BROADCASTING’S FIRST YEARS -
By John F. Schneider, 2020
Copyright 2020 - John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Here’s another broadcast studio of the early 1920’s – WGN in Chicago. This affluent station enjoyed the benefit of two grand pianos and two microphones.
This scene shows a typical 1920’s radio studio with its grand piano and the microphone hidden in a roll-around device of some kind. The operator viewed the studio activities from the adjoining control room, and signaled the performers about volume levels and microphone techniques on the lighted sign.
Performers gather in formal dress for a broadcast over WJZ, the Westinghouse station in Newark, New Jersey. The unique cone-shaped microphone hangs from what is perhaps a modified birdcage stand.
WDY in Roselle Park, New Jersey, was RCA’s first broadcasting station. In this 1922 image, the transmitter is immediately behind the microphone, which has been wrapped with a cloth as some kind of acoustical treatment. WDY was closed soon after this photo was taken, and replaced by WJZ, which became today’s WABC in New York.
WGY, the General Electric station in Schenectady, NY, 1922: Manager Kolin Hager is at the microphone, with Mlle. Ladd at the harp and, assistant manager Robert Weidaw at the rear. Formal dress was frequently required for radio broadcasts, despite the unseeing audience.
Here is a view of the performance studio at WJAZ, the Zenith Corporation’s radio station at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago.
This was the operator’s working position at WJAZ. The custom-made center panel houses the microphone controls, and the transmitter is at the far left. The performance studio is on the opposite side of the glass windows.
This Western Electric floor-plan shows how the above equipment would have been installed in a small suite of rooms.
A Western Electric engineer tests his company's 1A 500-watt transmitter at KGW ini Portland, Oregon, 1922.
This was the 10-watt transmitter of defunct station KZC, licensed to the Pike Place Public Market in Seattle. KZC broadcast daily except Sundays from 9:00 to 10:00 AM in 1922 and 1923. When the station closed forever, the building was remodeled and the transmitter was plastered over inside a new wall. It was re-discovered in the 1960’s, and now belongs to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.
These were the towers of KPSN, the station of the Pasadena Star-News. They stood atop of the newspaper's office building.
It’s been a full century since the first broadcasting signals from makeshift radio transmitters crackled through the headphones of early radio experimenters. Without a doubt, broadcasting in 1920 bore no resemblance to the polished, widespread communication medium we know so well today -- it was chiefly a crude outgrowth of amateur radio. It took years of experimentation, refinement and technological advances for radio broadcasting to evolve into the mass medium that kept America informed and entertained in the thirties and beyond. Let’s take a look at what radio broadcasting was like when it all began.
BROADCASTING IS FIRST ENVISIONED:
In its beginning years, radio – then known as “wireless” – was considered a point-to-point communication medium. The practice of one-way broadcasting to a mass, unseen audience began almost unnoticed in 1920 when a handful of low-power experimental stations scattered around the country transmitted to a small cadre of ham operators and hobbyists. But then suddenly, in the spring of 1922, it exploded into America’s mass consciousness and became the nation’s overnight craze. On January 1st of that year there were just 28 licensed broadcast stations in the entire country, but by year’s end their number had exploded to 556. That year, consumers spent more than $60 million on radio equipment.
Americans were spellbound. Before radio, the only means of mass communication had been via the print media, and long-distance communication was only achieved by mail, telegraph or telephone. The receipt of news, weather or crop reports took hours, days, or even weeks in some places. If you wanted music, you could only hear it by attending live concerts, listening to scratchy phonograph records, or performing it yourself. But then suddenly, with just a modest investment in some radio parts, wires and batteries, any ordinary citizen could hear a live orchestra playing in a city a thousand miles away; farmers could get instant weather alerts or the day’s market prices; and politicians could talk to voters across an entire region at once instead of making dozens of whistle-stop speeches. In short, the introduction of radio broadcasting had as much impact in the 1920’s as computers, Internet and cellular phones have changed our generation.
CRUDE AND DISORGANIZED:
For us today, it is hard to imagine how different radio broadcasting was nearly 100 years ago. Astoundingly, during the first few years, all stations were found at just two places on the dial – 360 meters (833 kHz) for “news, lectures, entertainment”, and 485 meters (619 kHz) for “crop and weather reports”. Early radio receivers, like RCA’s Aeriola Sr., had only rudimentary and broad tuning controls because there was no need to separate more than these two frequencies.
For the listener, radio programming was like a continuous vaudeville show, with changing acts being presented by different stations every hour or less. For one hour, the listener might enjoy live entertainment and a clear signal from one of the more powerful Class “B” stations. But then that station would then sign off and be replaced with the scratchy signal of one of the weaker Class “A” stations, frequently suffering from poor audio quality, AC hum, and a wandering frequency. Music from these smaller stations would be provided by a phonograph, player piano, or the occasional live volunteer amateur vocalist. Some stations came on the air several times daily, while others transmitted only a few hours a week. A station might come on the air for just a few minutes at noon to give a local time check and weather forecast, and then shut down in favor of another station at 12:05
In smaller communities with just one or two broadcasters, this time sharing on a single frequency was not a problem. The stations would simply work out an agreement between themselves to avoid overlap, probably leaving more time for each broadcaster than it could likely fill. But larger cities were a problem. The West Coast and Northeast were early-adopter regions, and had more stations than could be accommodated. In June of 1922, San Francisco had 18 stations, Los Angeles had 23, Seattle had 9, and New York City had 10. In these cities, it was challenging to work out a schedule that was satisfactory for all participants. In some cases, the broadcasters failed to reach an agreement, and two stations would transmit at the same time, drowning each other out. Government officials refused to arbitrate such disputes.
Even in cities with multiple stations, programming on 360 meters was not continuous. If a station was situated near an ocean or major waterway, it was required to sign off briefly at the top of every hour while the operator listened for emergency calls on the 600 Meter marine distress frequency. There was also the “DX Night” tradition, where local broadcasters would all agree to remain off the air one night a week so radio fans could tune for distant stations without local interference. This policy was generally observed in most cities until about 1925.
ALL STATIONS, BIG AND SMALL:
Generally, the more powerful Class “B” broadcasters were owned by serious businesses which provided ample financial backing. These included newspapers, department stores, large corporations such as RCA, GE, Westinghouse, and early receiver manufacturers like Grebe and Crosley. A Class “B” station was required to operate with at least 500 watts and could only broadcast live programs – phonograph records were prohibited. To relieve congestion, some 35 of these stations nationwide were assigned to a third channel, 400 meters (750 kHz) in late 1922. Then in 1923, the AM broadcast band was expanded from 550 to 1500 kHz and the Class “B” stations were given their own channels, or at worst shared time with just one other station. (This change obsoleted millions of rudimentary receivers that were incapable of separating the stations.)
Class “A” stations, on the other hand, were lower power - as little as 5 watts - and were often shoestring operations. Even after 1923, they all continued to share the 360 meter “no man’s land” channel on a revolving schedule. The operator could be a radio parts retailer, church, university radio club, or even an overgrown ham station broadcasting from a private home. These stations existed only as a hobby operation, or to promote the interests of the owner. For example, a radio store owner in Wilmington built WBBN because there were no local radio stations to demonstrate his radios. When a customer walked into the store, they would switch on the 10-watt transmitter and play a record. When the customer left the store, they shut down the station.
Radio advertising in the 1920’s was not tolerated by either the government or the public, and most stations operated either as a goodwill public service or a self-serving promotional medium. Operating a broadcast station was not cheap, even when relying on volunteer program talent. A Western Electric 500- watt transmitter cost $10,500 in 1922 ($160,000 in today’s dollars). A 250-watt transmitting tube was $110 and lasted for just a few hundred hours. Consequently, numerous stations folded after a few years when they discovered that the cost did not justify the benefits. It was only after advertising became tolerated in the early 1930’s that broadcasting became a profitable and stable business.
EARLY BROADCASTING PROGRAMMING:
In those early years, there were no station “formats” – every station broadcast a potpourri of programs, and listeners scanned the newspaper schedules to select the ones that interested them. Program fare on the higher-quality stations consisted mostly of live music concerts interspersed with news bulletins, sports scores, and weather forecasts. Added to this was the occasional lecture or poetry recital, and church services on Sunday mornings. Even though stations operated for only parts of a day, it was a challenge to fill the schedules with continuous talent, especially considering that performers were almost never paid. Much of radio’s music was performed by aspiring amateur performers, with these unpaid artists rotating through the studio every 10 to 20 minutes in a kind of continuous “amateur hour” performance. Sopranos were preferred to baritones or tenors, as their voices came through the listener’s horn speakers better. If a station did manage to attract a professional artist, the best they might do would be to send a limousine to pick them up, and perhaps present a bouquet of flowers. Well-known performers who were in the city on tour often broadcast without pay just promote their local appearances. Then the newspaper-owned stations would give those artists glowing reviews the next day in their radio columns. Song pluggers, who paid singers to perform their songs in order to sell more sheet music, were another source of free live music.
Pioneer WWJ announcer “Ty” Tyson explained the process: “The talent would come over to the office and tell us what they could do … we didn’t rehearse them, we took their word for it.” He would schedule them for a time slot, and they would wait in the reception area outside the studio until called in to broadcast. Tyson would listen to them on the control room monitor, and then move the artist towards or away from the microphone if needed.
Almost all musical entertainment was conservatory music – operatic vocalists, string trios, quartets, and pianists. It was what radio historian Erik Barnouw called “potted palm music” – generally considered high culture at that time. Grand opera was common, but it could be interspersed with band or orchestral performances and spiritual works. Most stations avoided playing jazz or popular music, believing it to be uncultured. In fact, many stations proudly advertised that they played no jazz. A few relented by inviting local jazz bands, but only for late night performances.
The occupation of “radio announcer” was brand new, and nobody had yet created a job description. Most announcers were hired more for their musical capabilities than for their pleasing voices or elocution. It was a common occurrence that artists would fail to show up for their broadcast, and the announcer had to be ready to substitute at the last minute with a vocal or piano solo. If the talent was late, he would need to ad lib some useful chatter to fill the time. Famed WJZ announcer Norman Brokenshire once stalled for time until, finally at a loss for words, he threw open the window and thrust the microphone outside, announcing “Ladies and gentlemen -- I give you the sounds of New York!!”
A VISIT TO A 1920’s RADIO STUDIO:
If you were to visit a radio station in the early 1920’s, you would probably find it inside a hotel. A pair of rooftop towers was a good indication that the building hosted a station. This common arrangement benefitted both the hotel and the broadcaster. For the station, for the cost of a few hundred feet of microphone cable they could broadcast live music nightly by the hotel’s ballroom orchestra. This was good publicity for the hotel, as the broadcasts drew diners to the restaurant. Additionally, it was considered it a mark of distinction to have the building crowned with a radio antenna, a symbol of the latest in modern technology.
The studio was typically located in one or two converted guest rooms, and heavily lined with “monk’s cloth” canvas and carpeting to reduce room echo, which resulted in an acoustically “dead” sound on the air. Every studio needed a grand piano, usually loaned by a piano store, with the store name prominently emblazoned in big letters. Smaller stations would also have a windup acoustic phonograph and/or player piano, and the music would be picked up by simply placing the solitary microphone in front of them.
Microphones were, in fact, the only source of program audio. The more modest stations repurposed carbon telephone mics, while the well-heeled stations could afford a higher-fidelity double-button carbon microphones, or even one of the early condenser microphones – the “gold standard” of the era.
Mike fright was a common problem among entertainers who were accustomed to singing or playing before a live audience -- the mike responded with nothing but silence. Ingenious methods were devised to disguise the microphones to look like lamps or other familiar objects to reduce performance anxiety. Some stations even gave their microphone a nickname – such as the staff of one station that christened its microphone as “Julius”. Some of the more affluent high-brow stations constructed artistically decorative studios, creating the atmosphere of a music conservatory to put musicians at ease.
The transmitter, instead of being located in the studio, was in most cases found on the top floor of the building close the antenna, accompanied by the audio master control panel. In addition to operating the transmitter and keeping the station on frequency, the operator’s main job was to manually ride gain on the microphone sound level to keep from overloading the transmitter. The microphone switching and level adjustments required some means of silent communication between the announcer and transmitter operator, which was often done with a system of signal lights. At some stations, the operator used this signaling to communicate back to the studio, telling the performer to move closer to the microphone, farther away, or to be louder or softer.
The audio master control panel was usually adapted from telephone technology, and consisted of black rack panels filled with amplifying and switching equipment. Patch cords or key switches selected the desired audio source, usually fed into an audio amplifier with an accessory volume indicator meter for level adjustment.
EARLY BROADCAST TRANSMITTERS:
A few well-financed stations of the era had the luxury of a factory-made transmitter. Western Electric was the only company making broadcast transmitters at the time because they held patents on most of the essential radio circuits. Their highest power model in 1923 was 500 watts. However, only 35 of the 600 stations on the air in 1923 had Western Electric rigs. The rest operated home-built transmitters of widely varying quality. These ranged from professional quality to tabletop breadboards, and varied in powers from 5 watts to 1,000 watts.
Crystal frequency control and MOPA (Master Oscillator – Power Amplifier) designs did not exist until later in the 1920’s. The earliest broadcast transmitters were essentially self-excited free-running high-powered oscillators coupled with a Heising modulator stage. Before a transmitter was allowed to broadcast, it needed to be inspected by the region's government radio inspector. Modulation of 50% or less was typical, and DC power was provided by motor-generators and batteries, as high-power rectifier tubes did not yet exist. A front-panel frequency adjustment kept the rig “approximately” on frequency. The radio inspector would sometimes make a pencil mark on the dial to indicate his measurement of the correct frequency setting, but even then the rigs tended to drift off their assigned channels by several kilocycles. The ensuing heterodyne interference with other stations was a constant source of listener complaints.
Antenna systems were an adaptation of the common shipboard configuration of the time - a flat-top “T” having a single uplead tied to multiple horizontal wires. Horizontal counterpoise wires tied to the building’s steel frame and transmitter formed a signal return path. The antenna itself was the capacitive part of the transmitter’s output tuning network, which caused the frequency to drift whenever the wind blew the antenna around. These inefficient antennas tended to favor skywave radiation over local ground waves, which was a benefit at that time, as listeners liked to listen for distant signals. It was a common belief in the 1920’s that an antenna needed to be as high off the ground as possible for best coverage. It was not until the mid-1930’s that broadcasters discovered a ground-mounted radiating tower with ground radials provided the best coverage in their communities.
RADIO BECOMES BIG BUSINESS:
As its development progressed towards the end of the 1920's, broadcasting gradually matured from its crude apparatus and amateurish programs into a multi-million-dollar industry, becoming the primary source of entertainment for millions of Americans in the following decade. Concepts such as radio drama and variety shows were developed and refined, and commercial advertising funded the production of ever-bigger and better programs. Networks were formed, connecting many stations together with telephone lines to present high-quality programs that were beyond the capabilities of most single stations. The technology of audio transmission was improved, and major investments were made in elaborate studio and transmitter facilities. As often happens as new fields mature, the early pioneers were pushed to one side as big business swept in and took over. The broadcast medium had shed its infant clothes.
Today we can only imagine what it was like to have been one of those first pioneer broadcasters who flipped a switch, picked up a hand-held microphone, and wondered at what words they should speak.
originally appeared in the June, 2020, issue of the Spectrum Monitor