadcast of H. G. Wells’s story, “War of the Worlds”. It’s about an alien invasion of the Earth. It was so realistic that many citizens thought this thing was really happening and that they didn’t hear a story; they were hearing reports of an actual invasion, even though periodically Welles interrupted the broadcast to say, “Here is a dramatic reading of ‘War of the Worlds’”.

One of the characters says, “I can see the thing’s body! It’s as large as a bear, and it glistens like wet leather! That face! The black eyes and the saliva dripping from its rimless lips!” Oh, very stagy. This was supposed to be happening in New Jersey. A lot of Jerseyites fled from their homes. Highways were jammed with traffic. Bus stations were full of people trying to get away. People fled to their churches, expecting that the end of the world had come.

It was a little glimpse of the power that radio had.

Common Questions about the Rise of Radio Broadcasting

Q: How did telegraphing make radio broadcasting possible?

Radio broadcasting comes from telegraphing. It was already possible to send Morse code or telegraph wirelessly by 1900. But after the invention of the audion tube, audio and music could be broadcast and, using telegraphing technology, sent over long distances.

Q: How was radio broadcasting mainly financed in the US?

In the US, radio broadcasting was mainly commercially financed, using commercials during radio programs such as news, music, or entertainment shows to generate revenue.

Q: How did Franklin Roosevelt use radio broadcasting in his favor?

President Roosevelt was perhaps the first president to strategically use radio broadcasting to appeal to the public. He would do these “fireside chats”, which made it possible for voters to hear their president speak directly.

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