Success of radio stations tied to WWI


In the prosperity of the 1920s, two great changes took place in American society.

First, by the end of the decade more than half of the nation’s population was living in towns and cities, and second, the birth of and incredible rapid development of new technology, geared to the mass production of consumer goods, was here to stay.

Automobiles, movies, music, newspapers, book publications and the radio were new industries that were to make major changes in the American culture. But, it was that permanent piece of furniture called a radio that brought the world into the living room.

KDKA broadcast

On Nov. 2, 1920, the airwaves near Pittsburgh crackled with an unprecedented sound. Beginning at 8 p.m., the tiny transmitter of radio station KDKA broadcast for the first time a scheduled public radio program — the returns of the 1920 Presidential election. Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., owner of the station, had announced the event in advance, and its success set off for the new radio industry a boom of enormous proportions.

KDKA’s successful transmission of Warren G. Harding’s landslide victory over James G. Cox signaled the beginning of a new era. The Republicans were in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, prohibition was in effect, and radio broadcasting had begun.

The birth of the remarkable, cultural innovation resulted from a series of fortuitous circumstances.

A desperate move

KDKA’s broadcast was really a desperate move by Westinghouse. The company for some time had been a leader in the large vacuum tube and telegraph industry, but the end of World War I brought cancellation of lucrative war contracts and the company found itself caught in a corporate squeeze.

Its great rival, General Electric (GE), along with American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and the new Radio Corporation of America (RCA), controlled the profitable field of international communication, as well as the vacuum tube — a device which had unlimited potential.

Birth of radio

Modern radio technology had begun in Germany when Heinrich Hertz, between 1886-1888, demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves. Utilizing this knowledge, Guglielmo Marconi of Italy in 1895 developed the first wireless telegraph. Great Britain was the first nation to explore this knowledge with military and industrial applications.

The next major phase of radio technology came in 1901 when Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian and protege of Thomas A. Edison, discovered that he could transmit not only sound but also the human voice.

Father of Radio

In 1907, Lee DeForest patented a modification of the vacuum tube. By adding a third element, called a grid or “audion,” he increased the efficiency of the device both as an amplifier and a detector. As a result of this invention, he earned for himself the title, “Father of Radio.”


This flurry of activity at the turn of the century produced a cadre of highly skilled radio technicians called “hams” whose interest was primarily that of amateur scientists, but bought millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and produced a pool of highly skilled radio operators.

One of these “hams” was David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant and soon to be the leader of RCA. He manned an American Marconi wireless set and kept in contact with the ships helping to rescue passengers of the Titanic in 1912. Sarnoff’s dramatic effort captured the public’s attention and also the major communication and electrical companies in the potential of wireless telephony.

Help from WWI

Radio’s future was still hazy when World War I began. The “war to end all wars” was a blessing for radio. Its promise had been dimmed by the prospect of many costly and time-consuming patent disputes. Because of the war the United States government suspended all patent disputes until after the conflict and pushed forward full production of vacuum tubes, receivers, transmitters and a whole range of electrical equipment.

Race to capitalize

When the war ended it was merely a matter of chance as to who would first dramatize the possibilities of radio. In Pittsburgh, some Westinghouse workers were experimenting with radio for some time and began “ham” broadcasting using a transmitter built by a company executive named Frank Conrad. Another company officer, Harry P. Davis, became aware of the commercial possibilities of radio when he learned that a local merchant selling wireless sets mentioned that the sets could pick up Conrad’s “ham” broadcasts.

In New York, Sarnoff also sensed the potentiality of a huge market for radios and declared that radio might become as popular in homes as the phonograph. In January 1920, he urged the newly-formed RCA Co. to market radio music boxes at $75 each and make a huge profit. Unconvinced, RCA decided to research the idea.

Success realized

When KDKA broadcasted the election results in the Fall of 1920, everyone became convinced of radio’s great future. Westinghouse’s fortunes were rescued, and it assumed leadership in the field. It soon joined with other important patent holders — General Electric, United Fruit, and American Telephone & Telegraph — in an alliance aimed at control of the industry.

Members of the industry at first expected to earn profits primarily through the sale of transmitting and receiving equipment. The early programs, which were usually informal, emphasized entertainment, music, and dramatic events like the World Series in 1921.

Money in advertising

Broadcasters soon realized that radio could earn profits through the sale of advertising time. The role of radio as an advertising medium began on Aug. 22, 1922, when WEAF in New York sold a 10-minute “spot” for a commercial message.

As the radio mania swept the country, it soon became apparent that the industry would have to be regulated to prevent chaos. The Commerce Department (1923), then the Federal Radio Commission (1927), and finally the Federal Communication Commission (1934), were given authority by Congress to license stations and to determine the power, wavelength, and hours of operation.

By 1940, 730 of the 900 privately owned stations were organized into four nationwide networks. In newscasting and in presenting political campaign, the radio industry was at its best, especially if organized around personalities.


On Sept. 26, 1926, Warren P. Williamson Jr. started a 73-year family ownership of the first Mahoning Valley station. He stretched a wire antenna out the basement window of his home and announced: “that WKBN was on the air.”

That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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