"A Wild Shriek Went Through the House": H. V. Kaltenborn, Radio Pioneer

 


H. V. Kaltenborn, a journalist, became one of the most famous announcers in the early days of radio. In this interview, done in 1950 by Frank Ernest Hill, he recalls his first broadcasts: if he finished early, the station simply had a pianist play to fill in the extra time. Lacking commercial sponsors, early radio proceeded in this kind of improvised fashion.

Then radio came along. The first radio talk I ever made was in 1921. I was a director of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and one of its officers. There was a good deal of talk about this new invention which made it possible to hear a human voice at a distance. I had developed a crystal receiving set in my own home and had experienced that marvelous thrill for the first time--to be able to pull sounds down out of the air.

I remember vividly the first evening when we got the cat's whisker on the crystal and actually heard the sound of music. A wild shriek went through the house. Everyone was called up to the room on the top floor to listen to this miraculous instrument which enabled you to hear something that was just taken out of the empty air. It was early in 1921 when I had that first radio thrill.

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce got to talking about this new thing called radio or wireless and decided that for the Annual Banquet, it would be a wonderful stunt if I should go over to New Jersey where WJZ was established as an experimental station in a factory building. From there I would deliver an address to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce assembled for its banquet. A loud speaker system was installed in the auditorium. I went over to New Jersey, delivered a brief address, and then hurried back to Brooklyn to see whether it had actually been received. As I came into the banquet room there was tremendous applause, and I was informed that the experiment had been a perfect success -- they had heard every word. The miracle of radio had established itself with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.

There was complete indifference then about exact timing; nobody had thought to time you by the second. You could finish a couple of minutes early or you could run over a couple of minutes. They always had a pianist stand-by who would fill in any unexpired time if anyone who was speaking finished too soon. Of course the pianist would also pinch-hit if a guest were late. There were, of course, no commercials, so that you were supposed to fill out the full allotted period.

It was the listeners who converted me. The mail began to come in and that told the story. A tremendous variety of people -- a true cross section of the population -- was listening. But after a few months the response changed in character. At first, it was only the fact that they heard you that listeners reported. What you said was relatively unimportant. The phrase, "Your voice came into my living room as clear as a bell," occurred in hundreds of letters. That was the miracle, the marvel; that you could actually be heard. It was only later that listeners began to comment on what I said, and not on the fact that they heard what I said.

I was the first person to interpret news on the air. No one else had tried it before 1923. Regular news broadcasts were rare before 1924. Important events had been reported. The Harding-Cox election returns broadcast of KDKA in November, 1920, was the first important news event to reach a listening audience via radio. But not until 1923 was there any regular reporting of news, much less any attempt to interpret it. All the news services were then very jealous that their material should not be used on the air, and this was one factor in discouraging regular news broadcasts.

 

 

"The Reminiscences of Hans Kaltenborn," Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, 1950