My aunt, Louise Moore, was born in 1913. She recalls, while living in Pittsburgh in about 1924, listening with her family to radio station KDKA on a crystal receiving set. At the time, the radio station held a contest for the young girls among their listeners. The young ladies were to write a letter to the station recounting a good deed they had recently performed. A weekly drawing was held and the winner was proclaimed the "KDKA Sunshine Girl." Louise sent in a letter telling how she had helped her mother with a household chore, and her name was drawn! She still remembers getting a card in the mail and the thrill of hearing her name announced on Saturday as the reigning "Sunshine Girl."
Radio broadcasting didn't really take off until the 1920s, well within the memory of many folks living today. In the years leading up to World War I, amateur radio stations transmitted semi-regular programs, broadcasting phonograph records and news bulletins. There were, however, no receiving sets available to the general public. Only radio enthusiasts, who built their own receivers, heard these broadcasts.
Wartime restrictions shut down most amateur stations, but several resumed transmitting after the war. One of the most prominent was Station 8XK, run by Dr. Frank Conrad, an engineer for Pittsburgh's Westinghouse Electric Co., out of his garage in Wilkinsburg, Pa.
Conrad broadcast music from records several nights each week and word soon spread. In September 1920, a Pittsburgh department store, Joseph Horne Co., announced plans to sell "Amateur Wireless Sets, $10 and up," so Pittsburghers could hear Conrad's programs. At last, one didn't have to be a radio "nut" to listen in.
Conrad's boss at Westinghouse quickly saw the potential to make money by building and selling radio sets. He proposed setting up a radio station and transmitter to broadcast the results of the upcoming presidential election. On Oct. 27, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued the new Westinghouse station the first commercial broadcasting license, and the call letters KDKA, giving KDKA bragging rights ever after as the "pioneering broadcasting station of the world."
Although it took some doing, the new station went on the air at 8 p.m on Nov. 2. That first broadcast ended after midnight with Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge declared the clear winners over Democrats James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt.
After the election night success, KDKA began nightly broadcasts, at first limited to 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., but soon expanded programming. Transmitter power was increased to 500 watts from 100 watts, and before long, people from as far away as Washington, D.C. and Illinois were huddling over their crystal sets to hear scratchy broadcasts from Pittsburgh.
A few other stations across the country got into the act and secured commercial licenses, although programming schedules were limited to only two or three hours each day and consisted mostly of playing phonograph records and reading news and community service bulletins. By the mid-1920s, however, baseball games, symphony orchestras and even Will Rogers were heard regularly in living rooms across the country.
During those years, the advertising possibilities of the new medium began to be exploited. Programs such as the Maxwell House Hour and the Philco Hour were being aired, and the radio commercial was born.
By 1924, farm periodicals such as Successful Farming were full of articles about the benefits and pleasures that radio afforded farm families. Farm Mechanics magazine ran a monthly column titled "Farm Radio Department" instructing readers in how to build radio sets, erect antennas and make loudspeakers.
A Minnesota farmer wrote that he received more for his cattle and hogs because of up-to-date market reports, while weather reports helped him get the spring planting finished before the rains. An Iowa man said now that weather, crop and market reports were within his reach, he was no longer obliged to "Plant by faith only, harvest by hope mainly and market by accident mostly."
A potato farmer from New Jersey said "Purely as a business proposition, a good radio is an absolutely necessary part of any up-to-date farm. It also keeps the women and kiddies in touch with the world, gives them diversion and sends them to bed happier." An Illinois woman wrote: "With six small children on a large farm nine miles from town … the radio is the only outside enjoyment I get." Another farm wife was quoted in an ad for a popular radio of the day: "It used to be pretty lonely out here. But since we bought our Atwater Kent, I feel as if I was out visiting every evening."
The cover illustration of the May 1924 issue of Successful Farming shows a man relaxing in his easy chair, coatless, with his vest unbuttoned and a big smile on his face. He has on earphones and behind him is a radio set. Through the window can be seen a nearby church with a number of folks walking to the entrance. His wife and two children are all dressed up and obviously ready to go out the door to attend services. The kids are looking at him questioningly, and the wife disapprovingly, but he doesn't care; he's listening to a sermon on the radio.
The new medium was especially welcomed by farmers and their families. Now they could be just as well informed and entertained as their city cousins. That 1920 election night broadcast by KDKA set off the communication and entertainment boom that we enjoy (and complain about) today.
In these days of instant news, music and pictures from anywhere on the globe, and even from outer space, it's hard to imagine what a thrill it was back in the 1920s, to sit in your own living room and hear music and voices magically coming from out of the air.
- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org