Broadcasting History - Various Articles

Book Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from the AT&T-commissioned centennial history book, Telephone - The First Hundred Years, by John Brooks (Harper, Row publishers, 1975, ISBN 0-06-010540-2).

A great new challenge faced AT&T as it entered the 1920s—the challenge of radio. Development work was going forward leading toward the establishment of regular transatlantic telephone service by radio. But radio, of course, had another and equally exciting dimension, that of broadcasting. By November 1920, when the first radio broadcasting station—the Westinghouse station KDKA, in Pittsburgh—inaugurated service by sending out the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election, Western Electric already had three experimental stations, 2XB at West Street, 2XF at Cliffwood, New Jersey, and 2XJ at Deal Beach, New Jersey, sending out test messages to each other and to the few radio operators and ships and ambitious radio amateur buffs who happened to be listening. That same year -- at the urging of the federal government, which sought to forestall the monopolization of radio equipment by any single patent holder -- AT&T entered into a cross-licensing agreement with General Electric Company; the agreement was later extended to include the other two corporate leaders in radio research Radio Corporation of America and Westinghouse Electric Company.

AT&T’s attitude toward radio in early 1921 was later summed up by Walter S. Gifford, then controller and later president: "Nobody knew ... where radio was really headed. Everything about broadcasting was uncertain. For my own part I expected that since it was a form of telephony ... we were sure to be involved in broadcasting somehow. Our first vague idea, as broadcasting appeared, was that perhaps people would expect to be able to pick up a telephone and call some radio station, so that they could give radio talks." But by the end of that year, the situation had clarified somewhat; hundreds wanted to broadcast, millions wanted to listen, and no one was sure how broadcasting was to be supported. AT&T decided to get into broadcasting on an experimental basis, as Thayer explained in the 1921 Annual Report: "A field in which the radio telephone has possibilities as the furnishing of ... one-way service ... news, music, speeches and the like, ... We are preparing to furnish this broadcasting service to such an extent as may meet the commercial demands of the public."

This promise began to be fulfilled on July 25, 1922, when station WBAY—the call letters were changed a month later to WEAF—began broadcasting from the Long Lines building on Walker Street in New York City. The transmitter, built by Western Electric, had a power of 500 watts, and the plan was to derive revenues from renting program time to anyone who wanted to use the facilities, at $40 or $50 per fifteen minutes. Unrented time was to be filled by musical programs and the like.

It soon became evident that any dreams of a flood of people eager to air their messages were in vain; the station had to wait a month for its first paying customer, and its gross revenues for its first two months of operations was $550. Meanwhile it filled up time by calling on local talent; one evening’s program featured vocal selections by Miss Helen Graves and Miss Anna Hermann accompanied by Mrs. M. W. Swayze, piano solos by Mr. F. R. Marion, a recitation of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem An Old Sweetheart of Mine by Miss Edna Cunningham, and violin selections by Mr. Joseph Koznick. All of these performers were employees of the AT&T Long Lines, except for Mr. Koznick, who was from the AT&T Drafting Department. Audience reaction to the program is not recorded. At last, on August 28, the Queensborough Corporation, a real estate promotion of Jackson Heights, New York City, bought fifteen minutes to announce a development called Hawthorne Court, and thus WEAF gained the perhaps dubious distinction of carrying the first radio commercial. [not true--jm]

There were thirteen commercial customers by December 1922 and a total of about two hundred and fifty during 1923, by the end of which there were nearly half a million radio receiving sets within the station’s range. But WEAF officials quickly learned what all radio officials would later know—that listeners will accept commercials only when leavened by information and professional entertainment. In 1922 and 1923, WEAF broadcast sports, opera from the Metropolitan, lighter music from the Capitol Theatre, theatrical performances from the stages of Broadway, and radio’s first comedy team, a pair of vaudeville performers called The Happiness Boys. Also, Graham McNamee, soon to become the best-known of early radio announcers, made the first of his many appearances on WEAF. The station’s audience grew rapidly, and by the end of 1923, letters and cards from listeners were coming in at the rate of about eight hundred per day. Meanwhile the concept of sponsorship of entertainment programs by commercial enterprises gradually the original one of simply leaving the use of time to advertisers. Moreover, in the interest of gaining public goodwill, the station imposed on its sponsors a set of rules that by the standards of later radio seem downright quaint: No direct sales pitches; no mention of such hard-sell details as the color of a can; no ad-libbing of advertising material, and no advertising that the station officials considered possibly offensive to good taste. On this ground, the first commercial for toothpaste was held up for several weeks because the WEAF station manager felt that toothpaste, regardless of how treated, might be too personal a matter to mention on the air.

In April 1923, the studios of WEAF were moved to the fourth floor of AT&T headquarters at 195 Broadway. While people on the upper floors went about the workaday business of maintaining the national telephone network and advancing the telephone art, a glamorous show-business atmosphere flourished down below, with stars like John McCormick and Ethel Barrymore regularly passing in and out. As radio expanded, AT&T sought to expand its radio operation—a task for which it was uniquely equipped because it had telephone wires to use in the establishment of the first radio network. In July 1923, the Bell System opened its second radio station, WCAP at Washington, D. C.; that June, an address by President Harding in St. Louis was broadcast to every state in the union by the first nationwide hookup, made possible by Bell System telephone lines; and by the end of 1925, there was a national network of seventeen Bell-owned or Bell-licensed stations serving over 60 percent of all receiving sets in the United States, and bringing in gross annual revenues of about $750,000.

It was all heady stuff for a sober telephone company, now suddenly deep in the tensions and delights of show business. All the while, a furious struggle was going on for position in the new and fast-growing radio business, between AT&T and competing companies. Was AT&T, through its radio patents and its telephone network, attempting to monopolize radio broadcasting? Almost immediately after the signing of the cross-licensing agreement of July 1920, it became the subject of conflicting interpretations and disputes among the rival communications companies. Up to early 1922, it was AT&T’s policy to refuse the use of Bell telephone wires—necessary for remote pickups or for linking up distant stations—to radio stations not owned by Bell. There was a relaxation of this hard-line policy in April, 1922, when AT&T informed its operating companies that it now seemed desirable, until further notice, to be liberal in the matter of leasing private lines to broadcasters. However, the stations owned by AT&T’s chief competitors in broadcasting—Radio Corporation, General Electric and Westinghouse—were specifically excluded from the new liberal policy, under AT&T’s interpretation of the 1920 agreement. Those stations were forced to resort to the use of telegraph wires AT&T’s interpretation was challenged in 1923 by Radio Corporation, which contended that the right to broadcast implied the right to use telephone wires as an adjunct; the matter went to arbitration, but the arbitrator’s decision was so equivocal as to leave both parties dissatisfied. Another aspect of the same matter came to a head in February 1924, when AT&T was accused of offering telephone wires to non-Bell stations at a prohibitive cost. That month, the Rotary Club of Chicago planned a nationwide broadcast of an address to be made from Washington by President Calvin Coolidge, using a hookup of eighteen well-scattered stations to be connected by wires, AT&T agreed to broadcast the address from Washington, New York and Providence via its own facilities, and announced it would charge $2,500 to connect the Washington station by wire with station WJAZ in Chicago, which the Rotarians wanted to use to reach western listeners. Station WJAZ protested that the charge was extortionate, and pointed out that ordinary long-distance service between Washington and Chicago for the ten minutes of the President’s speech would cost only $14.40. AT&T retorted that a radio hookup installation was in no way comparable technically to a long-distance telephone call; that the installation and operation of the hookup for the President’s speech would require more than twenty-five man-days of work, and that radio hookup charges could never be comparable to regular toll charges. WJAZ refused to pay the charge, and Coolidge’s address was not broadcast in the Chicago area.

Whatever the proper charge for such a connection or the correct interpretation of the 1920 license agreement, there is no doubt that AT&T’s balkiness about leasing wires to rival broadcasters in 1923 was motivated in part by a desire to gain a commanding position in radio broadcasting. In February 1923, A. H. Griswold, the company’s assistant vice-president in charge of radio matters, said to a Bell System radio conference, "We have been very careful, up to the present time, not to state to the public in any way ... the idea that the Bell System desires to monopolize broadcasting, but the fact remains that it’s a telephone job, that we are the telephone people, and that we can do it better than anyone else. ... in one form or another, we have got to do the job." Griswold went on to assure his listeners that his view was shared by the company’s top officers, including President Thayer. A year later, however, the company view -- at least, as publicly expressed—had changed sharply. A statement to the press by Thayer in March 1924—by which time AT&T was in the thick of patent-infringement suits against rival radio stations and arbitration of the dispute with Radio Corporation over the availability of telephone lines—declared that AT&T "has not attempted and does not desire a monopoly of broadcasting"; that "any broadcasting station now infringing [AT&T’s] patent rights can acquire a license ... upon reasonable terms" and that "a monopoly, either of broadcasting or entertainment of the public or for hire, is not desirable from any point of view." The statement also strongly expressed approval of federal regulation of broadcasting. Evidently, there was taking place within AT&T a change of heart as to broadcasting monopoly and regulation closely analogous to the one that had taken place as to telephone monopoly and regulation in the Vail, and had culminated in the Kingsbury Commitment. But meanwhile, as the suits and the arbitration dragged on, AT&T was vigorously pursuing the enlargement of its radio network, and was continuing to make it difficult or impossible for rival broadcasting companies to use AT&T telephone wires. [...]

And—although it is arguable that the same thing would not have happened without his intercession—Gifford got AT&T out of broadcasting. By a series of three contracts entered into on July 1, 1926, AT&T agreed to supply wire services to the Radio Corporation for broadcasting purposes, and gave the Radio Corporation an option to buy station WEAF outright, along with the licenses to operate what had been the rest of the AT&T radio network. The sale was consummated on November 1 for one million dollars, and was accompanied by a pledge not to return to the field of radio. As Gifford explained in the annual report for that year, "The Company undertook to develop radio broadcasting in order to ascertain how it could be made most useful in the business. ... The further the experiment was carried, the more evident it became that the objective of a broadcasting station was quite different from that of a telephone system."

The sale and agreement to provide wires constitute another, if lesser, Kingsbury commitment, and evidence that Gifford was indeed Vail’s spiritual successor. It meant that AT&T—under pressure, to be sure—had given up another dream of monopoly, and that entertainment stars would no longer enliven the scene at 195 Broadway.

1924 Networks (McLeod)

Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2003 20:48:53 -0400
From: Elizabeth McLeod
Subject: Re: NBC in 1924?

Could someone explain how the NETWORK preexisted this date in 1924?

This is an example of confusing NBC with the network which preceded it, the hookup of stations which was generally called either the "Telephone Group" or the "Red Network." This network grew out of ad-hoc linkages of stations during 1924 promoted by AT&T, and anchored by WEAF, New York and WCAP, Washington.

The 1924 conventions were broadcast over an ad-hoc AT&T network (as well as a much smaller, unrelated network promoted by RCA and known as the "Radio Group.") The success of this hookup on a national basis prompted AT&T to begin operating the chain on a regular basis. It was on an partial schedule into 1925, but by 1926 was offering programming on a full schedule to its affiliates, including such programs as the Eveready Hour, the Ipana Troubadours, the Gold Dust Twins, the A&P Gypsies, the Clicqout Club Eskimoes, and the B. F. Goodrich Silvertown Cord Orchestra featuring the Silver Masked Tenor. All of these commercial programs were being distributed by the Red Network on a national basis for months prior to the NBC Inaugural Broadcast.

The Red Network was sold, as an operating entity, to NBC in September of 1926, and the new organization took over its operation in November. Thus November 15th marked the beginning of NBC, but not the beginning of the Red Network. NBC’s internal publicity machine made a careful point of obliterating public memory of as much of the Red Network’s pre-NBC existence as it could get away with—but examination of radio publications of the 1925-26 period reveals that the Red Network was a fully viable, successful operation long before Sarnoff, Ayelsworth, and company entered the picture.


Radio on the Day America Entered World War II
and on the Day World War II Ended


When radio broadcasting began in the early 1920’s, one of the greatest potential services of the new medium would be to keep the nation informed of what was going on in the news and to immediately inform the American people of major news breaks. Yet, until the late 1930’s, news on radio was "a little here, a little there."

The gathering war clouds over Europe were the impetus for the networks to finally build-up a comprehensive, world-wide broadcast newsgathering service. By December of 1941, millions of Americans had gotten into the habit of listening to news on the radio, provided by an ever-expanding (and ever-improving) corps of anchors, correspondents, writers, and engineers (although, of course, the term "anchor" wasn't invented until the early 1950’s).

December 7th, 1941 dawned like any typical Sunday two and a half weeks before Christmas in that era. Millions of people read their local Sunday newspapers, retail stores in those days not being open on Sundays. Many millions tuned into various programs on radio. At 2:25 P.M. (Eastern Standard Time), a stunning flash would come across the wire services which would change the United States, and the lives of everyone living in it.

Most Americans learned about Pearl Harbor from either radio news bulletins that interrupted regular programming, or from people who had heard those bulletins. But what programs were interrupted for those bulletins?

In 1995, the author of this article hosted and narrated "Victory: August, 1945," an hour-long documentary program about the end of World War II on a public-access cable channel in his hometown of Norwood, Massachusetts (near Boston). One of my objectives in research for the program was to find out what radio programs were interrupted or pre-empted when the U.S. got into the war, and when the war ended. I also got my hands on some tapes of actual programming from both December 7, 1941 and August 14, 1945.

Here in Boston, there were at the time of Pearl Harbor, 8 AM radio stations. Using the radio page of the December 7, 1941 Boston Post, these were the programs interrupted for what in many ways remains one of the three most stunning and shocking news bulletins (the assassination of President John Kennedy and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger being the others) ever to interrupt regular programs.

WEEI was at 590 on the dial back then, owned by and affiliated with CBS. At 2:25 P.M., John Charles Daly broke into a CBS program titled "Spirit of '41" to announce the Japanese attack. Even those, like this author, too young to have been around in 1941 have heard recordings of this bulletin, either in history class (because the teacher played the "I Can Hear It Now" albums narrated by Edward R. Murrow) or in numerous 1991 retrospectives on Pearl Harbor.

WNAC, then located at 1260, was the NBC Red affiliate. Sammy Kaye’s "Sunday Serenade" program ("Swing 'n Sway with Sammy Kaye") was just about to end when the Pearl Harbor bulletin broke into the program.

WBZ at 1030 was then the affiliate of NBC Blue. The news from Hawaii broke into a "Great Plays" radio drama, "The Inspector General". "Great Plays" was an hour-long program, starting at 2 P.M. (EST), so the bulletin came about halfway through the broadcast.

WAAB at 1440 (moved to Worcester a year later to comply with FCC duopoly rules then in effect--it and WNAC were under the same ownership) was a Mutual affiliate. The bulletin came just as George Fisher’s show was about to conclude.

There were four other stations in Boston at the time, without network affiliation. WORL (a daytimer at 950) was running "The Chopin Hour," from 2 to 2:45, and was to follow it at 2:45 with live broadcast of a reception in honor of Boston-area VFW commander-in-chief Max Singer. At 2:25, WHDH (850) was wrapping-up "Cavalcade of Song" and was about to begin "Uncle Ned’s Radio Varieties"; WCOP (1150) which had just (within the previous week) graduated from daytimer to fulltimer, was in the midst of foreign-language programming; and WMEX (1510) was running "Scandinavian Melodies," which at 2:30 was to give way to a Christian Science program.

Contrary to what young people today might think, the radio networks didn't pre-empt everything the rest of the day to cover the war news. In research for my 1995 V-J documentary, I played some tapes from December 7, 1941 from CBS. "The World Today," a current-events and news program, aired as scheduled at 2:30 (with lots of details on the Pearl Harbor attack), but a little after 3, joined the scheduled New York Philharmonic broadcast, although it was interrupted for news bulletins. In later times, such a news bulletin would pre-empt everything "until further notice"--as an example, look to the first two days of Desert Storm in 1991, when the major TV networks wiped out regular programming for the first two days of that war.

Although radio news was rapidly maturing in 1941, by the end of the war, it had matured into a dependable and reliable source of the latest developments in what was going on in the world.

As August 14th, 1945 dawned, America and the world awaited Japan’s word of surrender. A false flash came across the wires in the wee hours of August 14th, but was premature. As the day grew on, it became obvious that final word of a Japanese surrender would come before the day ended.

The radio page of the Boston Post for August 14, 1945 listed what was scheduled to air that day on the seven AM stations in Boston at the time (the eighth, WAAB, had been moved to Worcester since its owner, the Yankee Network, already had WNAC).

Programs originally scheduled to air at 7 P.M.--the hour that President Truman announced Japan’s surrender--were as follows (of course, programs on network stations never aired):

WEEI (590) (CBS): "On Your Mark," a sports show with Ted Husing.

WHDH (850) (independent): "Meet The Bands," a program of recorded big-band music.

WORL (950) (independent): "The 920 Club," a program of recorded popular music with disc-jockey chatter.

WBZ (1030) (NBC; it became NBC [formerly NBC-Red] after WAAB moved to Worcester): "The Chesterfield Supper Club," a program of music emceed by a young Perry Como and also featuring the Wesson Brothers.

WCOP (1150) (ABC; it picked-up ABC affiliation after WAAB moved to Worcester): Local news.

WNAC (1260) (Mutual; became Mutual affiliate after it lost NBC-red to WBZ in the wake of WAAB’s move to Worcester): Mutual network news, anchored by Fulton Lewis, Jr.

WMEX (1150) (independent): "Corny Bust Funny," a program of hill-billy music and humor.

The major radio networks pre-empted their evening schedules that night to report on reaction not just from numerous cities in the United States, but other Allied capitals, especially London. Affiliated stations in many large markets contributed reports on celebrations in their cities to whatever network they were affiliated with.

One footnote about the surrender of Japan: According to contemporary press accounts, the major radio networks had reporters in the White House to hear President Truman’s announcement (live broadcasting of this statement being prohibited), then ran to open phone lines to let their New York newsrooms learn the official word. In addition, the networks had planned to carry live the radio speech to the British people from newly-elected Prime Minister Clement Atlee, but were willing to interrupt or pre-empt Mr. Atlee’s speech if they got news from their open phone lines to the White House that the surrender had become official.

At 7 P.M. (Eastern War Time), the networks were set to switch to London for Atlee’s address, but the American people never got to hear his speech live. According to one press account, CBS' Bob Trout was first to announce the word of Japan’s surrender, but a few seconds later, NBC, ABC and Mutual also flashed the word of surrender, all of whom interrupting the bells of Big Ben in London which were to precede Mr. Atlee’s speech. A few minutes later, the networks aired recordings of his address.

December 7th, 1941 and August 14th, 1945 were bookends of an era that, besides being the largest and bloodiest military conflict before or since, also saw broadcast journalism come of age.

(Source for Boston radio programs of December 7th, 1941: Radio Page of the Boston Sunday Post, December 7th, 1941)

(Source for Boston radio programs of August 14th, 1945: Radio Page of the Boston Post, August 14th, 1945)

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