Radio Broadcasting Begins

Radio station KDKA transmitted the 1920 presidential election returns to as many receivers as it could reach, thereby engaging in the first major radio “broadcast”—that is, a transmission intended for a broad, or mass, audience.

Summary of Event

At 8:00 p.m. on November 2, 1920, the airwaves near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, crackled with sound as the tiny, newly licensed KDKA KDKA (radio station) radio station broadcast the first scheduled public radio program, the presidential election returns. Using only a 100-watt transmitter, Leo H. Rosenberg of Westinghouse Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company’s publicity department, read the returns as they were received by telephone from the offices of the Pittsburgh Post newspaper. Westinghouse, owner of the station, had announced the event in advance, and its success set off a boom of enormous proportions for the new radio industry. The first station to begin radio broadcasting was actually WWJ WWJ (radio station) in Detroit, on August 20, 1920. However, it was KDKA’s successful transmission into American homes of Warren G. Harding’s landslide victory over James M. Cox that signaled the beginning of a new era: Republicans were again in control of the White House, Prohibition was in effect, and scheduled broadcasts of radio programs had begun. Radio;broadcasting development
[kw]Radio Broadcasting Begins (Aug. 20-Nov. 2, 1920)
[kw]Broadcasting Begins, Radio (Aug. 20-Nov. 2, 1920)
Radio;broadcasting development
[g]United States;Aug. 20-Nov. 2, 1920: Radio Broadcasting Begins[05160]
[c]Radio and television;Aug. 20-Nov. 2, 1920: Radio Broadcasting Begins[05160]
[c]Communications and media;Aug. 20-Nov. 2, 1920: Radio Broadcasting Begins[05160]
Sarnoff, David
Marconi, Guglielmo
Fessenden, Reginald Aubrey
Conrad, Frank
Davis, Harry P.
Rosenberg, Leo H.
De Forest, Lee
Hertz, Heinrich
Harding, Warren G.
[p]Harding, Warren G.;radio broadcast of election results

A young woman of the 1920’s tunes a radio.

(Library of Congress)

The birth of this remarkable cultural innovation was the result of a series of fortuitous circumstances. KDKA’s broadcast was really a desperate move by Westinghouse. The company had long been a leader in the large vacuum tube and telegraph industry, but the end of World War I brought cancellation of lucrative war contracts, and the company found itself caught in a corporate squeeze. Its great rival General Electric General Electric Company (GE), along with American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and the newly formed Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA), controlled the profitable field of international communications, as well as the invaluable vacuum tube—a device that had almost unlimited potential.

Modern radio technology had begun in 1888 when German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of the electromagnetic waves predicted in James Clerk Maxwell’s paper for the Royal Society, “A Dynamical Theory of Electro-Magnetic Field” (1864). Guglielmo Marconi of Italy built on Hertz’s work and, by 1895, developed the first wireless telegraph designed to send Morse code signals. Great Britain was the first nation to become interested in Marconi’s discovery and immediately began to explore its military and industrial applications.

The next major development in radio technology came when Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a Canadian who had worked with Thomas Alva Edison, discovered that he could transmit not only Morse code but also the human voice and other sounds. By 1906, he and colleague Ernst F. W. Alexanderson Alexanderson, Ernst F. W. had built an alternator at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, from which, on Christmas Eve, he broadcast to ships’ wireless operators and amateur radio receivers throughout the world an entire program including violin music and poetry.

In 1907, Lee de Forest patented a modification of the vacuum tube. By adding a third element, called a grid or “audion,” he increased the efficiency of the device both as an amplifier and as a detector. Considered a giant leap forward in radio technology, the audion tube was only one of many contributions de Forest made to the industry. Audions During his lifetime he was granted more than two hundred patents in the field and devoted his career to developing and promoting radio technology.

This flurry of technological activity in the early years of the twentieth century produced a cadre of highly skilled radio technicians. One such was David Sarnoff, an immigrant wireless operator with American Marconi, the company that eventually formed the core of RCA. In 1912, Sarnoff had manned a wireless set that kept in contact with ships in the vicinity of the Titanic as it sank. His dramatic effort captured public attention and generated intense interest in the potential of wireless telephony among the world’s giant communications and electrical companies.

Radio’s future was still hazy when World War I broke out. The war, however, proved to be a blessing for the radio industry, the promise of which had been dimmed by numerous costly and time-consuming patent disputes. Faced with the emergency of war, the government suspended all such disputes for the duration and pushed forward the full production of vacuum tubes, receivers, transmitters, and a whole range of complex electrical equipment. A giant Alexanderson transmitter at New Brunswick, New Jersey, using the call letters NFF, astounded the world by clearly broadcasting President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points throughout Europe on January 18, 1918. Later in the year, NFF epitomized Wilson’s principles of open diplomacy by publicly demanding the overthrow of the German emperor as a prelude to peace.

Many of those involved in radio were aware of the potential of the new electronics. When the war ended and restrictions on electronic equipment were lifted, it was merely a matter of time before someone dramatized the possibilities of radio. One who tried was Detroit publisher William E. Scripps, Scripps, William E. who built a receiver for his son. Using the call letters 8MK, he began broadcasting tests that extended news reports to the airwaves. These tests ended on primary day, August 31, 1920, just months before KDKA made its move.

In Pittsburgh, several Westinghouse workers had been experimenting with radio for some time and began to broadcast amateur programs using transmitters built by Frank Conrad, a company executive, in his garage. Harry P. Davis, a Westinghouse vice president, became aware of the commercial possibilities of radio programs when he learned that a local department store was advertising receivers by promoting Conrad’s broadcasts. Davis called a conference with other Westinghouse officials and proposed the idea of offering radio broadcasts on a regular basis to the general public. Westinghouse could then manufacture and sell radio sets intended for home use that consumers could use to receive these broadcasts. He proposed trying to have everything in place to broadcast the upcoming election returns. Westinghouse applied to the U.S. Department of Commerce for a license to begin regular broadcasting and, on October 27, 1920, received notification that the station was to have the call letters KDKA.

Others had tried to make radio a commercial venture. Sarnoff, for example, early grasped the potential of a huge market for radios. As early as 1916, he had declared that radio might become as popular in the home as the phonograph. In January, 1920, he tried to persuade officials of the newly formed RCA to market radio “music boxes” at seventy-five dollars each. He predicted that if they did so, the company would be able to realize an income of seventy-five million dollars in only three years. Unconvinced, the company committed only two thousand dollars to research in radios.


After KDKA’s groundbreaking broadcast, most people in the industry became convinced of radio’s commercial possibilities. Westinghouse, whose fortunes were reversed, assumed leadership in the field. Members of the industry at first expected to earn profits primarily through the sale of transmitting and receiving equipment. The early programs, which were usually informal, emphasized entertainment, including music and occasionally such dramatic events as the World Series, which was broadcast for the first time in 1921. Broadcasters soon realized, however, that radio could earn profits through the sale of advertising time. The role of radio as an advertising Advertising;radio medium began on August 22, 1922, when station WEAF in New York sold a ten-minute “spot” for a commercial message.

As the radio mania swept the country, it became apparent that the industry would have to be regulated. Prior to the first commercial broadcasts, the Radio Law of 1912 had assigned licensing responsibilities to the Department of Commerce. That system proved unwieldy, so in 1927 Congress passed new legislation establishing the Federal Radio Commission, Federal Radio Commission the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Radio remained the primary vehicle of the electronic mass media until the advent of television. It was and is a crucial part of American life and culture, the roots of which can be traced to that initial broadcast from a garage in Pittsburgh. Radio;broadcasting development

Further Reading

  • Archer, Gleason L. History of Radio to 1926. New York: The American Historical Society, 1938. Gives details of the early history of radio in the United States. The complete script of the first commercial broadcast is in an appendix.
  • Balk, Alfred. The Rise of Radio: From Marconi Through the Golden Age. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. A cultural history of radio, focusing on the social and political impact of the new medium. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel: To 1933. Vol. 1 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. A detailed chronology of the history of broadcasting. Emphasizes the important individuals and their contributions. Later volumes continue the research. An important work.
  • Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. An informal history of the early years of radio broadcasting, paying particular attention to the 1920’s. Focuses on political, financial, manufacturing, and entertainment developments.
  • Douglas, Susan J. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Douglas discusses both the technical development of radio and its social and political implications in the United States. Illustrations, notes, index.
  • _______. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Discusses the evolution of the American radio audience and of the role of radio in American life. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Head, Sydney W., and Christopher H. Sterling. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. The leading text for more than thirty years. Covers the development of American broadcasting thoroughly and with tremendous insight.
  • Keith, Michael C., and Joseph M. Krause. The Radio Station. Boston: Focal Press, 1986. Combines an overview of the history of radio broadcasting with detailed explanations of commercial station operations. Useful primarily as a means of understanding how a contemporary station works.
  • Lewis, Tom. Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. New York: Edward Burlingame, 1991. An overview of the development of commercial radio. Chapter 6 focuses on the quest to broadcast to the general public. Photographs, bibliography, index.
  • Lichty, Lawrence W., and Malachi C. Topping, comps. American Broadcasting: A Source Book on the History of Radio and Television. New York: Hastings House, 1975. An anthology of selections relating to the history of radio and television, including some materials not often covered elsewhere. Includes about fifty tables showing economic factors relating to broadcasting.
  • Paley, William S. As It Happened: A Memoir. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1979. An autobiography by one of the most important people in radio and television history. Discusses that history through the perspective of the head of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
  • Smulyan, Susan. Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920-1934. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. Smulyan details how the American radio business evolved from one that was privately financed to one supported by commercial advertising. Notes, illustrations, index.

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