Radio Sets Brought News Faster Than Ever To Rural America

Radio sets were rural America’s connection to the world.

Zenith Restored

The author’s 1929 Zenith tabletop radio receives AM and shortwave signals.

Photo By Clell Ballard

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In a world where instant communication is expected, it is hard to believe that not too long ago much of rural America was basically isolated from events of the day. Those who live in densely populated areas have difficulty visualizing vast areas where there are no trappings of civilization at all. In the wide expanses of Middle America, the farther one goes west, the more distance there is between farmsteads and rural towns. Where ranching is the main form of economic activity, it is not unusual to travel several hours to visit the closest neighbor.

Wireless revolution

Henry Ford’s Model T is credited with putting America on wheels. An equally important fact is often overlooked: Since the Model T was inexpensive enough that even small farmers could buy one (or at least a used one), it became the means of spreading information in rural areas. Neighborly visits and occasional forays into the nearest town were suddenly faster and easier, giving access to supplies and the latest news.

Then, with the advent of radio transmission, a wireless revolution took place. In the 1920s, radio programming was limited and radio sets were extremely expensive. A top-of-the-line model could cost almost as much as a Model T Ford, which at one time could be bought new for just $290 ($3,300 today). Even if rural families wanted a radio, the purchase price was too high and most farms lacked the electricity necessary to run them. However, that didn’t stop people from making an attempt to share in the excitement that radio provided.

Since some source of electricity was necessary, it became common for rural sets to be run on batteries. The small, square 6-volt battery that was also used in large flashlight-type lamps of the day became a power source. Battery technology was in its infancy and battery longevity was quite short. Replacement batteries were costly, so radios were used only for a short time each day.

The 6-volt automobile battery offered an alternative. Although extremely heavy and bulky to the point that having one in the house was unsightly and inconvenient, car batteries were used a lot. They had two advantages: Their capacity was much greater than the small batteries, and they could be recharged. The recharging mechanism almost always consisted of a wind-driven generator mounted on a rooftop pole where air currents flowed unrestricted. In the Plains states there was never a shortage of wind.

Making it affordable

Early on, the cost of a complete radio setup, a viable power source and a recharging apparatus was prohibitive for all but the most affluent. Even if programs could be obtained with the simple antennas of the day, radio sets were out of reach of most farm folk.

It didn’t take long before American ingenuity came into play. Handy individuals discovered that the radio mechanism itself could be purchased without an elaborate case. In those days, radio cabinets were built with the same quality as pianos are today. Phenomenal craftsmanship contributed to the prohibitive cost. Many bought the “chassis” and built their own cabinets. The finished product, which worked just as well as a commercially produced radio, provided the news and entertainment that was so eagerly sought. The homemade product may have looked a little crude, but who cared?

Tabletop convenience

By the late 1920s, enterprising companies began producing tabletop models in addition to the common consoles. Although still quite large, the tabletop radio didn’t take up any floor space in the relatively small homes of the day. This author owns a 1929 Zenith tabletop model that receives both AM and international shortwave signals. A switch on the back is used to select 110-volt household current or 6-volt operation. It has a regular cord plus two fairly long cables with alligator clamps that fasten to a storage battery.

Multiple tube-type radio sets have a reputation for mellow sound and our old Zenith is no exception. The fairly large speaker provides soothing music and even makes voices more pleasant to listen to. We have always used it on household current. Our external antenna, which consists of a special braided copper wire extending several hundred feet from the house, makes it possible to receive the closest station, which is 75 miles away.

When we were raising our five children during the 1970s and ’80s we chose not to have a television; the old radio  was our source of news and entertainment for almost two decades. Guess it was kind of quaint that the family gathered around the radio every Sunday night to listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a broadcast staple in those years.

Repairs a vexing challenge

The vacuum tubes that make a radio work have a limited life span. When one of them ceases to work, the radio does too. In more than four decades of regular use, the Zenith has needed a new tube only three times. That is pretty amazing since most of its tubes are 1920 models. When it did need repair, it became increasingly difficult to find someone who knew how to fix tube radios.

One day in 1990 when the Zenith was turned on, all it produced was static. Since it obviously needed a new tube, I searched for someone to repair it. I finally found a guy quite some distance away who offered to fix it. I left the radio at his shop with the understanding we would have to be without it for several weeks.

I didn’t hear anything for an extended period of time, so I drove to the town to talk to the repairman. When I pulled up, I was shocked. The building housing the repair shop had ceased to exist: It had burned to the ground in a middle-of-the-night fire. I was sick at heart. Although the building was insured, the contents were not. Even if an insurance claim had been available, it would never replace the old radio that was every bit a part of our family.

The phoenix radio

A couple of weeks later, the thought came to me that maybe I could find some small part of the radio in what was left of the building. Saving something would be better than nothing. I returned to the site and walked through the ashes. Absolutely nothing was identifiable. For some reason, I stooped to lift a hunk of something that hadn’t burned completely. You can’t imagine the joy I felt when I discovered our old radio sitting on the floor. Apparently the repairman had taken the radio chassis out of its case and set both pieces on the floor. During the fire, a piece of debris fell over it, protecting it from the heat. Although badly water-damaged, it was basically all there.

I excitedly scooped it up and took it home. The radio mechanism was taken to a repair shop in a larger community that specialized in old radios. It was returned to working order with only minor repairs. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time attempting to restore the wooden case back to its original appearance. I could not find information on resurrecting a quality piece of furniture that had been soaked in water, so I was on my own. I’m pleased to report that my efforts were almost 100 percent successful. A photo accompanying this article (on the Image Gallery) shows how the restoration turned out.

By 1991, the Zenith had returned to daily service. Today, almost a century after it was manufactured, the old Zenith continues to provide its mellow sounds in our home. Knobs on the front of the unit offer the only clue to the nearly disastrous fire. Careful examination shows that three are reproductions. Our little corner of rural America is more pleasant because of a radio that is an amazing survivor. FC 

Read about one man's interesting solution for the high cost of early radios in Radio Chassis Housed In Dynamite Box.  

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dry land hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.