How Early Radio Became Popular
by Alex Cosper
September 25, 2019

Radio as an industry rose in the 1919-1920 period following World War I, as bans were lifted on radio transmission. GE and Westinghouse began mass manufacturing of radios and owned radio stations that showcased the new technology as America's first mass medium over the airwaves. Radio connected consumers with products in a more instantaneous way than ever before.

The Power of Print, Word of Mouth, Credit and Networking

The popularity of radio spread through word of mouth and through the existing media, such as newspapers and magazines. Many news organizations across the country were early owners of radio stations. Through cross-promotion and stories published in newspapers, the masses began to learn radio was more than a novelty, or a utility for railroads, planes and ships. Less than 100 licenses for radio stations had been granted by the end of 1920, whereas hundreds of stations were licensed by the end of 1922.

Radio sets found their way into living rooms as modern furniture pieces, such as the Radiola Grand, manufactured by RCA-Westinghouse for 1923. This unit cost consumers $325, which was very expensive for the average household. But consumers were introduced to credit in this era and were able to finance their modern lifestyles through credit. For awhile musical instrument maker Wurlitzer got into the business of building cabinets for radio. RCA's Radiola 60 was considered a state-of-the-art radio cabinet for its time in 1928.

Another way radio grew in popularity was in response to display models of radio receivers at electronics stores and department stores, some of which owned stations. Church groups also owned stations and were able to get congregations to listen. In the early days of unregulated radio several owners shared the same dial position, in which a transmitter was allowed to broadcast a limited signal distance in meters. That meant that separate transmitters could be used to broadcast on the same frequency, potentially creating bleeding signals at the same time.

By the mid-twenties stations were beginning to fund themselves through commercials and other forms of sponsorships. It was common for a station owner to be its own sponsor of its other properties. With the rise of national radio networks NBC, CBS and Mutual, it was possible for program creators to put their shows on national networks without owning radio properties. Radio networks that carried the same national programming were linked together with AT&T's telephone technology, so that national news could be delivered in real-time to all affiliates.

Radio Audiences Grow Across America

The 1920s started as an economically roaring decade that ushered in many new technologies that changed the cultural landscape. In many ways the 1920s marked the end of the horse and buggy age and the beginning of mainstream Americans owning modern items such as cars, telephones and radios. By the end of the decade, as the Great Depression set in, over 100 million radios were in use throughout America. Listening to radio became a major pastime in America because it was free entertainment once you purchased a receiver.

By 1925 the broadcast band for AM radio consisted of frequencies from 550 kHz to 1500 kHz. Standards for the radio industry were set in the next few years by industry leaders attending Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's four conferences from 1922 to 1925 on developing radio as an industry. These ideas led to the Radio Act of 1927. Throughout the decade the sales of radio equipment in America grew from $12 million to over $842 million.

The growth of radio audiences in the early 1920s helped increase the popularity of jazz, blues and country music. Jazz and blues records first started gaining national press and appearances on lists of best-selling titles in 1917. Two of the big 3 record labels of the era, Columbia and Victor, flooded the recording market with jazz records. Edison's label, however, resisted the jazz trend and went out of business following the market crash of 1929.

A Century of Radio Stories




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