Radio Sets Brought News Faster Than Ever To Rural America

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


| May 2013



Zenith Restored

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

Photo By Clell Ballard

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.