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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Before TV, there was radio

"Hello, Mr. Radio"........Electric Light Orchestra, 1973

Election Day in 2010 was on November 2 and the broadcast media crush was quite a contrast to the November 2, 1920 Election Day, exactly 90 years before. Unlike 2010, 1920 was a presidential election but there was no television flowing into the nation’s homes to influence voters. Radio was even in its infancy so the main form of campaigning was through the “whistle stop” which took candidates across country campaigning in every significant town via the platform on the back of trains.

James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt were the ticket for the Democrats. Their opposition for the Republicans was Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Cox and FDR did whistle stops from August until Election Day but it didn’t help as the Republicans won.

That election was the beginning of media coverage for election returns. A guy named Frank Conrad, who worked for Westinghouse was desperately, along with his crew, completing a radio transmitting station on the roof of the tallest building on the Westinghouse campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their goal was to be ready on election night to broadcast the returns to the few folks in the area who had radios.

On October 27, the facility was complete and given the call letters KDKA. On November 2, four men recorded the election numbers that were received from the Pittsburgh Post via telephone and a gentleman named Leo Rosenberg read them over the air through a clumsy array of wires used as a microphone.

On that night broadcasting was born. The next day, the Westinghouse switchboard was flooded with calls from people wanting to know how they could get a radio. Radio had the excitement in the 1920s that the Internet would have many years later. Imagine if you can how those people felt in that era. One day, they are seeing live entertainment in clubs or theaters and the next they could turn the knob on a box of tubes in their living rooms and get the same entertainment for free.

During the 1920s, many colleges had radio clubs and as the decade progressed, sporting events like the baseball World Series were broadcast along with many highly followed prize fights and musical programs. Election results continued to be important programming. Today, we have several TV networks on election night feverishly reporting every trend and vote throughout the night and into the early morning.

Eventually, entertainers like singer Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Amos ‘n’ Andy ruled the radio waves through the 1930s and into the 1940s as radio was a primary form of entertainment until about 1950 when Television started replacing it as a major entertainment forum. By then the “Golden Age” of radio was over.

Today, radio is mostly used as background entertainment for music or to possibly listen to a sporting event while doing something else.

Frank Conrad died in 1941 at 67 but he got to see radio flourish from the humble beginnings at KDKA to the number one form of entertainment at the time of his death.

 Frank Conrad and crew feverishly broadcasting election returns
                 in November 1920 to the few people who had radios.

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