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A Digital Publication of The Anonymous Anything Society - July 11, 2018
A BRIEF HISTORY OF RADIO BROADCASTING
I can't remember when there wasn't a radio playing in my life. I was told that in 1920, my uncle Byron, a Chicago bootlegger, brought the components for a radio with him on a visit to downstate Illinois to see his sister - my mother - and in a few hours had constructed the second radio in Carterville, Illinois. The owner of The Carterville State Bank had the first radio in my hometown, a commercial model, made by the Atwater-Kent Company, now highly prized by collectors, even though thousands, maybe millions, were sold.
Uncle Byron wired-up our "home-brew" radio on a breadboard—the big, square plank all women kept in their kitchens. Battery operated, it could barely power a set of headphones, so only two persons in the family, each sharing one of the big headphones, could listen at one time. This brought about disputes between my two siblings: Donald, fourteen, and Olga, seven, over programming preferences.
Hoping to prevent further family discord, our father purchased an RCA "set" that came with a large, curved, wooden horn resembling the device persons who needed a hearing aid often used at that time. This screwed into a magnetic speaker, much like a large headphone, that amplified a scratchy, metallic sound that was hardly better than that coming from Edison's Gramophone.
Regenerative feedback or Tuned Radio Frequency radios are renowned for being sensitive, but not selective; that is, difficult to tune-in just one station at a time. Also, since the feedback circuit oscillated; that is - emitted a weak radio signal, nearby neighbors each heard an interfering tone when trying to listen to the same station.
Nevertheless, by placing the speaker in a bedroom window, men from the neighborhood could sit on the grass outside our home and listen to live broadcasts of the championship boxing matches between Jack, "The Mauler" Dempsey and Gene "Boxing Master" Tunney. Later, a succession of "Great-White-Hope fighters of much lesser caliber were rendered unconscious within seconds of the opening bell of the first round by the lightning, one-two punch of Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber" and World Heavyweight Champion for twelve years.
The audio quality of the superheterodyne radio circuit, invented by Edwin Armstrong, was so much better. My siblings and I lobbied intensively for one, and in 1937, dad bought a Zenith "floor model' radio. For decades however, the leading seller of radios was Philco, a company founded in Philadelphia.
I was ten when I happened to be listening when the emotional description made by Herbert Morrison in Lakehurst, New Jersey of the hydrogen gas explosion aboard the German dirigible Hindenburg that took place on May 6th, 1937 was broadcast and a recording of it was relayed by Station WGN in Chicago.
Network Radio Broadcasting reached an apex in programming between 1935 and 1945. Every day was filled by dramatic, serials named "soap operas" (Because each was sponsored by a soap company) and every evening, great comedy and dramatic shows and music for every possible taste were broadcast—from the "Saturday Night Hit Parade" to "The Grand Old Opry," on WSM, Nashville. The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts could be heard every Saturday afternoon. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had its own symphony orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
By then, three networks had emerged: Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS), plus NBC Blue, and NBC Red. The Mutual Network came later.
Each professional baseball team had its designated announcer, too numerous to mention— almost all of whom described the plays for the same team for their lifetimes. Only one switched. Harry Carey started with the St. Louis Cardinals and was lured away by the Chicago Cubs.
Chief among early radio entertainment choices were programs starring Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Will Rogers, Fibber Magee and Molly, George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen, Ed Wynn and Fred Allen.
Let's have a show of hands: How many of you heard ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy when an acrimonious feud erupted between McCarthy and garrulous comedian W.C. Fields, that lasted for months?
I may be the only living radio fan who heard Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater's effective fantasy about space invaders that caused panic among thousands of people who tuned in late and missed the introduction by Welles explaining that this was a play based on a book by British author H. G. Wells (See "War of The Worlds-October 31, 1938", available on YouTube). It was told that our neighborhood letter carrier ran down Main Street that night, hysterically spreading the news. As is often the case, transmission through a body of people's minds distorted the details and within hours, persons were soon claiming that they actually saw the display, and swore that our postman was nude at the time.
Mornings on network radio were dominated by Arthur Godfrey, and most evenings the leading orchestras: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and a score of other Big Bands dominated the air waves, both live and via "transcription." The musicians union got the FCC to pass a ruling that stations had to identify when broadcasts were live or recorded. Later, the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) assessed a fee on stations for broadcasting recordings of members. For a short time, stations attempted to play selections composed by long dead composers such as Stephen Foster (Jeannie With the Light Blond Hair), until listeners rebelled.
I was usually first to return home from school, and tuned in "The Adventures of Little Orphan Annie and her faithful dog, Sandy", followed by "Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Northwest Mounted Police". Later, "The Green Hornet", "The Shadow" and "Inner Sanctum", with your old friend Raymond behind the squeaking door.
By then, dad had washed the coal dust off of his body (except from around his eye lids) and was ready to listen to "Amos and Andy", two white guys who spoke (or thought they did) black humor dialect for 30-minutes early every evening.
I nearly forgot to mention the large Irish lass, with lilting soprano voice, Kate Smith, who dominated radio for decades.
Soon, the ubiquitous "Disk Jockos" began to fill air time. Like Tucsonans, you probably had a favorite in your hometown— like Frank Kalil, who, according to companies that surveyed Tucson's radio audience for national advertisers, had a greater number of listeners to his afternoon "Kalil's Caravan," on KTKT, than all other Tucson stations had in their combined audiences.
Kalil later became the foremost broker of broadcast properties in the industry and remains in Tucson.
I would be remiss if I did not mention two broadcasters in Tucson, who were leaders in broadcasting to the considerable Spanish speaking audience: Don Jacinto Orosco and Ernesto Portillo, Sr. The emergence of Telemundo and Univision has brought radio as well as television programming to nearly every market in North America.
I'll also bet that many of you have listened to powerful stations such as XERA, blasting Wolfman Jack rock N Roll all the way to Naples, Italy. As early as 1930, a "doctor" Brinkley was peddling (in English) a "goat-gland" operations for men every night from one or more of the Mexican border stations.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Feel free to remind me of more of Radio's Ancient History I may have missed, by using the E-mail link at the bottom.
-Phil Richardson, Observer of the Human Condition and Storyteller. "He goes doddering on into his old age, making a public nuisance of himself."—Joseph Menchen
Our unending thanks to Jim Bromley, who programs our Archive of Prior Commentaries
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