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When Radio Was America

A book on the Golden Era of Radio takes us back to “those thrilling days of yesteryear”

5 min read
Photo: McFarland
Photo: McFarland

Radio didn’t start in the United States, but it wasn’t long before it made the leap across the ocean from Europe. When that happened, at the dawn of the 20th century, the course of the medium split into two great paths. One way led to its growth throughout the world, splitting time and again as it entered new cultures and was fashioned to the purposes of those who controlled its use. The other way led radio to a rambunctious culture that was itself being fashioned by people from around the world—to America. And like the immigrants, radio would never be the same again.

This latter story is the subject of veteran journalist Alfred Balk’s new book, The Rise of Radio: From Marconi Through the Golden Age (McFarland & Co., 2006). In this lively, well-balanced account of radio’s ascent in America, from diverse scientific origins to astonishing media power, Balk carefully picks just the ripest moments for the reader’s enlightenment. This is ground that has been well traveled, after all. Volumes have been written about the halcyon days of radio. The most revered of these is the classic A History of Broadcasting in the United States, by Erik Barnouw, written in the 1960s. Balk in no way attempts to plumb the depths of that masterful project. Instead, he focuses on the human dimension to radio’s influence. Americans were surprised and delighted to recognize themselves in the medium, which shaped them even as they were shaping it. Together they created a wildly growing, symbiotic culture.

In the preface, Balk writes that he attempted the book because he saw a lack in the literature of a “one-volume narrative that portrayed in journalistic form the sweeping drama of radio history.” And what a history it is, altering everything in its wake. As Balk notes: “For the United States, [radio] was the last block needed to forge a modern continental nation: a nationwide assembly hall. It helped meld a polyglot of largely rural, ethnic, and immigrant subcultures into a national sensibility, foster unity through a cataclysmic depression and war, and become a mass-communications entity.”

Balk covers the territory briskly. He moves rapidly from the invention of the technology to its implementation, proceeding from Morse to Maxwell to Marconi and others. Then he plunges into the association of commercial, military, and civilian participants in the emerging story. We are immediately reminded that the evolution of radio was a potluck affair, filled with as many ingredients as the vagaries of history allowed.

For instance, though a subsidiary of Marconi’s successful British firm was the first major enterprise to dominate radio in America, during World War I the U.S. government suspended all domestic radio patents and put the military in charge of all applications. At the war’s end, instead of returning to the status quo ante, the government enabled American Marconi’s competitors, such as General Electric and Westinghouse, to form a special trust to supposedly end any renewed patent squabbles. With little other choice, American Marconi threw in the towel in 1919 and agreed to join the new partnership, called the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA. It was a truce that lasted only months.

In 1920, Balk relates, two Westinghouse employees stumbled upon the idea of using radio transmissions to broadcast programming on a regular basis. The practice had been tinkered with for over a decade, with some operators occasionally sending holiday greetings to any listener tuned in to their frequency. However, the early radio giants made their profits from private point-to-point transmissions, or radiotelephony, not point-to-many. The new Westinghouse effort soon resulted in a station, in Pittsburgh, assigned the call letters KDKA, devoted to reaching the public with a variety of programs on a daily basis. It caused a sensation. In no time, rivals jumped headlong into broadcasting, and the radio craze of the 1920s was on.

The broadcasting boom pitted the radio trust partners against one another and against RCA itself. Now they were competing to reach listeners—and to make money selling radio sets. However, special interest groups, from insurance companies to department stores, quickly were “on the air,” too, all on the strength of a new revenue stream: advertising.

The next twist in radio’s American story yielded two of history’s most striking examples of what not to do in business. The matter in question was broadcasting networks, radio’s next logical step.

First, the trust partners negotiated with AT&T to use its landlines across the country to broadcast programs over a national network of affiliates, an RCA subsidiary called the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC. AT&T concluded that it would make so much money from radiotelephony and from NBC that it could dispense with its own broadcasting initiative. It thus opted out of a revolution.

Second, when NBC’s young leader was informed that a new programming company wanted to provide the network with talent, he scoffed at it. When told that the organization would launch its own network service anyway, he laughed at it. In 1929, the new company’s principals formed the Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS.

These juicy details are only a sample of the business history that Balk provides. He devotes even more space, however, to what Americans did with their bounteous new industry: they entertained and informed themselves just as if they were all in the same place together. Radio’s “assembly hall” became its living room, content became king, and the country was hypnotized.

By the 1930s, nearly everything we consider modern media programming was in place. The blend of news, education, sports, and entertainment was the substance of radio. From “The Lone Ranger” to “Meet the Press,” the middle decades of the 20th century produced some of the finest presentations the public ever heard. Even Shakespeare enjoyed a renaissance over the airwaves. One bit of theatricality became the single most famous broadcast in American history. When Orson Welles’s production of “The War of the Worlds” concluded on 30 October 1938, a wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners,” as The New York Times observed the next day.

Without radio, the culmination of America as a melting pot would never have reached a critical temperature

The most popular show in this heyday era, however, was a situation comedy called “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The show, which premiered in 1929, starred two white actors playing black men. In the tale of this particular racial sore, the author shows his interior composure, as he does throughout the book when describing how people of all descriptions adapted themselves to intolerance. Benjamin Kubelsky and Nathan Birnbaum became Jack Benny and George Burns to accommodate an anti-Semitic environment; then they triumphed in radio. Women produced radio programming but largely chose to stand behind the curtains, from fear of prejudice. And black performers saw their contributions highlighted briefly, only to be crushed by racism. For most of the Golden Age of Radio, minorities were oppressed and violated; but their treatment only mirrored a nation’s self-loathing. Stunningly, stars such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway became icons of early radio but marginalized figures of its supposed zenith, supplanted by white competitors, such as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Balk rightly describes the transition and frames it properly.

Without radio, America’s melting pot would never have reached a critical temperature. It really did boil over, though, and we are still living in its aftermath, for better or for worse. However, today, its cooling has left behind rigid formulas that hold us in their grip no matter where we search across the dial. Radio became what America is. We need to read more books such as The Rise of Radio to learn how it got there, because the future is as bleak as ever—and radio is as compromised as ever, with its corporate overlords dictating opinions.

But we have to try to think about how radio reflects our interests, not the other way around. The airwaves belong to us, as Balk’s book emphasizes, as does the government that administers them and the culture that responds to them. We may have botched radio as a medium in the past, but we are still responsible for its cultural significance, and Balk reminds us that we can regain all that we have lost. We just have to demand it from those who control its use.

As a journalist, Balk has written more than 100 articles for Harper’s, Reader’s Digest, and other publications. He has taught at Columbia and Syracuse universities. And, for the record, he is a former managing editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine. In The Rise of Radio, he compresses the immense history of the science and art’s growth into a wonderfully readable and well-documented compendium. You need not be a radiophile to appreciate its all-too-human tales of success and failure. You need only be interested in America.

About the Author

Kieron Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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