"Pulling Sounds from the Air"

The Early Days of Radio

New technologies have often ended up with very different uses than their inventors intended. When Edison developed his version of motion pictures, he never imagined the new medium's potential as entertainment. Instead, he assumed that businessmen would use "movies" for training industrial employees. Similarly, Henry Ford saw the automobile only as a utilitarian, workhorse tool for a nation of farmers, and Alexander Graham Bell imagined the telephone primarily as an aid to the deaf. More recently, the Internet began as a collaboration between the Defense Department and universities. In its earliest years, it served mostly computer and technical specialists. Today, in 1997, millions of people use the Internet, and thousands of businesses fund web sites with no clear idea of whether or not they can make money. As was once true of the movies, or the telephone, or even the automobile, the Internet's ultimate use and potential remain unclear.

Similarly, radio began as the domain of enthusiasts and technicians. Local operators on homemade equipment talked to other operators in amateur stations and "radio clubs" across the country. The recollections of Pop Weber, included here, recreate those early days: Weber, a World War I veteran who had served in the Signal Corps, describes fondly how, as a young man in the early 1920s, he made his first radio set, constructed partially from wire wrapped around an old oatmeal box.

Hans Kaltenborn, who later became a professional broadcaster, similarly described the wonder of his first radio experience, his astonishment at how his homemade set could "pull sounds down out of the air." Enthusiasm for radio was contagious. In 1921 Kaltenborn had been serving as director of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Instead of just reading us your annual speech, the other members asked him that year, why don't you drive over to New Jersey and broadcast it? He gave the address in New Jersey and then rushed back across the river to see how it went. The chamber of commerce, gathered around their homemade radio, rose in applause.

A newspaper man, Kaltenborn was also asked to make occassional broadcasts of news and commentary. In this excerpt he recalls how in the early days, before large scale commercial sponsorship, broadcasters talked as long as they liked.

"When the first radio station began in 1920," writes historian Susan Smulyan, "no one knew how to make money from broadcasting." As Kaltenborn also notes, fascination with the medium increased dramatically when independent operators began broadcasting music and local news, instead of just talking to each other. Dorothy Gordon, a folksinger, vividly remembered how disorienting it seemed to her to sing into a microphone in an empty room, knowing your song might travel halfway across the world. As a performer she rstruggled till the station brought in other musicians for her to work with, which restored the interaction and sponteneity she missed. Soon she had a weekly musical program aimed partly at children.

Music played a key role in making radio a saleable commodity. Once advertisers recognized that radio could effectively carry their messages along with music and news, the number, signal strength, and content of radio broadcasts increased with amazing speed. In 1921 about 60,000 households had a radio; four years later there were more than four and a half million. By 1938 roughly three-quarters of Americans had a radio in their home. Radio signals reached nearly every region of the United States. A few large networks dominated the industry, offering a heavily funded, around the clock mix of entertainment and news.

In 1928 audiences could hear, weeknites at 10:10 on WGN, a program called Sam n' Henry. Neither music nor news, this show helped introduce a new form of radio programming that would come to dominate the airwaves in the next decade. Sam n' Henry related the comic exploits of two African American cab drivers. As the show grew more popular Sam and Henry changed their names, to the more famous Amos and Andy.

"Amos and Andy" were the most popular characters on American radio in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. Freeman Gosden and and Charles Corell played Amos and Andy; both Gosden and Corell were white men masquerading as black. They borrowed heavily from the traditions of the minstrel show, making light of the two characters' ignorance. But they also used their characters' "ignorance" as an opportunity for gentle social satire. Many African Americans found Amos and Andy deeply offensive. Others praised the show for its genial humor, its populist sensibility, and for showing black Americans as lovable and human. But no one questioned their popularity. Between 1928 and 1929, when Amos and Andy made their national debut, sales of radio sets increased twenty three percent.

You netscape 3 or the "quicktime" plug into hear this excerpt from one of their routines, on the election of 1928.

Comedies like Amos and Andy were eventually supplemented by detective dramas like The Shadow and soap operas like Stella Dallas. But even the most mundane broadcasts could provoke intense responses. Broadcaster Graham MacNamee later recalled the passion his broadcasts could evoke, the close attention to detail, the feeling of outrage or affirmation that he saw in the letters his listeners sent him. Hate mail, fan mail, pedantic correction, and angry denunciation &endash; all reflected the same intense involvement radio evoked from its listeners. MacNamee, a radio pioneer, narrated sports, news, and entertainment in the 1920s from radio station WEAF in New York City.

In an age accustomed to television, it is difficult to recapture the medium's novelty in its early years. In the 1930s, radio would become a big business, controlled largely by three major networks and entirely dependent financially on mass advertising. These documents tell a very different story of this vital American medium's infancy.