Radio: History and Production


Outside reading...
         Erik Barnouw. A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 3 volumes. 1966-1970.
         Frank Buxton. The Big Broadcast, 1920-1950. New York: Viking Press. 1972.
         George Douglas. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2001
         John Dunning. Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925-1975. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1976.
         Jim Harmon. The Great Radio Heros. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1967.
         Christopher Sterling and John Kittross. Stay Tuned: A Consise History of American Broadcasting. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company. 1978.

Radio programs available on CD...
Sample episodes of the following programs are available in MP3 format at the OTRcat: Old Time Radio Shows Web site.

  1. Amos 'n' Andy (1927-1960). Radio's first hit. A black sitcom starring two white actors.
  2. Fibber McGee and Molly (1935-1959). A delightful situation comedy staring Jim (1896-1988) and Marian (1898-1961) Jordan, set in the McGee home at 75 Wistful Vista, Anywhere, USA.
  3. Gunsmoke (1952-1961). "There's only one way to handle the killers and spoilers and that's with a US Marshall and the smell of gunsmoke."
  4. The Lone Ranger (1933-1955). "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...From out of the past comes the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!"
  5. Mercury Theatre on the Air (1938-1940) Orson Welles' 60 minute anthology program brought some of the world's greatest literature to radio. Their most famous broadcast, on Sunday, October 30, 1938, was an adaption of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
  6. The Shadow (1937-1954). "Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man? The Shadow knows."
  7. Suspence (1942-1962). This half hour anthology program was "radio's outstanding theatre of thrills." By far the most famous presentation was Lucille Fletcher's Sorry, Wrong Number starring Agnes Moorehead as the bed ridden invalid: Mrs. Elbert Stevenson. In 1948 Columbia Pictures released a film version of this radio play starring Barbara Stanwyck.

         Original Old Time Radio WWW Pages
         Building the Broadcast Band
         The History of Broadcasting, 1920-1960
         History of American Broadcasting
         United States Early Radio History
         OTR.Net: Over 12,000 old-time-radio shows available for free instant listening.
         Generic Radio Workshop: Vintage radio scripts from the Golden-Age

Objectives of Unit II, Lecture 6: Radio: History and Production
To identify the milestones in the development of radio and the techniques used in radio productions.

1. Who is credited with developing the wireless telegraph?

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi
In 1896, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) using a simple spark-gap transmitter sent a wireless telegraphic signal approximately 1 1/2 miles across his father's Italian estate. The Italian Post Office, which operated the telegraph system, was not interested in his device so he moved to England where he acquired funding from the British government. In 1897 he received a Royal patent (# 12,039: Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor) and in July of that year, established the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company which opened the first radio factory the following year. In October 1900, the Marconi Company began construction of the Poldou Wireless Station (Callsign: PN) near Cornwall, England.

2. When did he first transmit a signal across the Atlantic Ocean?

1901. Marconi transmitted the letter "S" ( "dit-dit-dit" in Morse code) 2232 miles from the Poldou Wireless Station near Cornwell, England, to St. Johns, Newfoundland. The output of the Poldou spark-gap transmitter was about 12 thousand watts on a wavelength of 336 meters (892 KHz). Eight years later, in 1909 Marconi and German physicist Karl Braun (1850-1918) received the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in "wireless communication."

3. Who were the first people to exploit wireless communication?

Radio Room
Ship's Radio Room
The navy and merchant marines. In February 1900 the Marconi company installed a wireless telegraph station on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, (Callsign: DKW) the first trans-Atlantic ocean liner to be so equipped. By 1910, 781 ships, both naval and merchant vessels, carried wireless equipment. The companies spark-gap transmitters, broadcasting with 1.5 or 5 kilowatts of power, had a daylight coverage of about 350 miles, but at night, the more powerfull stations had a range of nearly 2000 miles. On the large ocean liners, these stations were primarily used by the passangers, so they could send a telegram ("at the rate of 12 shillings and sixpence for the first 10 words, and 9 pence per word thereafter") to their loved ones back home. (In today's US currancy, the first 10 words would cost $67, each additional word would be $4.30.) The wireless station was also used by the ship to receive weather forcasts, storm warnings, and communicate with other ships in the region.

The first wireless distress call (CQD) was in April 1899. The East Goodwin lightship, marking the south east coast of England, was rammed in a dense early morning fog by the SS R. F. Matthews. The distress call was heard by the shore station at the South Foreland Lighthouse, 12 miles away in St. Margaret's Bay, near Dover, England, who relayed the call, up the coast, to the Walmer Lifeboat Station.

Most ships carried only one Marconi operator, and he usually signed off between 10pm and 6am. It was not until after the sinking of the RMS Titanic (Callsign: MGY), on the night of April 15, 1912, when the nearest ship, the SS Californian (Callsign: MWL) did not hear Titanic's distress call because the ships operator had signed off and gone to bed, that ship board operators were required by law, to monitor the air waves 24 hours a day. Based on the radio logs assembled by the Marconi Company after the disaster, at least 10 ships-at-sea did hear Titanic's distress call and attempted to render assistance.

Listen to the sound of a spark-gap tranmitter
The tone of the signal is determined by the number of sparks per second.
This "transmission" was made at 60 sparks/sec.
The message in Morse Code is "CQ DE PN"
Translation: CQ (calling) DE (from) PN (station PN)
PN was the callsign of the Marconi station at Poldou near Cornwall, England.

Watch a 1000w rotary spark-gap transmitter in action. Now you know why the ship's radio operator is called "Sparks."

4. When was recorded music first broadcast over the air?

Brant Rock Antenna
The Antenna at the Brant Rock Station
In December 1900, Dr. Reginald A. Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian born inventor attempted to use a spark-gap transmitter to broadcast the human voice a distance of 1 mile. The experiment was not a success. In Fessenden's own words: "The character of speech was not good and it was accompanied by an extremely loud and disagreeable noise." ("Wireless Telephony," AIEE Transactions, June 29, 1908, pg 579)

Listen to voice over a spark-gap transmitter

Dr. Fessenden wanted a transmitter which would produce a cleaner signal. Ernst Alexanderson (1878-1975), an engineer for GE, designed and built for Fessenden a high frequency alternator (AC generator) which could produce 500 watts at a frequency of 75,000 cycles per second (75kHz). He added a microphone to modulate the clean, 75kHz carrier, and on Christmas Eve, 1906, broadcast a religious program which included readings from the Bible (the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke), a live violin solo, and a recording of Handel's Largo from the 420' tall tower of his station (Callsign: BO) in Brant Rock (near Boston), Mass. This broadcast was heard by Navy and United Fruit Company wireless operators, who were using Fessenden receivers, as for away as the West Indies.

Although the experiment was a success, Fessenden was primarily interested in point-to-point wireless telephony, not broadcasting, and money for additional experiments was not available.

In 1906, inventor Lee DeForest (1873-1961) developed the Audion, basically a light bulb with an additional element, which would revolutionize the wireless industry. The follwing year he added a third element creating a triode which could be used in both audio and radio-frequency amplifiers, as well modern wireless (DeForest perfered the word radio) transmitters.

Alexanderson Alternator
Alexanderson Alternator at SAQ
Transmitters using Alexanderson Alternators, instead of a spark-gap, would become quite popular in the early 1920s. They were used in high power (200-500 kW), low frequency (18-25 kHz) point-to-point wireless telegraphy stations. In the early 1920s, RCA contracted with GE for 10 Alexanderson Alternator-transmitter for installation at Rocky Point ( Radio Central, "The World's Greatest Radio Station") on Long Island. Two were delivered and installed (Callsigns: WQK and WQL). The remaining order was cancelled. By the mid 20s, it was obvious that it was no longer necessary to have a high power, long wave (with a huge and expensive antenna) system for reliable long distance communication. The same distance could be covered at a fraction of the cost with a low power, short wave (28,000 kHz) station. The two alternator-transmitters installed at Rocky Point were retired in the 1950s. Today there is only one working Alexanderson Alternator-transmitter in the world. It is station SAQ in Grimeton, Sweden, which operates on 17.2 kHz. It was retired from active service in 1996, but transmits at least once a year on Christmas Eve.
Listen to a test transmission of SAQ on January 10, 2012. The receiver is located about 50 miles north west of Rome.

5. Who were the "wireless boys?"

An illustration from
The Boys of the Wireless (1912)
The "wireless boys" were the young men (and women), many of whom were still in school, who had caught the "Wireless Bug" and were intrigued with this new and very exciting art: wireless telegraphy. Many built simple receiving sets using plans available in books and magazines. What could you hear in these pre-broadcasting days? Mostly ship to shore traffic. But this often included news stories, weather forecasts, and play-by-play of major sporting events. Perhaps even an SOS from a ship in distress. All you had to do was learn Morse code. (An amateur operator in England heard the SOS from the Titanic. He rushed to the local pub to give them the news. No one would believe, after all; "The Titanic was unsinkable.")

The next step was to build a sending station and join in the fun. The 1911 Boy Scout Handbook gave complete directions starting on page 210 for an "up-to-date wireless apparatus" which, with a 160' aerial, was "capable of sending messages from 8 to 10 miles." Because this was before government regulations, there were no limitations on the wavelength (frequency) or power of a station. If your father had the money for a 5kW transformer, your amateur station could literally rival those of Marconi or the Navy. The operator made up his own callsign: usually two letters, often his initials. The number of amateur stations grew quickly. According to Hugo Gernsback, the editor of Modern Electrics and publisher of The First Annual Wireless Blue Book (Containing a List of All US and Canadian Wireless Telegraph Station) in May 1909 "there [were by 1912] close to 400,000 wireless experimenters and amateurs in the United States alone" (Letter to the New York Times, March 29, 1912). This exaggerated number included both amateur operators and those who were only listeners.

These young amateurs often competed with the professional Marconi and Navy wireless operators for space on the rather crowded airwaves. Irving Vermilya (1890-1964), Callsign: VN, who would become "The First Licensed Amateur Operator," remembers the early days.

We had the whole earth and air to ourselves, and had a great time, until one fine day I heard a strange spark come in. I listened and this fellow didn't seem to know just what he was doing....He was making an awful roar. Finally I heard him sign PT. I immediately called him up [on the wireless] and started off by asking "Who the H--- are you?" He shot back, 'Brooklyn Navy Yard'. (" Amateur Number One," QST, March 1917).

The "free for all" days of wireless ended in December 1912 with the passage of the Wireless Act of 1912. According to the new law all stations and operators must be licensed. Amateur stations must operate on a "wave length not exceeding 200 meters" (1500 kHz and above) and be limited to 1,000 watts (500 watts if 5 nautical miles (5.7 statue miles) from a navy or military station). All call signs shall be assigned by the government. Commercial and government stations shall have three letter calls beginning with N, K or W. For example: NAA (the Navy station at Arlington, VA) or WCC (the Marconi station on Cape Cod). The call sign for an amateur or experiemntal station shall begin with a number, 1 to 9, followed by two or three letters. For example: 2AB or 6CDE. (The number indicated the general location of the station. 2 was New York, 6 was California) An amateur operator must take an exam over (1) the "adjustment and operation of his apparatus," (2) "International Convention and acts of Congress which relate to interference" and (3) must be able to "transmit and receive in Continental Morse at a speed sufficient to enable him to recognize distress calls...A speed of at least five words per minute...must be attained." By contrast, a commercial operator was expected to send and receive 20 words per minute.

According to the December 1915 Radio Service Bulletin, published by the Bureau of Navigation, Department of Commerce, there were 5,089 licensed wireless stations, including government, commercial and amateur operations, in the United States. The vast majority, 3,836 (75%) were amateur stations. 895 (17%) were located on ships and 358 (7%) were on land.

The public's facination with the wireless telegraph inspired a number of juvenile "wireless" books. A good example is Frank Webster's The Boys of the Wireless: A Stirring Rescue from the Deep published in 1912 by the Cupples & Leon Company of New York. Other include the "Ocean Wireless Boys" series by Captain Wilbur Lawton including The Ocean Wireless Boys and the Lost Liner (1914), The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Atlantic (1914), The Ocean Wireless Boys And The Naval Code (1915) and The Ocean Wireless Boys and the Wireless Code (1915).

Many of the "wireless boys" went into commercial radio. Irving Vermilya, VN became 2OR after passing the licensing exam in 1912 and 1ZE in 1916 when he received a Special Amateur License. At the age of 16, he became a ship board operator for the United Wireless Telegraph Company and would later become the manager of WCC, the huge RCA/Marconi station on Cape Cod. In 1924 he established broadcast station WDAU (now WNBH-1340am) in New Bedford, MA. Broadcasting, as we know it today, is the product of amateur operators like Irving Vermilya (1ZE), Dana McNeil (9CLS) in Pierre SD, Doc Herrold (6XF) in San Jose, Lee DeForest (2XG) in New York, and Frank Conrad (8XK) in Pittsburgh.

For more information about the spark-gap equipment used in early wireless telegraphy, read the eight-part series: "How to Become a Wireless Operator" published between September 1916 and April 1917 in Popular Science Monthly.

6. Who is the father of broadcasting?

Station 6XF
Station 6XF
In 1909 Charles "Doc" Herrold (1875-1948) opened in San Jose, California, the Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering to train young men (and women) to become professional wireless operators who could get a good, high paying job with Marconi and Company, perhaps even going to sea. In the same year, as part of the college, Doc Herrold built a wireless station to experiment with voice transmission. Like Fessenden, he began with voice-over-spark, but discovered it was unsatisfactory. He invented, and patented in 1912, a new transmitter: The Arc Fone. The device used six carbon-arc street lamps burning under distilled water, powered with 500 volts borrowed from the San Jose trolly line. This station used the self-assigned call letters of FN and SJN, or was simply identified as "San Jose Calling."

The Wireless Act of 1912 demanded that all wireless stations be licensed. Doc Herrold's station becomes 6XF. In 1912 Herrold begins weekly, regularly scheduled broadcasts, of music (from records loaned by a local shop) and news (read from the paper). The program was broadcast at 9pm every Wednesday night from 1912 through April 1917, when, because of our entrance into World War I, all non-military wireless stations were closed.

In April 1919, after the conclusion of the war, the government's ban on non-military stations was lifted. Unfortunately, Herrold's Arc Fone transmitter was no longer acceptable. He built, at his own expense, a new station using DeForest's Audion tubes and applied for a broadcast license which was granted in 1921. Experimental station 6XF becomes broadcast station KQW. Unfortunately, he lacked the finances to keep the station on the air and in May 1925 the license was transferred to the First Baptist Church of San Jose. KQW would change hands a number of times during the next 20+ years. In 1949 it was bought by CBS, and moved north to San Francisco where it became KCBS. Doc Herrold held a number of jobs in the years after 1925, but he would never broadcast again. He died in obscurity in 1948.

Watch the 1995 PBS video: Broadcasting's Forgotten Father: The Charles Herrold Story.

7. When did "modern" radio begin?

Station 2XG
Station 2XG
By 1914, Lee DeForest's company had developed a radio-telephone transmitter (and receiver) with a range of at least 60 miles. In May 1914, Electrical World magazine reported on tests conducted by the DeForest company on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad between its station in Scranton, PA and a moving train. Using a 1Kw transmitter working into a 300' antenna, 150' above ground, "clear voice transmissions" were maintained as for as Stroudsburg, PA, a distance of 53 miles. Starting in 1916, DeForest's experimental station: 2XG at his laboratory in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, New York, began regular broadcasts of music and news. The January 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter reported that on the night of November 7, 1916, the election results of the Woodrow Wilson - Thomas Marshall Presidential election were heard by "7,000 anxious amateur wireless operators" within a 400 mile radius.

David Sarnoff
David Sarnoff
In 1916, David Sarnoff (1891-1971) a New York based Marconi wireless operator wrote the following letter to his station manager...
I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a household utility. The idea is to bring music into the home by wireless. The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple radio music box and arranged for several different wavelengths, which could be changeable with the throwing of a single switch or the pressing of a single button. Baseball scores can be transmitted in the air. This proposition would be especially interesting to farmers and others living in outlying areas.
In 1921 Sarnoff was named General Manager of RCA. He was instrumental in the creation of the first radio network (NBC) and NBCs move into television.

8. What is generally considered the first commercial American radio station to broadcast to the general public?

KDKA Studio, 1920
KDKA Studio - 1920
KDKA. Although both Lee DeForest (2XG) and Doc Herrold (6XF) broadcast regularly schedule programs of music and news, both of these stations were experimental. KDKA, according to the November 1920 issue of the Radio Service Bulletin, was a limited commercial "land station" licensed to operate as a "Limited Public Service" on 500 (600 kHz) or 3200 (93.75 kHz) meters from 8:30am to 5pm. Radio regulations of the period defined a "Limited Public Servie" station as one which could "transmit and receive...messages to and from certain stations only, which are designated in the license."

Does this sould like a "broadcast license?"
No, Remember, in November 1920 there was no broadcast service. According to Jeff Miller's compilation: "History of KDKA, Pittsburgh" Westinghouse applied, by phone, to the Bureau of Navigation, Department of Commerce on October 16, 1920, for a license to "broadcast to the general public." A license was issued on October 27th and received in Pittsgurgh before the November 2nd broadcast. Miller, quoting from George Douglas' The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting (2001) continues "the station was authorized to use 360 meters (833 kHz) giving them a clear channel away from amateurs." This is not what was reported in the Radio Service Bulletin.

Did they violate their license?
Maybe. Noted radio historian Thomas White posted the following to the "OldRadio" mailing list in January 1996.
(Included in Jeff Miller's compilation: "History of KDKA, Pittsburgh")

As part of my research, I got a copy of KDKA's first license from the archives in Suitland, Maryland. Much of what is documented there is very different than I expected. In particular, the original application for KDKA makes absolutely no mention of broadcasting.

As listed on the Form 761, "Applicant's Description of Apparatus" KDKA actually had two transmitters: a high frequency alternator (the "3200 meter set"), plus a vacuum tube transmitter (the "500 meter set"). Moreover, both are described as being used for code transmissions, specifically for corresponding with the Westinghouse stations at Cleveland, OH, Newark, NJ, Springfield, MA, and Brooklyn, NY. Only in passing is it noted that the 500 meter set could also be set up for audio transmissions.

Overall the initial KDKA application seems to be nothing more than for a standard Limited Commercial station, with no mention that it would be used for broadcasting. And, reflecting this, the new station entry, which appears in the November 1, 1920 Radio Service Bulletin, lists only wavelengths of 3200 and 500 meters for KDKA. In October 2013, Thomas White published his copy of the KDKA Application (Form 751) and the 1920 Broadcast License at Note the call letters, KDKA penciled in the upper right hand corner of the application.

Given this background, here is my current working hypothesis as to what may have happened:

  1. The original reason Westinghouse was building a radio station at East Pittsburgh was for general business use, not for broadcasting. As such, this new station fell under the Limited Commercial category. Reflecting its original intended purpose, KDKA was initially licensed to use only 500 and 3200 meters.
  2. During the frantic work leading up to the November 2nd election broadcast, when the topic came up about what to use for a transmitter, someone suggested that "you know, we can use that tube transmitter at the station we're building in East Pittsburgh, to send out the election results".
  3. When the plan to use the new East Pittsburgh station for broadcasting purposes was checked with the regional radio inspector in Detroit, for some reason he initially said that broadcasts couldn't go out under the Limited Commercial license held by KDKA, and so he issued a temporary Special Amateur authorization, 8ZZ, to use when utilizing the tube transmitter for broadcasting purposes. At the same time, Westinghouse was assigned the use of 330 meters (909 kHz) for the 8ZZ broadcasts.
  4. After a short period of time it was decided by the Radio Inspector that the broadcasts could go out under the KDKA call after all, so there was no longer a need for 8ZZ to be used.
  5. The initial KDKA broadcasts went out on 330 meters, until some time in the fall of 1921, when the Westinghouse stations (KDKA, WBZ [Springfield, MA], and WJZ [Newark, NJ]) were all assigned to 360 meters, at Westinghouse's request. For some reason, however, neither KDKA's 330 meter assignment, nor it's later switchover to 360 meters, was reported in the Radio Service Bulletin.
  6. KDKA's first license was issued for a one year period beginning on October 27, 1920. After this expired, its second license was issued on November 7, 1921. (Both licenses were Limited Commercial.) The November 1921 license is the first to explicitly mention the use of KDKA for broadcasting, and its operation on 360 meters.

Using the Radio Service Bulletin as a source, the monthly number of new "Limited Public Service" land stations which came on the air during 1921 was rather small, generally between 2 and 5. The November Bulletin had three, out of the five, new stations authorized to broadcast on 360 meters, the wavelength which would become half the "broadcast band." The January 1922 Bulletin listed 24 new land stations, the majority of which included the following foot note: "Station used for broadcasting news, concerts, lectures and such matters." By the July 1922 Bulletin, broadcast stations were grouped together, separate from other commercial land stations.

The Department of Commerce Radio Service Bulletins between January 1915 and June 1932 are available on the FCC Web Page.

     What does KDKA mean?

Nothing. A station's call letters are not initials, they are the station unique legal "name." KDKA was assigned to the Westinghouse station by the Bureau of Navagation of the Department of Commerce in October 1920. The two stations on either side of KDKA were both ships: The SS Montgomery City (KDJZ), and the SS Eastern Sword (KDKB). Both were freighters out of New York City. The SS Montgomery City was in service for 38 years, from 1920 to 1958 when it was sold for scrap. The SS Eastern Sword was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of British Guiana (now Guyana) in May 1942 and sank with the loss of 16 lives.

The 1912 London International Radio Telegraphic Conference established the basic call sign policy. "Each station shall have a unique call sign formed of a group of three letters. The first letter of the call shall indicate the nation of origin." The United States was assigned three groups of call letters: KDA--KZZ, NAA--NZZ, and WAA--WZZ, making a total of 1,950 possible callsigns. The Bureau of Navagation decided to assign all of the "N" calls to the navy, and use "K" and "W" for the commercial (and a few army) stations. Land stations along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast would receive "W" calls and land stations along the Pacific coast would receive "K" calls. Ships with the port-of-call on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico would receive "K" calls and ships with a port-of-call on the Pacific Ocean would receive "W" calls. Obviously the Westinghouse station in East Pittsburg should have received a "W" call, why it didn't is an anomaly. Why do WOAI in San Antonio, WHO in Des Moines and WNAX in Yankton have "W" calls? Because when these stations were licensed, the Bureau of Navagation thought of them as land stations on the Atlantic coast. In January 1923 the Mississippi River becomes the dividing line between "K" and "W" stations.

     Where was KDKA located?

East Pittsburgh, PA.

     When did it go on the air?

November 2, 1920. The first broadcast was the returns for the Warren G. Harding / James M. Cox Presidential election. Approximately 1000 listeners heard Harding declaired winner with 60.4% of the popular vote from this tiny 100 watt station.

9. Who owned the station?

Station 8XK
Station: 8XK
Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.
KDKA began life as 8XK, an experimental station licensed in 1919 to Frank Conrad (18741941), Westinghouse's Assistant Chief Engineer. Like Herrold and DeForest, Conrad's station regularly broadcast programs of music and news on Wednesday and Friday nights. On the night of November 2, 1920, Conrad was in his Pittsburgh garage operating station 8XK as a backup transmitter, just in case KDKA went silent.

     Why did they put it on the air?

Aeriola, Jr
RCA's Aeriola, Jr
Westinghouse was planning to market (through RCA), a radio receiver: The Aeriola Jr.. They knew the public would not buy their sets if there were no programs to which they could listen. Adjusted for inflation, that $ 25 set would cost approximately $ 290 today. Watch an Aeriola Jr in action at the New Jersey Antique Radio Club Museum in Jersey City, NJ. The radio, with a 34' wire antenna, was able to clearly receive 6 New York stations between WOR, 710 kHz and WLIB, 1190 kHz. The distance between Jersey City and New York is about 6 miles.

Because of the cost, many radio listeners in the early 20s built their own receivers from the plans printed in Circular No.120 -- Construction And Operation Of A Very Simple Radio Receiving Equipment published by the US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Standards. (Link to a PDF copy of Circular No. 120). According to the twelve page pamphlet, a listener should be able to hear "medium power stations within an area about the size of a large city" or "high power stations within 50 miles." This simple home made receiver, a "crystel set", was composed of a 4" diameter, 80 turn coil of wire (Cost of the wire in 1922: 75¢), a galena (Lead Sulfide) crystal (Cost: 25¢), and a pair of head phones (Cost: $4 to $8). Twenty-five years later, American soldiers in Italy used the same plans to construct the Foxhole Radios they used to listen to the jazz music (with propaganda from "Axis Sally") broadcast by Radio Berlin. The galena crystal of 1920 was replaced with a used blue-steel razor blade.

10. How did the broadcast band expand?

When the license for KDKA was issued in October 1920 there was no commercial broadcast band. In 1920 there was one broadcast station, KDKA, and it transmitted, according to "Development of Radiophone Broadcasting" (Radio Age, July/August, 1922) on a wavelength of 330 meters (999 kHz). The second broadcast station, WJZ in Newark, NJ, also owned by Westinghouse, came on air on October 5, 1921, a little less than a year after KDKA, with a "play-by-play" of the 1921 World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds .

In December of 1921, the broadcast band consisted to two channels: 360 meters (833 kHz) for "Concerts and Lectures" and 485 meters (619 kHz) for "Weather, Crop prices and Government Reports." By the end of 1921 there were nine commercial broadcast stations. In September 1922 a second channel for "Concerts and Lectures" was added: 400 meters (750 kHz). The broadcast band now had three channels, two for entertainment and one for news and weather. By March 1923 there were 556 licensed stations: 524 on 360 meters, 137 on 485 meters and 27 on 400 meters. (Note: 132 stations broadcast both entertainment programs and news requiring them to operate on two channels.) In May 1927 the government expanded the broadcast band from four channels to eighty channels starting at 550 kHz and running to 1350 kHz. The broadcast band, now known as the AM band, continued to expand. Today there are 116 channels, each 10 kHz wide, running from 540 kHz to 1700 kHz.

11. What was the first broadcast station in South Dakota? When did it go on the air? From where?

Although Dana McNeil's amateur station 9CLS (now KGFX, 1060 kHz) was broadcasting news and music to the citizens of Pierre before World War I, WCAT, which began broadcasting from the campus of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City in May 1922. is generally considered South Dakota's first radio station.

12. Why were the commercial radio networks established?

It soon became obvious to the broadcasters that every station could not create its own, locally produced, high quality programs. By joining several stations together, the stations in the largest markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) could develop programs which they could distribute over land lines to the smaller markets (Omaha, Denver, Kansas City, etc.).
Map of NBC-Red Network, 1926
The NBC-Red Network, 1926

The National Broadcasting Company, which would become NBC-Red, began operation in December of 1926 with a hook-up of 20 stations-- from Portland ME to Washington DC to Kansas City to Minneapolis. The following month, January 1927, NBC-Blue (the cultural network) was organized with only 5 outlets. The Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS, came on line with 16 stations in September of 1927. In December 1928, NBC-Red had completed a coast-to-coast hook-up. By 1930, the three major radio networks -- NBC-Red, NBC-Blue and CBS -- had been established. In October 1943, NBC-Blue was sold to the American Broadcasting System and became the American Broadcasting Company, ABC.

In 1934 four radio stations WOR in New York, WGN in Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati, and WXYZ in Detroit banded together to form a fourth network: Mutual. It is best remembered as the home of The Lone Ranger, Superman and The Shadow. The Mutual network disbanded in 1999.

13. When did drama become a mainstay of network radio programming?

In the late 20s or early 1930s. The first dramatic radio series, an anthology program, was introduced on WGY, a General Electric station in Schenectady, New York in September 1922.
An actor by the name of Edward H. Smith is credited with first suggesting the idea of real radio drama. He was associated with "The Masque," a theatre group in Troy, NY, and in the summer of 1922, approached WGY Program Director Kolin Hager with the idea of doing radio adaptations of some popular plays.

Hager liked the idea, and agreed -- on the provision that none of the plays run more than forty minutes. He was concerned that the attention span of the audience might not be up to the challenge of a longer production, so new was the idea.

Smith immediately went to work on an adaptation of a play by Eugene Walter, entitled The Wolf (1908). This three act drama was cut down to exactly forty minutes by focusing on the action of the second act, adding just enough of the material from the first and third acts to make the story comprehensible. In agreeing to allow the adaptation, the playwright insisted that the presentation be given with a full cast, and Smith selected several of his colleagues from "The Masque" to play the roles:

The play was aired following several rehearsals in September 1922, and the station received more than two thousand letters from within a five-hundred mile radius. One letter from Pittsfield, Massachusetts claimed that the screams of the character "Hilda" were so real, that a policeman overhearing the program thru a window burst into the writer's home to stop the "assault."

The success of the first production caused Hager to commission a series of plays, to be offered thru the fall, winter and spring of 1922-23. By the end of the season, a total of forty-three plays were presented, all featuring the same group of actors. The WGY Players remained a fixture on the station thru the rest of the 20s
Copyright © 1998 by Elizabeth McLeod

14. What was radio drama's first hit show?

Gosden and Correll
Gosden and Correll
Amos 'n' Andy
Amos 'n' Andy
Amos 'n' Andy. In 1925 two white actors, Freeman Gosden (1899-1982) and Charles Correll (1890-1972) presented Sam 'n' Henry, a "black" sitcom, on Chicago's WGN. Two years later, after a disagreement with management, they left WGN for WMAQ (now WSCR), also in Chicago, and the program's title was changed to Amos 'n' Andy. In 1929 they joined the NBC-Red network and became radio's first major hit.

In 1930, RKO introduced Gosden and Correll as Amos Jones and Andrew Halt Brown in Check and Double Check. In 1950, Amos 'n' Andy, with an all black cast, staring Spenser Williams Jr. (Amos) and Alvin Childress (Andy), moved to CBS television. Growing anger over black stereotyping drove the show off the air in the summer of 1953. CBS pulled the TV series from world wide syndication in 1966 .

Perhaps the finest tribute to the show came from English playwright George Benard Shaw. "There are three things I'll never forget about America: The Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, and Amos 'n' Andy."

     What type of program was it?

The program began in the serial format. 4,090 fifteen minute episodes were broadcast (5 days a week, 52 weeks a year) between 1928 and 1943 when Amos 'n' Andy became a weekly half-hour situation comedy. In 1954, the year before the last broadcast of the weekly sit-com, CBS created a new show: The Amos 'n' Andy Music Hall with the two title characters becoming glorified disc jockeys. They left the air in the fall of 1960. When the cancellation was announced, Charles Correll told a reporter "The DJs and the newscasters have taken over -- and there's no room for us anymore."

     From what city did it originate?


15. What is the difference between a dramatic series, serial, and anthology program?

  1. A series has a continuing set of characters and a different plot each week. Most series shows were 30 minute programs which were broadcast once a week.
  2. A serial has a continuing set of characters and a continuing, never ending plot line. Most serials were 15 minute programs which were broadcast five days a week.
  3. An anthology program has a different plot, and a different set of characters for each show. An anthology show was usually a 30 or 60 minute program which was broadcast once a week.

16. Give an example of each from the current television season.

  1. Series: CSI, NCIS, Bones
  2. Serial: The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital.
  3. Anthology: The Hallmark Hall of Fame.

17. Where did soap opera's get their name?

Many early daytime dramas were broadcast from Cincinnati's WLW and were produced by the advertising department of Procter and Gamble, the makers of Ivory soap.

18. What are the four basic elements of radio drama?

  1. Narration,
  2. Music,
  3. Dialogue, and
  4. Sound effects.

19. What is the primary function of narration?

In most radio dramas, the narrator layed the ground work for the show. Below is the opening narration for The Shadow which ran from 1937 to 1954.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!


Once again we brings you the thrilling adventures of The Shadow...the hard and relentless fight of one man against the forces of evil. These dramatizations are designed to demonstrate forcibly to old and young alike that crime does not pay!


The Shadow, mysterious character who aids the forces of law and order, is in reality, Lamont Cranston, wealthy young man about town. Several years ago in the orient, Cranston learned a strange and mysterious secret...the hypnotic power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see him. Cranston's friend and companion, the lovely Margot Lane, is the only person who knows to whom the voice of the invisible Shadow belongs. Today's drama...

20. What is the function of dialogue in radio drama?

The function of dialogue in radio drama is pretty much the same as it's function in live theatre and film: To give information, reveal character, direct attention (or foreshadow), reveal theme, establish the level of reality, and establish the tempo and rhythm of the drama. Dialogue in radio can not be nearly as complex as you would write for the theatre. Normally only two or three characters are involved in a conversation and they repeat their names often. For example...

HENRY: 	Hi George, how are you doing?

GEORGE: Not bad Henry. And you?

HENRY: 	Things are going pretty good. Isn't that Agnes coming toward us.


GEORGE: You know, Henry, I think you're right

AGNES: 	George, Henry, it's good to see you.

HENRY: 	Same here Agnes.

AGNES: 	Have you heard about Mable?


AGNES: 	Well, George, I've heard she's run off with Paul....

21. What are the three basic functions of music in radio drama?

  1. To identify the program (Every show had a theme that was instantly recognizable. For many the first thing we think of when we hear the final movement, starting with the trumpet fanfare, of Rossini's William Tell Overture is "The Lone Ranger rides again!"),
  2. To create a bridge, a short three or four measure musical connection between scenes, and
  3. To underscore dialogue, as in a move, creating a "dramatic" mood.

22. Which element is used to establish the environment? Sound effects

The Sound Effect's Department
Sound Effects Sound Effects
Note the rain tube, drum and crash "box" in the left picture
and the door slam and the drink being poured in the right image.

A Radio Studio in Action
CBS Studio Radio Studio
The picture on the left shows the CBS Studio used by the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Notice the five actors in foreground, the orchestra in the back and actor/director Orson Welles (hands in the air) standing to the left. The picture on the right is a much smaller studio. The actors are gathered around the organ console. The director is behind the Control Room window. Note the clock above the window.

The Jack Benny Show broadcasting live from Camp Haan
Near Los Angeles, CA -- April 1942.

23. What is the importance of the Mercury Theatre on the Air's production of War of the Worlds?

Orson Welles
Orson Welles at the Mike
War of the Worlds is undoubtly the most famous radio broadcast of all time. It proved to management that the listening audience would accept a radio drama as real; that they would believe what they heard.

Who was the director? The star?
     Orson Welles (1915-1985) was both the director and the star.

When was it produced?
     Sunday, October 30, 1938. It was, according to Welles, the "Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo."

How did it affect the audience?
     Many listeners panicked believing the United States was being invaded by Martians. Men staggered into bars, babbling about the end of the world. Students at a college campus in North Carolina fought over the few available telephones. More than twenty people were treated for shock by a Newark (NJ) hospital. It was rumored that millions had been killed in New York when the city was devistated by a "planetoid." Families gathered on roof tops in Boston to watch the red glow in the southern sky as New York burned.

24. Why did they believe?

Bergen & McCarthy
Edgar Bergen &
Charlie McCarthy
Generally two primary reasons are given.
  1. The show was presented in a "news style" format: As a program of live dance music from the "Meridian Room in the Park Plaza Hotel" which was soon interrupted by "late-breaking news bulletins," and
  2. Many joined the program late, after first listening to the opening monologue on NBC's Chase and Sanborn Hour (radio's number one show) which stared ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

25. The result of the broadcast...

  1. Orson Welles became a nationally known radio celebrity (Before War of the Worlds, Welles was not well known outside of the New York theatre community),
  2. The FCC said "You will not use a news-stile format for a dramatic program again,"
  3. The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which had been sustained (meaning no sponsor) by CBS, got a sponsor and on December 9, 1938 became the Campbell Playhouse,
  4. Actor Orson Welles was fired as the Shadow, and
  5. Welles and his company of actors, the Mercury Players, was given a two picture contract by RKO. They headed to Hollywood and in 1941 released Citizen Kane.

The story of Welles' broadcast of War of the Worlds is the source of The Night America Trembled, a live September 1957 telecast on Westinghouse Studio One and The Night That Panicked America a made-for-tv movie broadcast in October 1975. Both shows are available on YouTube.

Read the radio script for the Mercury Theatre's production of War of the Worlds (from the Generic Radio Workshop Script Library).

Listen to the Mercury Theatre broadcast of War of the Worlds (an MP3 file from

26. Who was, in the opinion of a number of writers, "the perfect radio hero?"

The Shadow
Orson Welles as The Shadow
The Shadow. Radio's man of mystery was originally performed by a 22 year old Orson Welles. He would play the role of Lamont Cranston, anonymously, from September 1937 until he was fired by the sponsor in October 1938.

      The Shadow was only a voice. He was never seen, only heard. As the announcer told the listening audience at the opening of each show, "Several years ago in the Orient, Lamont Cranston, wealthy young man-about-town, learned a strange and mysterious secret...the hypnotic power to cloud men's minds..."

The Shadow Magazine
The Shadow Magazine
April 15, 1933
The "Shadow," voiced by James LaCurto, first appeared on radio during the summer of 1930. He was the mysterious host of Detective Story Hour, an anthology program sponsored by magazine publisher: Street & Smith (now Conde-Nash). Listeners soon began asking their news dealers for "that Shadow magazine." Unfortunately, such a magazine did not exist. Recognizing the demand and responding promptly, Street & Smith commissioned Walter B. Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, to develop a series of novel length stories starring the "Shadow." The first Shadow Magazine: The Living Shadow was published in April of 1931. Three-hundred twenty-five Shadow "novels" were published between the spring of 1931 and the summer of 1949.

On September 26, 1937, The Shadow, a new radio drama starring Orson Welles as Lamont Cranston, officially premiered on the Mutual Network with "The Deathhouse Rescue." The show remained on the air, with new scripts, until the fall of 1954.

27. When did radio begin to lose its prime time audience?

Radio began to lose it's evening audience in 1948 when The Texaco Star Theatre, starring Milton Berle, became a national phenomenon. In 1951 I Love Lucy became the talk of the town. By 1954 radio drama had become a memory. CBS did continue to carry a few selected programs on Sunday afternoons until the early 1960's. For many, "old time radio" ended at 7:00pm EST on Sunday, September 30, 1962, the night CBS broadcast the last episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (1949-1962: "America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator, the man with the action-packed expense account") and Suspence (1942-1962: "Radio's outstanding theatre of thrills").

In 1974, CBS briefly revived serious radio drama with the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (1974-1982), a nightly, one hour anthology program hosted by E. G. Marshall. Today only a few commercial radio stations broadcast dramatic programs. One of those stations is Chicago's WBBM, AM-780, which broadcasts When Radio Was, an hour of old-time-radio, starting 5 minutes after midnight, Monday through Friday night. The station can usually be heard in Aberdeen.

28. Has radio drama completely left the air waves?

Prairie Home Companion

No. Radio-drama (in the form of Guy Noir and the Lives of the Cowboys) is a regular part of NPR's Prairie Home Companion. You will also find the basic elements of radio drama, especially dialogue and sound effects, used in many of todays radio commercials.

Prairie Home Companion

Guy Noir, February 14, 2009

29. Where can I go to listen to The Lone Ranger, Suspence or The Shadow?

Recordings (usually in MP3 format) of many old-time-radio shows, including those listed above, are available online. Checkout and

30. What is currently radio's prime time?

Drive time: From 7 to 9am, and 4 to 6pm. Today program content is typically either all music (country, rock, pop) or all talk (news, interview, sports).

31. What is the major difference between AM and FM broadcasting?

AM (amplitude modulation) was the dominant method of broadcasting for the first eighty years of the 20th century and is still widely used today. The first AM transmission was Dr. Fessenden's Christmas Eve broadcast from radio station: BO at Brant Rock MA in 1906. It was also the process used by KDKA in 1920. The major advantage of AM broadcasting in the medium wave band (540-1700 kHz), is distance. During the daylight hours, the signal travels by groundwave following the curverature of the earth, covering a distance of perhaps a hundred miles. After dark, the signal reflects off the ionosphere (skywave) giving it a much greater range. In Aberdeen, after dark, I can regularly hear 50 Kw AM stations in Denver (520 miles), Chicago (572), St. Louis (634), Detroit (792), Cincinnati (834), Fort Worth (890) and New Orleans (1166). The major disadvantage is the limited frequency response (50-10,000 Hz) and "static" (atmospheric noise), especially during thunder storms.

FM broadcasting, which began in 1939, is virtually immune to static, and has a much greater frequency response range (20-15,000 Hz) making high fidelity sound reproduction possible. The range of an FM broadcast station, which is in the VHF (very high frequency) band, is determined by the height of the antenna and the transmitter power and generally does not change after dark. An FM station with it's antenna on a 250 foot tower should cover a radius of about 19 miles. The range could be extended if the receiver's antenna was also placed on a tower.

32. When and where did FM broadcasting begin?

Edwin H. Armstrong
Edwin H Armstrong
Although FM (frequency modulation) was patented by Edwin H Armstrong (1890-1954) in 1933, FM broadcasting did not begin in the United States until July 1939, when Armstrong's experimental station: W2XMN, in Alpine, NY (across the Hudson River from Manhatten) came on the air at 42.8 mHz. After the FCC relocated the FM broadcasting band to 88-108 mHz in June 1945, W2XMN became WFMN at 100.9 mHz. The station left the air in 1954, less than a month after Armstrong's death.

Most early FM stations in the United States were operated by colleges and universities and broadcast educational programming and classical music to an "up scale" audience often interested in high fidelity sound reproduction. In the 1950s and early 60s the FM band was the "alternative band" playing music the AM stations would not broadcast. In the late 1960s, a number of commercial FM stations began programming cuts from progressive rock albums (or perhaps playing the complete album) instead of individual singles. By the late 70s, listenership to FM stations exceeded those of AM stations. During the 80s and 90s, Top 40 and even Country Music stations largely abandoned the AM band for FM. Today AM is primarily the home of talk radio, news, sports, religious, and ethnic (minority language) programing. In a sense, this shift has transformed AM radio from the "main stream" into the "alternative band." Today, a number of AM stations also simulcast on FM to attract a younger audience (who often are unaware of AM radio) and to improve reception in buildings, during thunderstorms, and near high tension power lines.

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at
Updated: December 27, 2016
All images downloaded from the Internet. Copyright held by others.
Text Copyrighted © 1995 - 2016 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD