Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Technical, patent, and licensing advances freed radio’s visionaries and performers to cultivate their art by broadcasting news and entertainment to mass audiences. Radio thus developed into a unique art form, even as Americans were organized for the first time into mass audiences for live, broadcast entertainment.

Summary of Event

Before the 1920’s, technological advances in radio engineering, patenting, and production capabilities far exceeded the young industry’s commercial exploitation of a mass listeners’ market. American radio until then was the technical preserve of skillful amateurs, hobbyists, engineers, and scientists. New corporations exploring the field of radio such as Westinghouse, Westinghouse General Electric General Electric Company (GE), Western Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), and the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA) were interested chiefly in radio’s roles in wireless, radiotelegraphy, and telephone communication and, during World War I, in manufacturing radio equipment for the armed forces. Interest in voice or musical transmissions (radiotelephony) was minimal, and radio’s business leadership considered its devotees eccentrics. Radio;broadcasting development [kw]Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium (1920’s) [kw]Mass Broadcast Medium, Radio Develops as a (1920’s) [kw]Broadcast Medium, Radio Develops as a Mass (1920’s) Radio;broadcasting development [g]United States;1920’s: Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium[04920] [c]Radio and television;1920’s: Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium[04920] [c]Communications and media;1920’s: Radio Develops as a Mass Broadcast Medium[04920] Sarnoff, David Conrad, Frank McNamee, Graham Arlin, Harold W. Popenoe, Charles B. Cowan, Thomas H. De Forest, Lee

Prospects for changes in the radio industry were foreshadowed in 1919 by cross-licensing agreements (affecting patents) between Westinghouse, AT&T, GE, and RCA as well as by the subsequent pooling of functions among the corporations. RCA was permitted a near monopoly of radiotelegraphy and the sale of the other corporations’ equipment, AT&T controlled telephonic communications, and GE and Westinghouse shared the manufacture of radio equipment. Divisive competition within the radio business was thus reduced. One company in particular profited from this arrangement; although Westinghouse’s postwar sales fell sharply, the company’s commercial potential was augmented vastly, first by acquisition of Edwin H. Armstrong’s Armstrong, Edwin H. feedback circuit, then by his still more commercially viable superheterodyne circuits for radio sets.

Radio manufacturer Arthur Atwater Kent (standing) and others listen to the radio in the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., sometime in the 1920’s.

(Library of Congress)

Visionaries such as RCA’s David Sarnoff had unsuccessfully appealed to industry leaders to embark on mass-appeal broadcasting replete with news and entertainment, yet it was a gifted, self-trained amateur employed by Westinghouse, Frank Conrad, who somewhat inadvertently initiated radio’s new era. Experimenting in his garage-laboratory in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1919 and 1920, Conrad not only used his equipment (licensed as 8XK) to talk to other amateurs but for their enjoyment also played phonograph records. Soon, with two sons announcing and a local music store furnishing phonograph records, he started a craze for more radios able to receive 8XK as the number of listeners multiplied.

Aware of the Conrad phenomenon—and the real and prospective sales generated by it—Westinghouse vice president Harry P. Davis Davis, Harry P. proposed to Conrad that a more powerful transmitter be built atop Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse plant. The station, licensed by federal authorities as KDKA KDKA (radio station) on October 27, 1920, and assigned the 360-meter channel, started by broadcasting news: four hours of returns from the Warren G. Harding-James Cox presidential election of November 2, 1920. White and Conrad’s intentions were to continue offering regular broadcasts to listeners day by day, week by week, demonstrating that more radio sets could be sold once the general public perceived that the medium’s offerings—its “art”—could be available to all. It proved a both successful and historic decision.

Encouraged by the experience of KDKA, Westinghouse established three new broadcast stations before the end of 1921: WJZ-Newark, KYW-Chicago, and WBZ-Springfield (Massachusetts). Its competitors—RCA, five smaller companies, and a municipality—swiftly followed. RCA, now listening to Sarnoff, by midsummer that year had scored its own coup by broadcasting the Jack Dempsey-George Carpentier prizefight from New York, an event reportedly heard by 300,000 people, some as distant as Florida. Westinghouse’s WJZ-Newark station, under the direction of Charles B. Popenoe, countered by broadcasting the World Series games between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants three months later. These initial broadcasts were impromptu affairs; the personnel were untrained and unspecialized, and the equipment and facilities on which they relied—microphones, transmitters, receivers, and studios—were unreliable and crude. Still, the experience gained paved the way for the emergence of distinct radio personalities—particularly announcers, sportscasters, and newscasters—as well as regularly featured programs.

Typical early broadcasts depended on station personnel and a gamut of unpaid—if often high-quality and well-known—talent. Light variety shows developed to flesh out time. Broadcasts otherwise consisted of recorded and sometimes live concerts, selections from operas and sacred music, an occasional vocal group, soloists, pianists, weather forecasts, time signals, and news. Advertising was limited to touting the stations’ immediate interests, and no funds were solicited from commercial sponsors. As virtual masters of ceremonies, announcers (recruited from a variety of backgrounds) before mid-decade quickly became prominent public figures, among them KDKA’s Harold W. Arlin (who may have been the first); WJZ’s Thomas H. Cowan, Milton Cross, Cross, Milton Norman Brokenshire, Brokenshire, Norman and Bertha Brainerd; Brainerd, Bertha WEAF’s Graham McNamee; and, elsewhere, Don Wilson and Harry von Zell.

Although sports and news did not become specialized features of station operations in the early 1920’s, their potentials were still clearly recognized. After broadcasts of major sports events and scores, several announcers, including Major J. Andrew White, Ted Husing, Quin Ryan, Graham McNamee, Edwin Tyson, Tyson, Edwin Lawrence Holland, Holland, Lawrence Bill Munday, Munday, Bill and Red Barber, Barber, Red gained notoriety as sportscasters. Similar differentiation occurred in radio news, which was initially the broadcast of relays of telephone, newspaper, or wire-service information to the radio stations. This, too, brought a number of prominent announcers before the public and prepared the field for special radio coverage and commentary by 1930.

KDKA’s 1920 breakthrough with the institution of regular broadcasting, and the rapid establishment of similar stations across the nation over the next few years, reflected a youthful industry’s strategic quest for profits, first through sales of sets and equipment, then through the sale of time for purveyance of the products of others. Both interrelated strategies required a continuous enlargement and a persistent cultivation of the real and supposed tastes of mass audiences. Therein lay the matrix for radio’s evolving art.

Because of the increasing availability and declining prices of radio sets and the lure of expanding broadcasts, sales of radio sets through the 1920’s were phenomenal: Between 1922 and 1929, sales soared from $60 million to $842.5 million. Radio became a national rage; sets appeared in large stores and small shops, in taverns and schools, and, more notably, in more than a third of American households. Just as railroads had joined the nation’s most remote places by steel links a generation earlier, so radio brought the world’s fourth-largest country into still another reticulation of common daily experiences and values.

Even before the appearance of national radio networks in 1926, newscasting was becoming an important regular feature of most broadcasts, although it drew few sponsors. With the creation of major networks, the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) abandoned common “rip and read” news formats in 1929. Pointing the route others would follow, CBS replaced such formats with regular, accurately gathered, sponsored newscasts by Lowell Thomas Thomas, Lowell —a colorful figure and a knowledgeable global traveler whom the radio generation came to venerate much as the first television generation would revere Walter Cronkite. With Thomas and his counterparts, newscasting was on its way to becoming an art.

By the mid-1920’s, sportscasting was likewise becoming professionalized in the hands of Chicago’s Harold (Hal) Totten and Quin Ryan, Detroit’s Pappy Tyson and Larry Holland, Atlanta’s Bill Munday, and the University of Florida’s Red Barber. In these as in other broadcast specialities, the broadcasters’ voices, and thus personalities, made distinctive contributions to radio art. Graham McNamee epitomized this with his ability to hang listeners on every word, to mount suspense, and—the then-peculiar quality of radio—to lend every sentence immediacy.

Heavy from the start with offerings of classical and church music, broadcasts, under the guns of network rivalry as well as the need to preempt air time, soon exploited—and thereby began sanitizing and popularizing—jazz and “race” music, both of which would eventually be recognized as unique American contributions to world culture. New York’s WJZ began the trend with bandleader Paul Whiteman’s jazz concert featuring composer George Gershwin’s specially written Rhapsody in Blue (1924). The program was lent respectability by the sponsorship of outstanding composers and conductors such as Serge Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, and Walter Damrosch—the latter of whom, through The Music Appreciation Hour Music Appreciation Hour, The (radio program) of the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC), brought varieties of music to more than six million schoolchildren. Although the broadcast of classical music along with light and polite orchestral presentations continued to be the rule, late-night radio, encouraged by record companies profiting from sales of “race” records, relentlessly promoted jazz.

With the linkage of paying sponsors and advertising agencies to radio stations, scheduled dramas, variety shows, and comedies and their star personalities swiftly relegated news and sports to lesser portions of the broadcast day. Presented in December, 1923, as the first show with a series title, the Eveready Hour Eveready Hour (radio program) set the pace with its variety of famous talents. By 1925, two of what proved to be radio’s longest-lived as well as more popular shows—WSM-Nashville’s The Grand Ole Opry and WLS-Chicago’s The National Barn Dance—swelled the trend with their comedy routines and country music. Until the 1930’s, the evening’s prime time was filled with such shows. Many, like The Cities Service Concert or The Palmolive Hour, were orchestral, although these were interlarded by the late 1920’s with a few forerunners of 1930’s soap operas such as WJBO Chicago’s The Smith Family and NBC’s The Rise of the Goldbergs.

With stations expanding their broadcast days, mornings, still devoid of “soaps,” became a mixture of “wake-up” shows—Eugene “Cheerio” Field’s was one of the most popular—and a collage of women’s health and homemaking presentations that introduced such personalities as Betty Crocker, Julian Heath, Ida Bailey Allen, Mary Norris, and Royal Copeland. Intermixed with these were more of the light music and chatter shows already familiar to evening listeners.


By the end of the 1920’s, broadcast programs in considerable variety were available to listeners everywhere for most, if not all, of each day. In its quest for profits, a radio industry devoted to broadcasting had by the end of the 1920’s already explored and experimented with a considerable range of entertainments and attractions, touted by a new breed of public personalities—announcers, sportscasters, newscasters, comedians, orchestra leaders, conductors, composers, jazz musicians, educators, writers, actors, and dramatists. In company with reactive publics, such people established criteria for the judgment of their performances as they became intimate, if invisible, components of Americans’ daily lives. The instantaneous dissemination of music, narrative, and information had become and was to remain a defining aspect of twentieth century culture. Radio;broadcasting development

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1931. A popular classic reprinted many times, this work places the emergence and impact of radio in the context of a unique and tumultuous decade. Allen is always good as well as insightful reading. Fifteen illustrations, brief bibliographical appendix, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. A Tower of Babel: To 1933. Vol. 1 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. An authoritative, detailed, and insightful work—a fascinating read for scholars and laymen alike. There are sixteen pages of excellent period photos; serious readers will profit from ample footnotes, a superb bibliography, appendixes, and an extensive double-columned index. First-rate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chester, Giraud, Garnet R. Garrison, and Edgar E. Willis. Television and Radio. 4th ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971. A readable, scholarly piece that not only provides useful descriptive material on early radio but also raises important questions about what criteria are most fairly applied to judging the art of radio (and television). Topical bibliography; no photos, but an extensive double-columned index. Useful as selective and comparative reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Matches Barnouw in authority, if not detail or range, and is also a fascinating read. Twenty pages of interesting old photos, brief chapter notes, an excellent, extensive bibliography, and a useful index. Must reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, Susan J. 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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoenbrun, David. On and Off the Air: An Informal History of CBS News. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989. A distinguished newsman of international reputation, Schoenbrun has interesting observations on the early days of radio at CBS in chapter 2. His critical comparisons of television and radio news reporting are valuable. Unfortunately, published memoirs of other early newsmen are hard to find. Eight pages of photos, but no other reader aids.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wertheim, Arthur Frank. Radio Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. A fine background for understanding the place and character of radio comedy in the 1920’s and the early 1930’s. An easy, scholarly read. Twelve pages of photos; no bibliography, but detailed chapter notes and a useful index. A valuable work.

WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry

National Broadcasting Company Is Founded

British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered

Americans Embrace Radio Entertainment

Antitrust Prosecution Forces RCA to Restructure

Armstrong Demonstrates FM Radio Broadcasting

Welles Broadcasts The War of the Worlds

Categories: History