A Century of Radio Stories:
Nationalization of Radio Networks
by Alex Cosper
September 24, 2019

The ability for humans to communicate in real-time over long distances through technology had existed since the middle of the 19th century with the telegraphy, but it involved knowing Morse Code. The concept of broadcasting to an audience over the airwaves was new in the 1920s, as radio developed as an industry. The main players in shaping early wireless technology were AT&T, Westinghouse, GE and its subsidiary RCA. AT&T was building a network of stations that it sold to RCA in 1926, which led to the formation of the NBC radio network.

NBC faced competition from the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1927 and the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) in 1934. The Radio Group (GE, RCA and Westinghouse) represented a group of stations controlled by the owners, whereas the AT&T and Western Electric stations were designed to sell blocks of air time to show hosts. AT&T called this service "toll broadcasting" and made patent agreements with the Radio Group during this time, as it shaped the framework for the earliest radio advertising.

AT&T announced in early 1922 it would launch a nationwide commercial radio network, starting with flagship toll station WEAF in New York City. The network concept allowed for different station owners to share the costs of programming and linking the stations together through telephone lines. By the end of 1922, as the number of stations had surged to about 500 in the United States, AT&T added another station to the network, WCAP in Washington D.C., forming what it called the "WEAF Chain," which expanded in the northeast.

President Calvin Coolidge delivered a speech that became the first transcontinental broadcast in history in early 1924. It was carried on 23 radio stations on AT&T's network, known as the Broadcasting Corporation of America. The network also carried Coolidge's 1925 inaugural address. By the end of 1925 the WEAF Chain had grown to 26 affiliates. It was a network designed to be sold in the short-term.

In 1926 AT&T agreed to sell its network assets to RCA, which announced on September 13 it was forming the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) based on the assets it acquired from AT&T. In the company's announcement, as published in the Reading Eagle, it stated "it is hoped that arrangements may be made so that every event of national importance may be broadcast widely throughout the United States." When NBC's network launched on November 15, 1926, the network spread from the northeast to WDAF in Kansas City, Missouri.

On January 1, 1927 NBC divided its programming into the Red and Blue networks, but the differences were subtle. WEAF was a flagship station for NBC Red. NBC Blue carried less shows, less popular shows and more experimental shows awhile selling air time at lower rates. Network programs were commonly owned by their sponsors and produced by advertising agencies. At the time show owners bought air time from the network. NBC added the Orange network on April 5, 1927, reaching the west coast with KGO in San Francisco.

The NBC Symphony Orchestra provided national concert performances on radio from 1937 to 1954. This era featured many band and orchestra leaders running radio programming. Well known band leaders of the era who hosted radio shows on NBC included Nat King Cole, Tommy Dorsey, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman, Carmen Cavallaro, Stan Kenton, Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo.

NBC was required by the FCC to divest one of its networks in 1942, so it sold off the NBC Blue network, which became American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The Red network simply called itself NBC from then on. Then a tax rate controversy in 1948 caused several NBC performers to switch to CBS, including Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra. CBS created a new structure so that performers would be taxed at lower rates from forming corporations with capital gains, while NBC head David Sarnoff called this approach unethical.

Starting in the 1950s NBC began to focus on its television network. In 1975 the company created the NBC News & Information Service (NIS) for its local radio affiliates using an all-news format. In the late 70s NBC started a secondary network called "The Source" to provide short features to FM rock stations. NBC completely exited the radio industry in 1987 when it sold to Westwood One for $50 million.

Early Days of the Grand Ole Opry

An early country music radio show called "Barn Dance" started on WSM in Nashville by George D. Hay in November 1925. A similar show hosted by Hay called "National Barn Dance" had aired on WLS in Chicago a few years earlier. The show began to brand itself as home of the "Grand Ole Opry" on December 10, 1927. National Barn Dance became an hour long national radio variety show featured on the NBC Red Network in 1939, running through 1956. This show played a major role in popularizing country music to a national audience.

Sports and Radio Dramas

Baseball, boxing and wrestling events were regularly covered on radio in the 1920s. KDKA in Pittsburgh became the first station to air baseball games, starting with a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies in 1921. Mutual Broadcasting held the rights to carrying the World Series since 1939 and the MLB All Star Game since 1942. NBC, however, won the rights to these major sporting events in 1957, although it had exclusively broadcast them since 1947. Baseball games played an important role in both the popularization of radio and television.


1. Broadcasting in America, Fourth Edition by Sydney W. Head with Christopher H. Sterling

A Century of Radio Stories




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