Chapter 4: Popular Radio and the Origins of Broadcasting

Posted: February 13, 2011 in Chapter 4: Radio, Uncategorized

In Brief: Radio Listening Habits

1. Think. Take two minutes to write down answers to the following questions about your radio listening habits: How much radio do you listen to? When do you listen? What attracts you to a particular station.

2. Pair. Turn to a neighbor and compare notes. Which radio formats (if any) do you agree on? What do you think the stations are doing that is “right”? What aspects of radio programming bother you?

3. Share. We’ll discuss as a class — if you could envision the perfect radio station with the perfect format, what would it be? How would it be funded? Whom would it serve? What should be the purpose of this radio station in the community?

I. Early Technology and the Development of Radio

  • The wired and electronic transmissions of media messages have always required power, symbols, and a transmission-reception system.

A. Maxwell and Hertz Discover Radio Waves. James Maxwell theorized about the existence of electromagnetic waves, and Heinrich Hertz proved that electricity emitted them. Their scientific contributions led to the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s.

  • Heinrich Hertz was originally from Hamburg, Germany, and came from a highly educated family. German, English, French, and Italian were spoken at home. Fascinated by science, Hertz knew all there was to know about electromagnetism by the time he was twenty. Hertz discovered wavelengths and how to measure them. He called the wavelengths “invisible light” and compared them to the rings in water after a stone is thrown into a pond, except these rings travel at 186,000 miles per second (the speed of light). By the time Hertz was thirty-four, he was working on shooting invisible beams in all directions. He died of blood poisoning in 1894, when he was only thirty-six, but his name lives on as the international synonym for “cycles per second.”

B. Marconi and the Inventors of Wireless Telegraphy. In the mid-1890s, Guglielmo Marconi and others developed wireless telegraphy, a form of voiceless point-to-point communication.

  • Guglielmo Marconi, another young genius, was born in 1874. The introverted son of a prosperous Italian family, he lived with his parents and one brother in a country house near Bologna and was educated at home by tutors. As a teenager, Marconi became interested in electricity and the experiments of Benjamin Franklin. While on vacation in the Alps in 1892, the eighteen-year-old Marconi first came into contact with the concept of “Hertzian waves” in a magazine article. He was so excited that he immediately started to plan for a way to transmit sound without wires. Marconi returned to his family’s mansion and began working in this third-floor room behind locked doors, instructing his mother to leave his meals outside the door. He finally invited her in when he had finished his invention, which could transmit the sound of distant ringing bells. The Italian minister of Post and Telegraph wasn’t interested, so the whole Marconi clan sailed to England. At customs, Marconi was carrying his wireless telegraph in a little black box and was stopped by customs officers, who reportedly thought he “had the eyes of a fanatic” and who suspected him of terrorism. They seized his box and smashed it to bits, but Marconi eventually reconstructed the invention in England, got it patented, and became famous.
  • Looking at the telegraph in greater detail: This website can translate any message you type into morse code and play it back for you.

C. Wireless Telephony: De Forest and Fessende. Lee De Forest and Reginald Fessenden both aimed to go beyond Marconi and began transmitting voices and music with wireless telephony. By 1902, radio transmission had evolved from narrowcasting into broadcasting.

  • Lee De Forest, an American, got his early education by reading the Bible and the Patent Office Gazette. Later, he attended the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and was voted the “nerviest” member of his class, as well as the “homeliest.” De Forest was regarded as both a genius and a very odd man. He used to keep a diary to record his thoughts. One entry early in his scientific career stated, “What finer task than to transmit the sound of a voice or song to one a thousand miles away. Oh, if I could do that tonight.” When De Forest decided to compete with Marconi in the transmission of a yacht race, he hadn’t yet completed his sending-and-receiving equipment and had barely eaten or slept in order to be ready for the start of the race. Eventually, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital. As it happened, however,President William McKinley was assassinated while De Forest was recuperating in the hospital, and the yacht race was rescheduled out of respect for the president. De Forest was able to finish his equipment in time. Eventually, De Forest figured out how to multiply an electric current billions of times, thereby making transmissions more powerful. De Forest was a passionate scientist, but he was also a bit of a romantic. “My present task,” he once wrote, “is to distribute sweet melody over the city and the sea so that even the mariner far out across the silent waves may hear the music of his homeland.”

D. Regulating a New Medium. The most important international issues affecting radio in the 1900s were ship radio needs and signal interference.

  • Radio Waves as a Natural Resource. The Radio Act of 1912 addressed the problem of amateur radio operators who were increasingly cramming the airwaves and also determined that radio should benefit society.
  • The Impact of World War I. As wireless telegraphy played an increasingly large role in military operations, the navy sought tight security controls.

E. Bringing Order to Chaos with the Radio Act of 1927. The first federal legislation to bring order after radio’s chaotic rise, the 1927 act initiated the policy of operating in the public interest, convenience, or necessity.” Call letters were originally created so telegraph operators could send messages to ships and other parties without having to spell out the entire name with every communication. Beginning in 1912, at the London International Radiotelegraphic Conference, international call letters were assigned to various countries: Germany got D (for Deutschland) and A, Britain got B and M, France got F, Canada got C, and Mexico got X. The United States got the letters K and W—no one knows exactly why. U.S. stations west of the Mississippi River were then assigned call letters that began with the letter K, and stations east of the Mississippi were given the letter W. (The Pittsburgh station KDKA, and WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, are two of about thirty stations established before this rule that were allowed to keep their original letters.) Some early stations (clear channels especially) have only three call letters, but the FCC moved to four because three-letter combinations would be exhausted too quickly.

When radio stations select their call letters, the FCC also requires that no two be alike and that the combination of letters be in good taste; in other words, no obscene or suggestive words are allowed. Some stations choose call letters that suggest ownership affiliation, such as WABC or KNBC. Others select pronounceable combinations such as KORN or WREN. And others try to find combinations that are easily remembered or establish a connection with their identity, such as
KJAZ, which programs jazz music, or KUNI, which has its station at the University of Northern Iowa.

F. The Golden Age of Radio. Radio commanded a central position in most American living rooms in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Golden Age of Radio

The creative side of radio: Radio was an intimate medium that took some getting used to. In the early 1930s, some actors were so scared of microphones that engineers devised lamp-shade covers to make them appear more innocuous. Actors stood very close to each other around the microphone when rehearsing and performing, and often found their bodies pressing close to those of other actors. Consequently, breath fresheners became standard fare for radio performers between the 1930s and 1950s. According to radio historian Robert L. Mott, the breath freshener Sen-Sen was effective for disguising boozy breath during rehearsals and performances. It became so popular that “most actors were afraid to use it for fear of being guilty by association.”

Actors usually received $6 an hour for rehearsals and $15 for a broadcast that was usually fifteen minutes long. Some actors worked on as many as four soap operas a day. Being a sound-effect artist was often nerve-racking and uncomfortable, with artists often standing in two feet of water to get the kinds of splashing sounds the director wanted. The biggest dread was dropping anything accidentally, having an equipment failure, or making some other kind of noticeable mistake. One artist, desperate not to let a sledgehammer hit the floor, put his foot in its path—and broke his foot.

What follows are some examples of how sound-effect artists colored a radio show with sound:

• A bowl of cooked spaghetti squeezed rhythmically = a giant worm devouring people in their sleep

• Glass wind chimes tinkling = sunlight

• Two moist rubber gloves twisted and stretched = a human body turned inside out

• A hopper that drained bird seed onto a piece of stretched waxed paper = rain on a roof

• Flashlight bulbs dropped into a glass = ice cubes

• A cork dipped in turpentine and rubbed against a bottle = a squealing rat

• A box of cornstarch, squeezed in a rhythmic fashion = footsteps in snow

• Cotton balls ripped close to the microphone = footsteps in snow

• Water from a seltzer bottle squirted into a pail = milking a cow

• Audiotape crinkled close to the mic = fire crackling (audiotape was developed in Germany in the 1940s and was introduced to the United States in 1945)

LISTEN: The famous radio broadcast from the Hindenberg crash (

1. Early Radio Programming. Listeners tuned in to favorite, 15-minute programseach night— variety shows, quiz shows, radio plays, and “soaps.”

2. Radio Programming as a Cultural Mirror. By the 1930s, the most popular comedy was the controversial Amos ’n’Andy.

VIDEO: Amos and Andy

3. The Authority of Radio. The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 caused several hours of panic across the country and illustrated the power of radio.

Listen: War of the Worlds

Exercise: Understanding War of the Worlds

  • This is one of the most infamous radio broadcasts of all time. Have you ever heard the dramatization?
  • What is the difference between listening to a radio program and watching a TV program?
  • What elements would have been familiar to listeners, and what elements would have contributed to the panic?

III. Radio Reinvents Itself . The story of radio, from its invention at the turn of the century to its survival in the age of television, is one of the most remarkable in media history.

A. Transistors Make Radio Portable. Radio adapted to television with important technological innovations. Developed by Bell Laboratories in 1927, the transistor enabled radios to shrink in size and be portable.

B. The FM Revolution and Edwin Armstrong. FM, developed by Edwin Armstrong, was a dramatic breakthrough in broadcast sound and a better medium for music. When Edwin Armstrong was a Columbia University undergraduate, he invented a “feedback” circuit, another way to multiply electrical current, which would lead to FM radio. When he showed his invention to Sarnoff, both were only twenty-three years old. Armstrong committed suicide by jumping out a window after repeated failures to secure suitable patent deals for his inventions. Another version of Armstrong’s suicide in radio lore has his wife pushing him out the window. Apparently, suspicions arose after Armstrong’s suicide when his wife quickly settled her husband’s patent deals with Sarnoff and became a millionaire. She was reportedly abused by Armstrong and was rumored to have a lover, so the push, as the story goes, was as much a crime of passion as it was motivated by personal financial gain.

C. The Rise and Format and Top 40 Radio. Inspired by jukebox play, a station owner invents the idea of rotating top songs.

D. Resisting the Top 40. The expansion of FM in the mid-1960s created room for progressive rock and album-oriented rock.

E. Format Specialization. In 2006, there were a total of 13,557 radio stations across the US. More than 80 percent were commercial stations.

Here are some Arbitron marketing statistics on the specialized radio marketplace:

  • Contemporary Hits Radio: Of all formats, CHR has the highest share of teen listeners (26 percent). App. three quarters of the listeners are 34 and under.
  • Classical: Adults 55 and older account for 60 percent of listening to classical stations. New Englanders and people in the Middle Atlantic and Pacific regions are more to listen to classical than the average listener. Classical listener patronize fast-food restaurants at a rate well below the national average. They are much more likely than the norm to go to the movies. They are 27 percent more likely to live in a household that is planning to purchase a new midsized car in the next twelve month.
  • Country: Country listeners are 46 percent more likely than the normal to live in a household that is planning to purchase a pickup truck in the next year. They are the most interested of any format in sewing and doing crafts. About 56 percent have eaten fast food more than five times in the past month.
  • Smooth Jazz: This format attracts a fitness-conscience audience, with listeners participating in bicycling, free weights/circuit training, and jogging/running at rates well above the norm.
  • News/Talk: Sixty percent of the news/talk/information audience are men 18 and older.
  • Oldies: Hispanics compose more than 13 percent of the oldies audience. Oldies listeners are more likely to have gone golfing, powerboating, and swimming than the general population.
  • Urban. Black listeners composer the overwhelming — 82 percent — of the urban audience. They are 36 percent more likely than the norm to plan to buy furniture in the next year. They have eaten at fast-food restaurants more frequently than any other format group.

1. News and Talk Radio. Buoyed by popular hosts like Tavis Smiley and Rush Limbaugh, the news/talk format is the most popular format in the US.

VIDEO: Watch the Dr. Laura scandal

VIDEO: Watch Dr. Laura’s reaction

VIDEO: Rush Limbaugh

B. Nonprofit Radio and NPR. Today, almost 2,900 nonprofit stations operate.

1. The Early Years of Nonprofit Radio. In 1948, the government began authorizing noncommercial licenses to stations that were not affiliated with labor, religion, education, or civic groups and also approved 10-watt stations.

2. Creation of the First Noncommercial Networks. National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) were creating in the late 1960s and mandated by Congress to provide alternatives to commercial broadcasting.

Listen: News

Listen: Music

C. Radio Goes Digital

1. Internet Radio. Internet radio emerged in the 1990s with the popularity of the Web.

2. Satellite Radio. Two services, XM and Sirius, now offer more than one hundred digital music, news, and talk channels via satellite.

3. Podcasting. By 2004, listeners could download audio files (podcasts) onto their MP3 players.

4. HD Radio. More than 1,500 radio stations now broadcast in digital HD, a technology that compresses digital signals and allows for multicasting.


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