Reflections from History and Faith
By Jeff Olson
Several years ago, the 100th anniversary of news radio was recognized. The first radio news program was broadcast on August 31, 1920 by station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan, but the first broadcast from a licensed radio station occurred at 8 pm on November 2, 1920. It was Pittsburgh’s KDKA, and the station was broadcasting the results of that year’s presidential election. Only about 100 people were listening but hey…it was a start! When Frank Conrad flipped the switch for the first time, he couldn’t have envisioned just how profoundly broadcast media would transform not only political life but all of life over the next century.
You and I can certainly attest to that, but even more so could our parents and grandparents. Their generations grew up and lived prior to the advent of television as a popular media. I can still remember my parents talking about radio shows of old and the news of major world events. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the end of World War II, and the assassination of President John Kennedy come to mind as does 9/11. These last two occurred during the television age, but still radio played a vital part and still does!
And, on the lighter side, radio spurred kids’ active imaginations as they would have to listen to the dialogue and visualize the actions of their favorite heroes…and villains! All the way from Amos and Andy, Lum and Abner, The Adventures of Lassie, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Howdy Doody Time, The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix – and to the world of music and sports. Families tuned in to their favorite actors, singers, and athletes, nestled around that wooden or plastic box listening, cheering, learning, laughing…and sometimes even crying. Alistair Cooke once said that he preferred radio to TV because the pictures are better. Think about it.
In later generations, radio became a greater source of music with a variety of music genres. From Let’s Dance, Make Believe Ballroom to American Bandstand to the Louisiana Hayride, The Grand Ole Opry, and Billboard’s Top/Hot 100, Americans have been tuned in and been made the boss of what would and would not succeed. My favorite though was Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 which debuted in 1970 and is still being broadcast. For me, though it will never be the same without Casey.
If any of you spent much time commuting to and from work, then you know how big a role radio played in those years. Sure, you could pop in a cassette tape or CD and play some of your favorites, but it was the radio that most likely played a dominant role in keeping you company and perhaps even giving you a stage with an audience of one (two if you count God) to sing along. It wasn’t Karaoke, but it did pass the time and reminded you to be sure and keep your day job…. One of my fondest memories was being able to listen to Paul Harvey News on the radio during my lunch break at work – that is when I was in my truck and I could get a strong enough signal. Of course, that included his Rest of the Story stories as well. I could go on and on with stories and memories involving radio, but then so could each of you.
I think the most sobering and maybe enduring role radio has played is that of giving people hope. This has come in many forms, but one that stands out in my mind the most is what Anne Frank wrote during World War II while in hiding trying to avoid capture: “Our blessed radio. It gives us eyes and ears into the world. We listen to the German station only for good music. And we listen to the BBC for hope.”
And…..how many times have we been rudely awakened out of a sound sleep by the unwelcomed sound of a local radio station blaring through the clock radio on our night stand reminding us of how much time we have to until we have to leave for work. How many times have we thrown that radio on the floor or against the wall (or wanted to) in a temporary state of shock prior to our first cup of coffee or other source of caffeine? Thank you, radio, for helping to keep us employed and the wheels of progress turning one morning at a time.
I can still remember some of the radio jingles from my childhood years. Those from KOMA in Oklahoma City – “1520 on your radio dial” – are among several I could list here. However, some of those jingles worked their way into telling us about some really good products we needed to try. It wasn’t all about entertainment and news, you see. Radio stations didn’t let America have all that for free. Their folks had to make a living too.
So, you might be asking – if news radio showed up on the scene 102 years ago, what’s all the hoopla about now – two years later. One hundred years ago this week, August 28, 1922, the first radio commercial hit the airwaves from New York City’s WEAF radio. The commercial was for a real estate development called Hawthorne Court Apartments in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens. A fat sum of $50 was paid plus a long-distance fee for five days of sponsorship. The commercial broadcast at 5:15 pm and was a live read 10-minute sales pitch delivered by an official from the Queensboro Corporation. Radio historian Bill Jaker says after the success of this commercial a new business model for radio started – and the rest is history.
Yes, and what a history it has been. Oh, I don’t mean just the commercials but you know they could be as entertaining as they were informative. I think more often than not, radio ads were produced at the local level displaying hometown talent and personality. I can still remember local radio shows from two of my favorite stations. One was KENA Radio in Mena and the other was KVRE in Glenwood and Hot Springs Village. Station owners Jack Reeves and Tom Nichols, respectively, wove their particular brand of persona, craft and class into their communities. I still remember programs and ads going back 40 plus years and they are indeed fond memories. And, I still have the pleasure of working with KVRE staff in my publicity work for an organization I am a part of.
In the preceding paragraphs, I could not begin to scratch the surface of radio and its impact on American and world history and culture. However, if I have only sparked even a little reminder and appreciation for this indispensable medium then for that I count my time here well spent. So, the next time you turn that dial, or actually push that button or whatever else, think about what life would be like without our friends on the air. It’s really not a pleasant thought – for radio has made the world smaller but more importantly a much brighter place.
About Cover Image
The cover image shows a typical antique vacuum tube radio from the 1920s, with a horn loudspeaker (right) and batteries to run it. The central unit is the Paragon Model RN-10 regenerative receiver made by Adams-Morgan Co. The unit on the left is a 3-tube audio amplifier unit, the Paragon DA-2 which provided the power to drive the loudspeaker. Up until the mid-1920s many people listened to the radio using earphones, so most radios didn’t come with speakers. Higher power tubes were required to drive loudspeakers. So many early radios did not have the output power to drive speakers, and manufacturers sold add-on amplifiers like this for customers who wanted to use them. Early radios required two sets of batteries (rear) to operate: the cylindrical “A” batteries (left) provided 3V to heat the filaments of the tubes, while the square “B” batteries (right) provided the higher anode (plate) voltage for the tubes. Exhibit in the National Electronics Museum, 1745 West Nursery Road, Linthicum, Maryland, USA. All items in this museum are unclassified. The museum permitted photography without restriction.