Broadcasting History - Various ArticlesThe following is an excerpt from The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting by George H. Douglas, published by McFarland and Co., Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina.
Alas, Sarnoff's was a voice crying in the wilderness. He would bring the subject up over and over again to Young and to his other superiors at RCA, but RCA was too big and too busy to be playing around with this puny stepchild which seemed to have no clear-cut commercial future. RCA just couldn't be bothered. They had too much else to do. Was there somebody around who did?
Yes, suddenly there was someone interested in radio broadcasting. It was the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which had been the big loser in the radio sweepstakes when the Radio Corporation of America gobbled up all the fruits in 1919. To be sure, Westinghouse was a stockholder in the newly formed radio giant, but that was small consolation for its losses. During World War I, Westinghouse had many government contracts for the manufacture of radio equipment, but these had now dried up. RCA had taken over commercial radiotelegraphy in the United States as a virtual monopoly, so Westinghouse was cut off in this direction also. What was there to do?
For awhile it seemed that there might be some opportunities abroad, and immediately after the war Westinghouse sent envoys to European radio companies with the idea of negotiating deals for transoceanic radio since there was seemingly more business than RCA could handle. Alas, Owen D. Young had gotten there first, and had most of the European business sewn up. There seemed to be nowhere for Westinghouse to maneuver.
But Westinghouse had been fortunate in acquiring a few patents that had not already been swallowed up by RCA, one of those belonging to Reginald Fessenden and going back to the primitive days of radio experimentation. Even more important, as things turned out, were the patents of the young Signal Corps veteran Major Edwin H. Armstrong. Armstrong's "feedback" patent was bought by Westinghouse in spite of the dispute with De Forest. Too, Armstrong had come home from the war with something even more important: his "superheterodyne circuit," which accomplished an amplification of sound far superior to the earlier feedback circuit and which would turn out to be a prime ingredient of radio technology in the years ahead. For his two patents Westinghouse offered Armstrong $335,000, payable over a 10-year period, with promise of additional amounts if Armstrong won his feedback patent suit. Westinghouse made the purchase just in time, since GE was also offering money for the same patents, and Armstrong might have been tempted to hold out.
Still, even with these additional patents in hand there was no clear idea of what Westinghouse would do with them. The radio side of the Westinghouse Company was withering on the vine. Production of radio equipment had fallen off sharply and no new customers stepped forward. Westinghouse staged radio demonstrations for railroads that ran tugboats and ferryboats on the Hudson River at New York, with the idea of drumming up business, but this did not meet with success. The scientists who had been assigned to radio work at Westinghouse were eventually given other work. One of the radio leaders at Westinghouse, Frank Conrad, was put to work on electric switches. His assistant, Donald G. Little, was assigned to work on lightning arrestors. Among the newcomers at Westinghouse was Vladimir K. Zworykin, who had been a communication specialist in the czarist army and was a refugee from the new regime in Russia. Zworykin had worked on television experiments in Russia and asked to pursue them at Westinghouse, but Westinghouse saw little hope in that area at the time.
Still, the Westinghouse radio men had not thrown in the towel. They were determined to persist, even if it meant working on their own. And this was particularly true of Frank Conrad, one of the most gifted and resourceful workers in the company's employ. Conrad was another of those self-taught geniuses unblessed by the constraints of formal academic training. He had dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and had worked his way up at Westinghouse from a bench-hand trainee.
But Conrad was a veritable fountain of ideas. Even before the war he was a radio amateur using his garage laboratory, and his wartime contributions were little short of startling. He had designed and tested for the Signal Corps some transmitters and receivers (SCR-69 and SCR-70), and these had been a big success. Much of the testing of the SCR-69 and SCR-70 had been done in Conrad's garage. He came to hold some 200 patents in a number of areas. During the war, in addition to his compact radio receivers and transmitters, he developed a wind-driven generator that could be attached to the wings of airplanes and power their radio transmitters. This resulted, at the end of the war, in the capability of transmitting voice messages from ground to airplanes, a highly prized achievement.
After the war, when Conrad's radio work at Westinghouse fell off sharply, he carried on his experiments in his spare time in his little garage laboratory in suburban Wilkinsburg, just east of Pittsburgh. He was now using vacuum tubes in his amateur operations, and his signal was regularly picked up by a number of other amateurs in the Pittsburgh area. During the early months of 1920 the private Conrad laboratory had become a kind of beehive of radio activity, with enthusiasts and kindred spirits showing up for work and conversation every weekend. Regularly Conrad was sending out his signal, talking to other amateurs, sometimes playing phonograph records, always appealing for information about how good the reception was. Word got out that this radio thing was a lot of fun, and more and more people were swept up in the enthusiasm for what looked like a nifty little hobby.
As time wore on, Conrad's home station (call letters 8XK) more and more took on the appearance of a permanent radio station. Conrad's two sons regularly worked as announcers; the Hamilton Music Store in Wilkinsburg loaned records, for which favor it was mentioned on the air. The music was well enough liked that eventually the Conrads started what seemed to be regular "concerts" on Saturday nights. Even the general public became aware of this burgeoning radio station, and Conrad garnered a certain amount of local notoriety. A newspaper item on May 2, 1920, announced a piano solo by one of the Conrad sons, and the technology of it was explained. A line was to be run from the Conrad home to the garage laboratory, and the sound then "sent out into the ether by the radiophone apparatus located there."
As the months of 1920 passed by, amateur interest increased, and a number of people in the Pittsburgh area were wondering how they might be able to obtain sets of their own. In early September, the Joseph Home Department Store in Pittsburgh put an ad in the Pittsburgh Sun notifying the public that the store had on display a radio set for amateur use that could pick up the Conrad radio programs. Not only was the Horne Company going to display and demonstrate this equipment, they were going to sell it as well: "Amateur Wireless Sets, made by the maker of the set which is in operation in our store, are on sale here, $10.00 up."
Amateur wireless sets on sale! On sale to the general public, not just to the radio ham or buff! The day the ad appeared, Harry P. Davis, vice president at Westinghouse, saw the ad in the newspaper, and it aroused his interest. He was Conrad's superior at Westinghouse, and of course he knew all about Conrad's amateur broadcasts. But the sale of radio sets to the public--here was an idea that nobody had thought of before. Even if Westinghouse had been shoved out of the central core of the radio business as it now stood, perhaps something new could be drummed up. Sets not merely for radio "professionals" but for the general public--all made by Westinghouse, of course.
The day following the Home advertisement, Davis held a conference with Conrad and other Westinghouse officials raising the possibility of building a bigger and more powerful transmitter at the Westinghouse plant, with the plan of offering radio broadcasting on a regular basis. In subsequent conferences Davis wondered if it would be possible to have a station and a suitable transmitter ready for regular operation in time for the Harding-Cox presidential election on November 2. Yes, it was definitely possible, said Conrad, and accordingly he and Donald Little were assigned to the task.
The immediate objective was to get ready for the election, now only two months away, but the long-term objective was a regular broadcasting service that could be depended on by listeners day after day and week after week. The technical problems would not be hard to overcome with Conrad at the helm; the public relations aspect of the thing was a bit more involved. But everything moved apace. On the roof of one of the buildings at Westinghouse's East Pittsburgh plant a shack and 100-watt transmitter were built. To give additional range, an antenna ran from the roof of the shack to one of the powerhouse smokestacks. On October 16, the Westinghouse Company applied to the United States Department of Commerce for a license to begin a regular broadcasting service. By telephone a few days later Westinghouse received permission to use the amateur call letters 8ZZ in case the formal and written license was not received by November 2. However, on October 27, formal notification arrived, and the station received the call letters KDKA (these were the same as those used in commercial shore stations). The station was authorized to use 360 meters, giving them a clear channel away from amateur use.
Westinghouse was also beginning production of sets for home use, and these, together with the imminent inauguration of programming, were given ample notice in the local press. As things turned out, the flood of new sets did not begin until well after the election, but Westinghouse was laying plans for selling them. They were also making preparations for the programming that was to go out over the air since if one is going to have regular broadcasting one has to have something to broadcast. Arrangements were made to have the Pittsburgh Post telephone the election results to Westinghouse as soon as they became available from the news wire services. Filling up the gaps would be a banjo player and some of those reliable old phonograph records that had been a major part of Conrad's private broadcasts.
The big night came and went without a hitch. To be on the safe side Frank Conrad was standing by at his own transmitter at Wilkinsburg, prepared to send out the returns from there if necessary. But it wasn't necessary. The broadcast on election night began at 8 P. M. Eastern Standard Time and ran until after midnight. Donald Little and John Frazier were in charge of the technical side of the operation, and Leo Rosenberg of Westinghouse's publicity department read the bulletins as they came in.
About the elections there had been little doubt from the beginning-- Harding and Coolidge were easy winners over Cox and Roosevelt. There might have been some doubts in the Westinghouse boardroom about the fate of KDKA, but there needn't have been. The evening was a smashing success, and the next day scores of telephone calls from listeners came through the Westinghouse switchboard. There were many more listeners than there were sets, listeners mainly gathering in large numbers at central locations--churches, lodges, the private homes of Westinghouse executives--to be guinea pigs for the experiment. Everyone was delighted.
Historically, the important thing was that KDKA did not simply turn off its power and fold up after the election night special, but, as promised, continued its nightly broadcasts on a regular basis. At first the broadcast time was a single hour--8:30 to 9:30 P. M.--but before long the schedule would be expanded. Quite well aware of the nationwide publicity that had been given to the station, Westinghouse in a matter of weeks replaced the 100-watt transmitter with a 500-watt transmitter. In those days the airwaves were uncluttered and, weather permitting, the signal of the Pittsburgh station could be picked up in Washington, D. C., or out on the prairie of Illinois. KDKA also began experimenting with all the peripheral aspects of the art, constructing the first "radio studio" of record. A national institution had been established.
For the first time a radio station had attempted to appeal to a mass audience. KDKA's intent was to sell sets to the general public--not sets by the dozen, but, as things turned out, by the millions. When the year 1920 began the only people who thought about radio thought of it as an art that could be understood and enjoyed only by the expert or the electronics whiz. When the year 1920 was over there were few who failed to see that radio was calling out to everybody. Now it just might be that the radio receiver could be a household utility like the stove, the phonograph and the electric light. The technology of home reception was still primitive, but the institution was there.
If KDKA was to be the stimulus that would give birth to an entirely new era in wireless history, the evidence of it was neither immediate nor dramatic. A great radio boom was just around the corner, but it did not come, as one might expect, in the months immediately following KDKA's debut--rather it had to wait until early 1922, over a year after that election-night broadcast of 1920. Between November 2, 1920, and December 31, 1921, only nine additional stations were listed in the Radio Service Bulletin of the Department of Commerce as being licensed for general broadcasting. But in the first few months of 1922 scores of new stations would seek and receive licenses, and the broadcasting idea would then spread like wildfire around the country.
In retrospect, the rather timid development of 1920-21 is not hard to understand. Westinghouse executives had founded KDKA with the idea that a regular broadcasting station would stimulate the sale of Westinghouse-made radio receivers. But full-scale production of such sets was not yet underway, and the audience for radio broadcasts would of necessity be the same small number of amateurs that had made up the radio audience late in 1920. During 1921 no completely assembled and ready-to-use radio receivers were on the market. Tube sets would be coming in shortly, but in 1921 nearly every set sold to the general public employed the older (and relatively inexpensive) crystal components. Reception on these sets remained difficult and erratic.
Too, broadcasting hadn't really proven itself to be a medium that people couldn't do without. KDKA and soon a few others were broadcasting regularly (although on a very limited schedule), but the quality of programming was primitive and amateurish. Early in 1921 KDKA selected its first regular announcer and program manager, Harold W. Arlin. Arlin used all of his resources to think up new ideas that would appeal to the listening audience, but for many months he had to rely heavily on playing borrowed phonograph records, reading news headlines and community service bulletins, and giving extended explanations of the Arlington time signals. There was not really enough on the radio to make this new medium of communication a wildly popular pastime.
Nonetheless, the broadcasting idea had taken hold. In the wake of the KDKA success, Donald Little was sent around the country to prepare for similar broadcasting stations at other Westinghouse installations in the eastern United States. Three of these began operations in 1921: WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, and KYW in Chicago (atop the Commonwealth Edison Building).
This bustle of activity at Westinghouse did not go unnoticed in the executive offices of the competitor companies. Any and all of the giant companies involved in radio could have thought of the broadcasting concept, but all the competitors had been preoccupied with other things that seemed to be promising big profits. At the Schenectady plant of General Electric, William C. White called for the installation of a station at that plant, and discovered himself and his colleagues amazed at their lack of foresight in thinking up the idea. De Forest Radio and Telegraph Company received a license for general broadcasting (New York station WJX) in 1921, as did the still-skeptical RCA.
Historically, it is interesting to note that RCA had a jump on Westinghouse in the New York area. It did not establish its short-lived station in Roselle Park until the fall of 1921, but just months after the establishment of KDKA, David Sarnoff--who had of course been trying to sell RCA on the broadcasting concept all along--was on the lookout for something big and exciting that might be worth broadcasting and also gain widespread public attention. He found it in the summer of 1921 in one of the most spectacular events of early broadcasting--the heavyweight boxing championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. This fight, for which RCA received a one-day license to operate a one-day station (WJY) with a borrowed Navy transmitter, made the radio phenomenon highly newsworthy even before Westinghouse was able to open its first regular station in the New York area. The fight, broadcast by Major J. Andrew White, editor of Wireless Age magazine, was said to have been tuned in by as many as 300,000 listeners, some as far away as Florida.
As to WJZ, the new Westinghouse station was licensed on June 1, 1921, but did not begin broadcasting until September (officially, it began its operations on October 1, 1921). The studio and transmitter were located at the Westinghouse meter plant in Newark at the corner of Plane and Orange streets. The location was not, as some later recalled, in a forlorn part of the Newark factory district, but only a few blocks from the downtown business district. It was nonetheless a factory, with a strictly factory-like atmosphere.
This first long-term, regularly broadcasting New York area station had been planned by Westinghouse for over a year, apparently, but little was done with the project for many months. When regular broadcasting began on October 1, it was from a hastily gotten-up studio, and in response to an immediate need, which was to broadcast the World Series between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. It was an ideal opportunity to cash in on the radio enthusiasm generated by the Dempsey fight three months before. The World Series was broadcast as the station's highly successful debut, although the techniques of transmission were crude and tentative.
As manager for WJZ, Westinghouse had chosen an engineer from its own staff, Charles B. Popenoe, a man with no previous radio experience but apparently full of ideas and anxious to learn. Popenoe had been born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1887, and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, where he graduated in the class of 1912. Trained for construction engineering, Popenoe took his first job with the Department of Public Works in his home state of Ohio, a job he kept until World War I broke out. During the war he served as an army engineer, rising to the rank of captain, but did not see service abroad. He joined the Westinghouse Company in 1919, handling a number of different assignments until he became manager of WJZ when it was founded in 1921.
As station manager Popenoe reported directly to the plant manager, H. E. Miller. To assist him in running the station he was assigned an engineer, George Blitziotis, a Belgian who had once worked for Marconi, and Thomas H. Cowan, who became announcer and general factotum. Cowan, a native New Jerseyan, was also a Westinghouse employee with virtually no experience or knowledge of radio, summarily requisitioned to develop this new field of radio announcing. Like Popenoe, he started knowing nothing about broadcasting, but he would soon know everything there was to know.
The studios and other facilities were every bit as primitive in Newark as they had been at Pittsburgh. In a memoir of the early days of radio, Popenoe described the facilities at Newark:
It was now decided to establish a studio, and half of the ladies' rest room of the Newark works was set aside for the purpose, making a space some thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide. Microphones were installed, the necessary wiring from these instruments to the roof, a control panel placed in order to keep announcers and operators in direct communication, and the room draped in dark red material not only to add to its appearance, but to subdue any echo noticeable. A few pieces of furniture were secured and a piano rented of the Griffith Piano Company of Newark.Filling the broadcast day at WJZ was something of a problem, as it had been at KDKA. In the beginning the station only broadcast in the evening, unless of course there was some eminently attractive daytime event like the World Series. Announcer Cowan, who had once worked for Thomas Edison in his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, borrowed a phonograph from that device's celebrated inventor and played records to fill up the gaps. Occasionally a speaker or singer would be invited or somebody would play a few songs on the piano. A typical Sunday schedule from WJZ's Newark days indicates the sparseness of the programming:
7:55-8:05--Two test records on Edison phonograph.Programming was not to remain this lean for long, however. Announcer Cowan proved to be very resourceful in rounding up talent and bringing to Newark entertainers who would sound good on the radio. Most of them had to come out from New York, which was none too pleasant. Newark was a mere ten miles away, but it was a trip by Hudson Tube or Pennsylvania Railroad across the foul-smelling Jersey Meadows. Nevertheless, as it shortly became evident that the station was being listened to in the vast New York metropolitan area, the performers--at least those with a sense of adventure--soon started to come in larger numbers.
After exhausting the generosity of his old employer Thomas Edison, who wasn't too keen on radio because he thought it vastly inferior to his phonograph, Cowan began to solicit record companies and musical organizations in New York. On the first of November, Pathe Records sent a quartette called the Shannon Four, later to be known as the Revelers. Shortly thereafter Pathe sent another act, Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, soon to become the best known song and comedy act in the early days of radio.
Officials of the Aeolian Company in New York became very interested in WJZ and loaned the station a Weber-Duo-Art grand piano and a vocalion for playing records. In November and December 1921 they sent the famous pianist and composer Percy Grainger, and a number of singers, including John Charles Thomas, Johanna Glaski, May Peterson and Marie Sundelius. (Thomas, for one, would remain an important figure in radio music for years, and appeared regularly on musical programs throughout the golden age of radio.)
Very quickly at WJZ, radio programming took on the general mix that it was to have in the years ahead. There were times for orchestral music, times for humorous speeches, times for weather programs. Special programs for women appeared, and also for children (a time for children's bedtime stories was established between 7:00 and 7:30 in those early days). One of the best known of these early children's series was "Man in the Moon," in which Bill McNeary read the stories, most of which were written by Josephine Lawrence of the Newark Sunday Call, a lady who later went on to become a highly popular writer of adult fiction.
Religious programming soon became an important feature of radio, and it started at WJZ on Christmas Eve, 1921, when the Rev. George P. Dougherty of the Christ Episcopal Church in suburban Glen Ridge, New Jersey, read a Christmas Eve message to the public. The next month Rev. Dougherty was asked to inaugurate a religious service to be heard every Sunday from 3:00 to 3:45 P. M. Clergymen of all other denominations were invited to participate, and the series became a solid success. Religious broadcasting would assume large dimensions by the end of the twenties, with many religious denominations and even individual churches having their own radio stations.
WJZ's biggest concern, however, during the first year of its operation, was getting performers to come to Newark who would be reliable and regular. One of the most reliable from Cowan's point of view was Vaughn de Leath, the young lady who had earned the title "First Lady of Radio" way back in 1916 when she sang over the airwaves for Lee De Forest. She earned her title once again in 1921-22 when she became a regular on WJZ. Tommy Cowan would sweep by her New York apartment and proclaim, "Come on, you're going to Newark," and Miss De Leath would obligingly take the foul tube ride over to Newark to sing before the mike.
Before WJZ phased out its Newark studio, the station made every effort to lure and pamper singers and stars of Broadway or vaudeville. For a time they provided a limousine to fetch the stars to the studio, posted a uniformed doorman at the door of the factory, tendered champagne and flowers. Tommy Cowan would even greet the stars dressed in a tuxedo, and the studio which had been moved to the first floor for ease of accessibility, was as opulently decked out as was humanly possible in a factory ambience.
Present and future big names did come to Newark late in 1921 and early 1922. Paul Whiteman brought his orchestra. On February 19, 1922, WJZ presented its first Broadway stage show on the air: Ed Wynn's "The Perfect Fool." Wynn's first encounter with the radio microphone was apparently not a happy one, and he disappeared from the radio scene for nearly a decade, finally returning as one of the medium's most popular comedians in the early days of the depression.
Opera by radio came to the New York area for the first time on March 15, 1922, when WJZ broadcast Mozart's comic opera The Impresario. This was not a "remote" telephone broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York; rather a touring company was hauled in toto to the Westinghouse plant, where they were herded into a 10' x 40' makeshift studio on the second floor for their first exposure to the medium.
A figure whose name was long identified with opera broadcasting appeared at WJZ in those early days in Newark. This was Milton J. Cross, who heard the radio for the first time when he was visiting some friends in the New Jersey city. Cross gathered that WJZ might be looking for talent to perform on the air, and being a trained tenor with some performing experience to his credit, he wrote Tommy Cowan offering to sing over the airwaves. Cowan invited him to visit the studio, but he and Charles Popenoe were even more impressed with his speaking voice than his singing voice, so he was offered an announcing job, which he took with some reluctance. Cross went on to become one of the great radio announcers, for many years the announcer of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, his devoted listeners probably forgetting that he began his radio career in 1922 singing plaintive songs like "Little Mother of Mine."
When Milton Cross joined WJZ, radio broadcasting was still a primitive, catch-as-catch-can business. Everybody on the payroll was expected to do everything there was to do: give time signals, play records, announce a singer, improvise at the piano, perhaps even double as engineer if the need arose. But things were ready to boom, and before long station WJZ and all connected with it would be in the big time. Before too many months, WJZ opened a studio in New York at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (then located at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, the present site of the Empire State Building), this studio being connected to the Newark transmitter by a Western Union wire. By the spring of 1923, the whole WJZ operation was moved to New York, where it was housed at Aeolian Hall at 33 West 42nd Street. By this time, the experimental phase of radio broadcasting was quickly fading into the history books.
Westinghouse's WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, and KYW in Chicago also opened in 1921. WBZ actually began broadcasting a few days before WJZ, in September 1921, but received its license later. The choice of Springfield as a location may not be obvious today, but the Springfield plant had been selected as the place where Westinghouse would turn out those newly demanded receivers that were supposed to be the financial base of this new phenomenon called broadcasting.
What went on in Chicago was altogether different. KYW deserves a high place in the annals of radio history because it was, from the start, a specialized radio station. Here were no time signals, no weather bulletins, no phonograph records, no chitchat, none of the usual attributes of a general station. KYW in its first year had but one kind of programming: opera. Programming consisted of broadcasts of the Chicago Civic Opera Company, six days a week, afternoon and evening. The first broadcast in the Chicago area took place on November 11, 1921, and featured the voice of soprano Mary Garden. This program and subsequent broadcasts of the opera were a phenomenal success, and apparently did as much for the radio in Chicago as the Dempsey-Carpentier fight did in New York. As the year 1921 ended, there were plans for as many as a dozen new stations in the Chicago area.
Of course when the 1921-22 opera season was over in Chicago, KYW had to look around for something else, or face the prospect of trailing off into silence. Accordingly a small studio was prepared in the Commonwealth Edison Building (a welcome departure from the usual Westinghouse practice of factory studios), suitably hung with heavy draperies for acoustical purposes. Area Westinghouse salesmen were requisitioned to serve as announcers, and plans were shortly made for more diversified programming. Almost immediately a full range of programming was projected: Western Union was hired to run lines to the baseball stadiums, arrangements were made with the International News Service to provide news bulletins, and the inevitable playing of phonograph records filled in the gaps. But the phenomenal popularity of those early opera broadcasts would not fade from memory, and opera would become an early favorite of radio listening audiences everywhere during the 1920s.
If a dozen new stations were in the planning stage in Chicago as the twenties began, it was clear that broadcasting was about to discover an unwanted and hitherto undreamed of ingredient: competition. All of the stations operating in 1921 were placed sufficiently distant from one another that they could freely beam their signals to their listening audiences without interference. But as the popularity of radio broadcasting spread, interference would become a nagging anxiety. Shortly would come a time when the proliferation of broadcasting stations would seem to present insurmountable problems.
At first there was a spirit of cooperation whenever a second station moved into a given area, but this cooperation eventually evaporated when the going got tough. And at the time, there was no way of keeping competitors from entering the same territory and on the same wavelength. WJZ, for example, was for some time the only station broadcasting regularly in the New York metropolitan area. The headstart it enjoyed continued to make it the dominant station in the area for several years. But when competition arrived it was pretty brisk. It arrived first at the hand of the Radio Corporation of America. Newly named RCA General Manager David Sarnoff, not satisfied with the one-day broadcast in July 1921 that actually preceded WJZ's debut, had been itching to have his own broadcasting station in the New York area long before Westinghouse intruded into this vicinity so far away from its corporate headquarters. WJZ had clearly stolen the march on Sarnoff, but he was undaunted, and before the year 1921 was over he had his own station in operation.
The station was WDY, and it went on the air at Roselle Park, New Jersey, on December 14, 1921. In a way, the station was a successor to the one-day WJY. In fact some of the equipment used for the broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight back in July was put into use at Roselle Park. The reason for the station's location at Roselle Park is rather curious. This suburban town in Union County, New Jersey, only a few miles from WJZ's transmitter in Newark, was the site of a General Electric plant, and RCA had arranged this station as a cooperative venture with General Electric, which was chafing at the bit and anxious to get into the broadcasting field.
Once again the ambience of the station's studio was that of a factory, poorly located in terms of the entertainment centers of New York. On the other hand, Sarnoff had taken some pains to do the thing right, and the studio was more spacious and pleasing than the factory loft studios Westinghouse had started out with. Swept away was the workshop atmosphere, and instead there were a dignified studio and foyer, decorated with rugs, draperies, and specially appointed furniture. More important, Station WDY hired a manager with extensive radio background. He was Major J. Andrew White, founder and editor of Wireless Age magazine, a man who knew everything that was going on in the radio field and had large numbers of contacts with every phase of radio broadcasting and technology. It was he who had broadcast the Dempsey-Carpentier fight for RCA in July. He was also a man with a wide range of acquaintances in theatrical and sporting circles, so it seemed obvious that he could get programming going at WDY in a glorious fashion if anybody could. And he did.
The first program on WDY was broadcast from 9:15 to 10:15 P. M. on December 14, 1921. There were several artists on hand for the occasion: Louis Brean, piano solo; Harry Howard, singer of popular songs; Jack Cook, vaudevillian; and Nat Saunders, comedian. Major White was not necessarily more assiduous in rounding up talent than WJZ's Tommy Cowan, but his theatrical contacts proved invaluable. Comedian Eddie Cantor came over when he was not appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies. There were entertainers on all levels. Friday night became a special event at WDY, especially a program called "Radio Party," which invariably featured one or more big stars from New York. The stars' only payment was a champagne dinner, but of course all were aware that there was a certain amount of benefit accruing to their professional reputations.
In spite of its sprightly programming, the WDY experiment was short- lived, suffering a sudden but painless death before the winter of 1922 was over. The reason for its demise was that RCA reached an agreement with Westinghouse to buy and operate WJZ, which, for all the efforts of WDY, still had the largest listening audience in the New York area. By early 1922, parent companies were deeply concerned about the rising costs of broadcasting and about the still unanswered question of who was going to pay the bill for this new form of communication when it grew to gigantic proportions. The thought doubtless was that a single powerful station in New York would be the most practical solution, and plans were afoot to move WJZ to New York and away from the factory in Newark. WDY went off the air on February 24, 1922, thus giving WJZ a monopoly of the New York metropolitan area listening audience.
Not for long, however. It was now 1922, the year when the desire to own and operate radio stations became a national passion. Stations sprang up everywhere, like mushrooms on a spring lawn. For half of 1921 there had been a single station, KDKA, broadcasting on a regular schedule. Then, at the end of the year, a flurry of others. But according to the Radio Service Bulletin of the U. S. Department of Commerce, the numbers of new stations in the first five months of 1922 looked like this:
Among the earliest to get on the radio bandwagon were newspapers. Very few of them thought of this new medium as a competitor, but they obviously realized the public relations value of radio station ownership. Among the newspaper-owned stations from early 1922 were KUO, San Francisco (San Francisco Examiner); WAAL, Minneapolis (Minneapolis Tribune); KWH, Los Angeles (Los Angeles Examiner); and WAAB, New Orleans (New Orleans Times-Picayune). The very early Detroit News station continued in operation, now known as WWJ.
Another category of owners was department stores, many rapidly opening radio departments or radio sections. Among the stores starting stations during these early months were John Wanamaker in New York (WWZ), the Fair Store in Chicago (WGU), Stix-Baer-Fuller in St. Louis (WCK) and Gimbel Brothers in Philadelphia (WIP). One of the most important of the early department store stations was WOR, started by the L. Bamberger Department Store in Newark, obviously an affront to WJZ, still located in the same city. In later years, after it moved to New York, WOR became the anchor station of the Mutual Radio network.
Colleges and universities also saw the educational possibilities of radio, either for instructional purposes or because radio technology was a hot topic in the curriculum. Many of the new educational stations were started to serve a quasi-public function at large land-grant universities, and a good number of these were established in the first few months of 1922: WCM at the University of Texas, Austin; WRM at the University of Illinois, Urbana; WLB at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. But private universities were also interested, as evidenced by WAAC at Tulane University, New Orleans and WEW at St. Louis University. Even small colleges did not hesitate to enter the hotly competitive field, producing WBAW at Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio; WBAE at the James Bradley Polytechnic Institute, at Peoria, Ill.; and KGY at St. Martin's College, in Lacey, Washington.
Another pattern that persisted over the years was the ownership of radio stations by churches and religious organizations: KJS, of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles; KTW of the First Presbyterian Church of Seattle, Washington; and KOA of the Young Men's Christian Association of Denver, Colorado.
Municipal ownership of radio stations would become commonplace in the 1920s, although the practice declined somewhat in later years. The first such station was WRR in Dallas, Texas, which actually made its appearance late in 1921. The station was run by the Dallas fire and police departments but was licensed for general broadcasting to the public. The city of Chicago established WBU in March 1922.
All of these styles were and are readily understandable, but they hardly exhausted the possibilities, and in those euphoric months of early 1922 radio stations were licensed to some very eccentric and inexplicable owners. There was the Yahrling-Rayner Piano Company of Youngstown, Ohio (WAAY); the Palmer School of Chiropractic, of Davenport, Iowa (WOC); the C. F. Aldrich Marble and Granite Co., of Colorado Springs, Colo. (KHD); the Omaha Grain Exchange (WAAW); and even the Nushawg Poultry Farm of New Lebanon, Ohio (WPI).
Naturally not all of these stations survived. Many of them lacked the resources to do more than greet the sunset with feeble exclamations of their presence. Some died sudden and inglorious deaths; others were later merged or absorbed. But a number of these eccentric pioneer stations still exist. Today we realize with a smile that not all of them could have survived, but in 1922 the future looked so bright that there seemed to be room for every comer.
This veritable cascade of stations was unexpected by both the general public and the Department of Commerce, whose job it was to license them. It quickly became the source of difficulties. By the end of 1922, 690 stations had been licensed, and long before this number was reached many of them were in audible conflict with one another. So unexpected was the radio boom that only one spot on the radio dial had been assigned to general radio stations--"news, lectures, entertainment, etc." All of these stations broadcast at 360 meters (618.6 kc). By the middle of 1922 the multiplicity of stations in various geographical locales would make this situation intolerable.
For a while some spirit of cooperation prevailed. For example, with the two powerful stations in the New York area, WOR at Bamberger's Department Store, and WJZ at the Westinghouse plant (both transmitting a few blocks apart in Newark), it was necessary to effect some kind of compromise. It was decided that on one day WOR would have the hours between sunrise and sunset while WJZ would have the evening hours. The next day things would be reversed, and WOR would get the more popular evening hours. Peace treaties of this kind didn't last too long, however, and with more and more stations trying to squeeze onto the air, the government would have to take unto itself a role it then viewed with suspicion: the role of regulator and arbitrator. It did so only following many months of chaos and frustration.
Among the hundreds of stations newly licensed and operative in 1922, one would suddenly attract more than its share of attention and bring an entirely fresh concept to the practice of broadcasting. Not surprisingly, it was another station located in New York City, but this time not a stepchild of the Radio Corporation of America, or of Westinghouse, the original broadcasting pioneers, but instead of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.
Naturally AT&T had the power and the money to get into the act, but during the pioneer years of 1920 and 1921 it hesitated, not seeing broadcasting as germane to its central mission of the telephone business. Then, finally, it jumped. And when it jumped, it was with the idea of making a quantum leap. It hoped to build the biggest and the best radio station in the country--a radio station that would dwarf all of its predecessors.
The station begun by AT&T was WEAF (for the first few months it was known as WBAY). Unlike other pioneer stations, it was born with a silver spoon in its mouth, for when AT&T decided to try broadcasting it marshaled all of the company's vast resources to the task of providing the best transmission equipment, the best studio and the best all-around facilities in the land. Here was to be no factory loft experiment, no distracting plaything at the back of a radio parts store, no department store sales gimmick, but rather a big-time radio station that would display all of the virtues of radio to the general public--one that would exhibit the most advanced state of the art. It would be more modern and more powerful than any other station then on the air.
AT&T made the decision to enter the broadcasting field at an executive meeting held in New York on January 12, 1922, and the plan was released to the public four days later. Station WBAY, predecessor to WEAF, began broadcasting six months later, on July 25, from the company's long lines building at 24 Walker Street, New York. From the very first, however, this pioneering station was to be conceived differently from all of the existing stations. This new broadcasting station would offer marvelous broadcasting facilities but would do no broadcasting itself. WEAF was to be a "toll broadcasting station," open to the general public, or to anybody who wanted to buy time to speak or perform over the air. Just as ordinary citizens could contract with the telephone company to provide two-way phone service, so would WEAF offer anybody who so wanted the opportunity to broadcast a message to the multitudes.
It was not only the analogy with telephone service that appealed to AT&T executives in inaugurating the "toll broadcasting idea"; rather it was the hope that they had discovered the answer to a question that had puzzled all of the early pioneers of broadcasting: How could radio be made commercial, be made to pay? The answer now seemed easy: anyone wanting to broadcast would pay for the privilege --such was the hope--eventually bringing in sufficient revenues to make the service pay for itself. (The charge decided on in 1922 was $50.00 for a fifteen-minute period in the evening and $40.00 for a similar period in the afternoon.)
Although AT&T was not putting out a call for paid advertising, with the passage of time tawdry ads did of course slip in, for such was the only way that the idea could have been made to work. This might have been evident from the beginning since few toll users showed up. Nearly a month of broadcasting went by before a single toll user approached the station asking to purchase air time. Very few others followed, meaning, in essence, that the toll broadcasting idea was a flat and dismal failure.
But the WEAF experiment was not a failure in other ways. Undaunted by the inability to attract toll broadcasters, AT&T willingly supplied programming of its own. It cheerfully decided that since it had gone into broadcasting, even though few were willing to play by its new rules, it would provide the kind of programming that other stations offered at the time. With the new station only a week old, AT&T hired a "program director," Samuel Ross, to do what Tommy Cowan had done for WJZ and Major J. Andrew White for WDY. With much more specific experience in dealing with musicians and performers, and with plenty of staff help in all areas, Ross was quickly able to put together a full programming mix in a matter of a few months. With the station's New York City location, Ross was able to draw many performers to the microphone who would not endure the trek to the factory neighborhood of Newark, so that almost immediately the new station was giving brisk competition to WJZ as the premier radio station in the New York City area.
When the telephone company's station opened, the most obvious marvels seemed to be technical, for the equipment was a veritable museum of the state of the art. The station was equipped with a Western Electric 500-watt transmitter and all of the high-quality pick-up experience that telephone engineers had to offer. Introduced into broadcasting at this time was the condenser microphone that was nearly flawless in its reproduction and created very little noise through its own operation. Another instrument introduced at this time was the "volume indicator," which allowed the operator of the transmitter to control the intensity or level of the audio frequency currents passing through his apparatus. This prevented the transmitter from becoming overloaded and the program from becoming weak or faint.
Other "telephone" miracles contributed mightily to the radio art. With vast experience in sound reproduction, telephone engineers were able to equip the radio station with several microphones harmonized by means of a mixer or fader so that the output of one microphone could fade our while the output of another was increased. In the early radio studios the announcer or technician with a single microphone had been forced into all sorts of acrobatics as performers moved around or turned their heads, or as an orchestra played louder or softer. Multiple microphones and mixers allowed all these problems to be adjusted smoothly in the control room.
On April 10, 1923, WEAF moved to grander and better equipped studios at the AT&T Building at 195 Broadway, where studios took up the better part of the fourth floor in the company's national headquarters. The services of an interior designer were engaged, and the studios were given an air of formality and dignity. There were rugs, draperies; a receptionist greeted visitors and performers. The atmosphere was "homelike," with oil paintings on the wall, easy chairs and other comfortable fittings. There were two commodious studios separated by a control booth, from which the technicians were able to monitor the activities in both studios through a soundproof glass pane. Except for minor details, the modern radio studio was thus born at 195 Broadway.
A mere month after its removal to company headquarters, station WEAF obtained one of its greatest assets in the person of young Graham McNamee, who would shortly become the best known radio announcer in New York, perhaps the best remembered announcer of the 1920s. McNamee's sparkling and lively personality would make WEAF the radio voice of the New York area. But the programming skills of Mr. Samuel Ross were also responsible for turning this once-experimental station into one with the sound and personality that most people even today would associate with the idea of professionalism. In the matter of only a few months the WEAF studios were bustling with orchestras, soloists, distinguished speakers, "gypsies," troubadours, "Happiness Boys," vaudevillians, storytellers, jokesters, song and patter men, and nearly every kind of radio sound that would become familiar in the golden age of radio.
The WEAF experiment obviously turned out to be a salutary one in the history of broadcasting: It did not succeed exactly as planned, and the toll broadcasting idea was quickly supplemented with something else; but it succeeded in showing that radio as a means of mass communication had a solid future. Those hundreds of stations popping up all over the country in 1922 proved that radio was infectious, that some great and happy potential was there. The telephone company proved that listeners would flock to the radio in droves--not anymore in hundreds, or thousands, but in millions.