Happy Birthday — Radio

On November 2nd, 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburg, PA broadcast the first regular radio transmission in the US — the Harding-Cox presidential election results.  Only about 5000 people owned radios at that time, and no one was quite sure how to use this new technology.

Some wanted radio used for the good of everyone, funded by the government (which didn’t happen until National Public Radio (NPR) was established in 1967).  But commercial interests won out when WEAF (later WNBC) in New York began selling advertising in 1922.

Radio advertising soon proved very effective, and the impact was profound.  For the first time, advertising could enter private places on its own; there was no way to ignore an ad if you wanted to listen to that program.  As a result, a completely different relationship between the general public and commercialism began.  With constant reminders about products and options coming over the airwaves, the concepts of status and identity, and success, became linked to shopping.

Radio also had far-reaching effects in other ways, from providing instant news and a political mouthpiece to shaping public opinion.  And once we grew accustomed to radio advertisers speaking to us directly, it was easy to accept television, and then the Internet.

This all came about because Lee de Forest invented an amplifier in 1906 that made broadcasting possible.  What did he think of the commercialization of radio?  “What have you done with my child?  You have sent him out on the street in rags of ragtime to collect money from all and sundry.  You have made of him a laughingstock of intelligence, surely a stench in the nostrils of the gods of the ionosphere.”

And that’s why I listen to NPR.

The complete story is at  https://writersalmanac.org/page/3/.


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