A Century of Radio Stories:
KDKA Kicks Off Broadcasting
by Alex Cosper
September 12, 2019


KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is considered by media historians to be the radio station that kicked off the broadcasting era in 1920 when it reported the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election on November 2, 1920. The broadcast was from the roof of a factory owned by defense contractor Westinghouse. In 2019 KDKA is a news/talk station owned by Entercom.

Several other stations have tried to claim credit as the first to resemble modern broadcast programming, but KDKA meets more of the following critical criteria than the others:

1. operated on radio waves
2. delivered noncoded signals (voice, not Morse Code)
3. offered continuous, organized programming
4. was intended for the general public
5. licensed by the government as per the Radio Act of 1912


In 1920 only 30 radio stations were licensed in America, but by May 1922 there were over 200. Most of these stations did not broadcast 24 hours a day and many owners shared the same dial position. Perhaps it's hard for anyone today to imagine a time when no one had any concept of what broadcasting was or could do. Radio as an invention had been around since the 1890s, but it was mostly used by the military, hobbyists and inventors.

Birth of the Radio Audience

There was no huge radio audience in 1920 because there weren't many stations and not many people had receivers yet. General Electric began mass marketing radio receivers in 1919 once the radio ban was lifted following the end of World War I. But it was still considered a novelty that not many people knew what to do with. Its utility at the time was providing ship to shore or air to ground communication in the military and commercially. Westinghouse had been a player in building radio equipment during WWI, but by the end of the war GE had taken control of manufacturing radio receivers with the formation of RCA, in which Westinghouse was an investor.

Dr. Frank Conrad had been a Westinghouse engineer during WWI who developed KDKA in 1920, which started as his own amateur station 8XK in his garage. On October 17, 1919 Conrad began doing a series of entertainment broadcasts on his station. He used it to deliver recorded music and report sports scores. While other stations did similar activities, Conrad's shows began getting newspaper coverage. He hired his sons as announcers and pianists for shows that also played records, borrowed from a nearby record store that got mentions in exchange. On May 2, 1920, the Conrads got newspaper coverage because of their Saturday night piano concerts.

Then Horne's Department Store in Pittsburgh set up a display model of a radio receiver, selling "amateur wireless sets" for starting at $10. The store placed an ad in the Pittsburgh Sun to promote the sets, which also promoted the Conrad concerts. This ad caught the attention of Westinghouse VP Harry P. Davis, who met with Conrad the next day to discuss building a bigger transmitter for the Westinghouse plant. Davis was amazed by the idea of selling radio sets to the public and envisioned something bigger for radio than just the amateur world. He wanted a station for the November 1920 election and wanted to turn it into regular continuous programming.

Conrad was put in charge of the project. Westinghouse applied for its license on October 16, 1920 to operate a regular broadcasting service. Eleven days later the station was notified by the Commerce Department that it had been issued the call letters KDKA, but was also allowed to use the call sign 8ZZ.

The election night broadcast started at 8pm and continued after midnight on a 100 watt transmitter. It turned out listeners far outnumbered radio sets, as crowds gathered in public places to hear the election returns. Harding, an Ohio newspaper owner (Marion Star), as predicted, won by a landslide over Cox, also an Ohio newspaper owner (Dayton Daily News), who became head of a large media chain that still exists today.

From Pittsburgh to National Broadcasting

From that point on KDKA began doing nightly broadcasts and the rest is history. The station aired a speech by Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover about European relief from the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh on January 2, 1921. KDKA made history again on August 5 of that year, delivering the first pro baseball game on radio, which was between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

The idea of talking on the radio to an audience around the clock was a radically new concept for the early 1920s. Another important detail about early commercial radio was that it was all on what is now the AM band, as FM was not developed until the 1930s, but remained "underground" until the 1960s. Hoover oversaw the radio industry as Secretary of Commerce under President Harding. Hoover initially had all stations in a market share the same dial position, although operating from different locations. Then in 1921 he allocated the 618 kHz frequency for "crop and weather report" stations and 833 kHz for "news and entertainment." The Commerce Department, however, gave KDKA its own frequency at 920 kHz in 1923.

Soon as more radio ventures gained licensing there was a big mess of stations interfering with each other and not always operating on licensed frequencies. It was very much the "wild west," but it also became difficult to hear broadcasts bleeding into each other. Hoover hoped he did not have to intervene, envisioning radio as part of the "free market." The Radio Act of 1927, however, set ground rules, including eliminating portable stations, restricting the number of stations that operated at night and creating the standard band for AM radio broadcasting.

In the beginning the first radio audiences were the early hobbyists. From there as the radio became a commercial product in stores, owners began to promote their stations to their existing markets. Early radio owners besides The Radio Group (GE, RCA, Westinghouse) and AT&T were typically department stores, newspapers, schools, churches and electronic shops.

The story of radio grew bigger in 1926 when Westinghouse, RCA and GE formed the first major broadcast network that's still around today, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The network split into two networks under the same ownership, known as NBC Red and NBC Blue. KDKA joined the Blue network and then began selling advertising for the first time, ending its era as a commercial-free station. In 1928 the station moved to 980 kHz then in 1941 to 1020 kHz, where it has remained ever since.

SOURCES:

1. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting by George H. Douglas, McFarland Classics
2. Broadcasting in America, Fourth Edition by Sydney W. Head with Christopher H. Sterling



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