Radio broadcasting

Radio broadcasting
Radio broadcasting

Sound communication via radio waves, typically through the broadcast of music, news, and other programs from a single broadcast station to a large number of individual listeners with radio receivers. Broadcast radio has astonished and pleased the public since its inception in the early twentieth century, offering news and entertainment with a speed and immediacy never previously imagined. From around 1920 to 1945, radio became the first electronic mass medium, monopolizing “the airwaves” and defining an entire age of mass culture alongside newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures.

Radio’s programming and role began to change around 1945 when television first appeared. Broadcast radio remained the most widely available electronic mass medium in the world, albeit its importance in modern life did not rival that of television, and it faced increased competition from digital satellite and Internet-based audio services in the early twenty-first century.

Radio’s early years

Canadian experimenter Reginald Fessenden generated about an hour of chat and music for technical observers and any radio amateurs who might be listening in December 1906 from Brant Rock, Massachusetts (just south of Boston), the first voice and music transmissions were heard through radio waves. Over the next few years, many more one-off tests took occurred, but none of them resulted in regularly scheduled services.

Charles (“Doc”) Herrold, for example, on the West Coast of the United States, began running a wireless transmitter in conjunction with his radio school in San Jose, California, around 1908. Herrold was soon broadcasting speech and music programs on a regular basis to a tiny local audience of amateur radio operators, possibly the first such service in the world.

The ability to “listen in” with earphones (as there were no loudspeakers) and occasionally hear voices and music developed in popularity during the decade leading up to World War I. Despite this, few people heard these early broadcasts—the majority just heard about them—in part because the only receivers accessible were those constructed by radio enthusiasts, the majority of whom were men and boys. Crystal sets, which used a tiny piece of galena (lead sulphide) called a “cat’s whisker” to detect radio signals, were among these early receivers.

Crystal sets were difficult to tune in to a station while being popular, affordable, and simple to construct. Because the results of these tests were dispersed, there was no market for produced receivers. (Plug-in radio receivers, which allowed radio to become a “community experience” through the use of loudspeakers, would not become widely available until after 1927.) Early American broadcasters, such as Herrold, would continue until early 1917, when federal government limitations drove most radio transmitters off the air for the remainder of World War I, thus halting the medium’s expansion.

The Golden Age of American radio

The Golden Age of American radio as a creative medium lasted, at most, from 1930 to 1955, with the 1940s serving as the genuine high point. One of radio’s best talents, writer-producer-director Norman Corwin, ruefully said that radio’s most creative era was “the shortest golden age in history.” Dramatic radio, on the other hand, prospered and was a key component of American society during its brief heyday. People arranged their personal schedules around their favourite programmes, just as they did with television in later decades. Popular expressions from popular programmes became part of the vernacular, and people arranged their personal schedules around their favourite programmes, just as they did with television in later decades.

A new commercial medium

The need for regulation

Active broadcasting came before strong government policy in the United States. As radio became more of a business, station owners got together to lobby for more stringent government licencing regulations. From 1922 through 1925, Herbert Hoover, then-Secretary of Commerce and in charge of radio policy, organised four national conferences, each of which petitioned Congress to update the only existing (and antiquated) broadcasting rules, which were enacted in 1912 to control ship-to-shore broadcasts.

Initially, all stations in the United States were required to operate on the same frequency, 833 kilohertz (kHz), and stations in the same area were required to share time to avoid signal interference. The arrival of two more frequencies, 619 kHz in December 1921 and 750 kHz in August 1922, helped a little, but most major cities had far more than three stations, therefore shared-time arrangements were still in use. In May 1923, most frequencies between 550 and 1,350 kHz were turned over for broadcast usage at Hoover’s request. The Department of Commerce, on the other hand, lacked the authority to refuse licence applications or impose frequency restrictions.

The role of advertising

Initially, all stations in the United States were required to operate on the same frequency, 833 kilohertz (kHz), and stations in the same area were required to share time to avoid signal interference. The arrival of two more frequencies, 619 kHz in December 1921 and 750 kHz in August 1922, helped a little, but most major cities had far more than three stations, therefore shared-time arrangements were still in use. In May 1923, most frequencies between 550 and 1,350 kHz were turned over for broadcast usage at Hoover’s request. The Department of Commerce, on the other hand, lacked the authority to refuse licence applications or impose frequency restrictions.

In order to stay afloat, radio stations looked for government assistance, financial gifts, voluntary contributions, or a levy levied on listeners (the latter is an approach already adopted in some countries). As a government function, a few cities or states ran radio stations.

When the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) began selling time for “toll broadcasting” on their New York City radio station, WEAF, the company brought advertising to American radio. Its first radio commercial, a 15-minute real-estate ad advertising flats in Jackson Heights, Queens, was broadcast on August 22, 1922. However, because broadcasters did not want to insult listeners, radio advertising took a long time to gain acceptance. Early advertising promoted an institutional image, similar to the “underwriting” announcements on public radio.

The development of networks and production centres

By the late 1920s, it had become clear that individual stations could easily share the cost of offering programming as part of a larger network service with national appeal, signalling a major shift in American broadcasting. The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) was the first such network, founded by David Sarnoff, the general manager of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), who wanted the company to do more than just make radios. On November 15, 1926, NBC began broadcasting across 19 stations from New York to Kansas City, Missouri. Graham McNamee, the announcer for flagship station WEAF in New York City, presided over the inaugural broadcast, which featured guest performers such as humorist Will Rogers, who spoke from Independence.

With this broadcast, a new era in radio began. Early radio stations had a limited sphere of influence, but these “clear channel” stations, which broadcast at 50,000 watts on a frequency unique to their outlet, could be heard across a large portion of the country, and as a result, some early radio personalities rose to regional or national prominence. Following the introduction of the networks, nationally recognised radio stars began to emerge. NBC had two networks, the Red and the Blue, with a total of 25 stations by the beginning of 1927; more would join later.

Amos ‘n’ Andy, NBC’s daily 15-minute situation comedy in which two white guys (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) played two black taxicab drivers in Chicago, was by far the most popular early network series. The show debuted on Chicago’s WGN station in 1926 as Sam ‘n’ Henry and immediately became a national sensation when it moved to the network in 1929 under its current name. Despite the fact that the show’s characters are insultingly stereotyped by today’s standards, it was extremely popular with both white and black radio listeners at the time, with theatres frequently interrupting movie showings to push a radio on to the stage for the nightly broadcast.

Rating systems

As radio became a commercial force, it became vital to measure the popularity of specific programmes in order to calculate the price of advertising time on the programme. In 1930, the Association of National Advertisers and the Cooperative Analysis of Broadcasting established the Crossley Report, a rating system in which thousands of individuals were polled by telephone and asked to recollect the programmes they had been listening to. Another company, C.E. Hooper, developed a refinement of this. The company would make random phone calls to residents of 36 major cities. Those who responded were then asked to name the radio show they were currently listening to if they had one.

The tally yielded an estimate of the number of people watching a particular show; a rating of 14.2 signified that 14.2 individuals out of 100 called were watching a certain programme at the time of the call. Along with this “Cooperating,” as it was known at the time, the audience share of a certain programme was listed; this was calculated by dividing the rating by the number of sets in use at the time. The A.C. Nielsen Co., which equipped thousands of listeners with an audiometer, was another company that measured audience response. A stylus scratched a signal on paper tape that indicated which station radio was tuned to at any given time.

A new art form

Commercial phonograph records termed “descriptive specialities” had long-established the techniques of radio drama, in which sound effects formed a setting, vocal attributes created characterizations, and distance from the recording device indicated the players’ relative positioning. Audiences learnt to imagine their own images to accompany purely aural dramas, just as they had learned to imagine their own images to accompany motion films without sound. Golden Age radio used speech, sound effects, music, and sometimes narration to construct pictures with sound by enlisting the help of the listener’s imagination. As a result, the best radio writers were those who could think visually and create their concepts solely through sound.

Radio acting

During the 1930s, a group of dependable actors and actresses who mostly worked in radio emerged. These actors were capable of vocally mimicking a wide range of dialects and ages. In many cases, a single actor will play two or more characters in a single programme. The capacity to switch mental gears and shift from one voice to the other was required of an actor who “doubled” in this way. A radio actor did not have to physically resemble a character. When playing in successive programmes on different stations, a versatile actor would typically appear on a variety of shows, and he or she could create inventive ways to travel from one studio to another swiftly. Some actors, such as Orson Welles, would hire an ambulance to get them to the hospital faster.

Some radio shows were recorded in studios with only technicians and performers present, while others were performed in front of a live audience. Audiences seeing a broadcast in the early days of network radio were advised not to make any noise, as it was thought that this might confuse the listeners at home. Comedian Eddie Cantor, on the other hand, needs laughter and applause, and during his time as host of NBC’s The Chase and Sanborn Hour (September 1931 to November 1934), he did everything he could to make the audience laugh out loud. The laughing of the audience was contagious, and Cantor’s strategy won out. Since then, most comedy and variety programmes have relied on the live audience’s reaction as an indicator of success.

Sound effects

As the popularity of dramatic radio grew, so did the demand for realistic sound effects. Some sound effects formed the scene’s background, such as crickets chirping, an owl hooting, and a coyote howling in a story set in the woods at night. A library of unusual recordings was used to create some of the effects. A radio sound-effects crew could use a battery of turntables to play many recorded effects at the same time for some sequences. Other effects were performed vocally, with some artists specialising in infant cries, animal sounds, or bloodcurdling screams.

Many of the dynamic sound effects were created with props, which were often created by sound-effects experts themselves. Thunder was made by shaking a big sheet of metal; galloping horses were reenacted by smashing coconut half-shells in a sandbox, and footsteps in the snow were reenacted by pounding cornstarch sacks. To replicate the sounds of telephones and doors, specially constructed boxes were created. To recreate the sounds of footfall, sound engineers kept a huge stock of shoes and varied floor surfaces on hand.

Radio music

Unique musical parts designed to help advance a story grew in popularity as radio’s narrative style evolved. Musical bridges were employed to connect scenes and may have signalled a shift in tone from funny to dramatic. “Stings” were musical cues that came in abruptly and dramatically, frequently shortly after an actor had spoken a line signifying a fresh twist in the plot. Many radio shows had different theme tunes, and some of them were inextricably linked to specific performers.

A single organist to a full orchestra could be used on any particular programme. Composers and conductors on CBS were extremely talented. Mark Warnow, Raymond Scott (known for his eccentric pseudo-jazz works played with his Quintette), and Lud Gluskin were among the CBS conductors. Lyn Murray and Bernard Herrmann were among the composers; the latter went on to create acclaimed scores for films directed by Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and others after composing scores for radio series such as Columbia Workshop and The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Golden Age programming

Origins in vaudeville

Much of the early American radio programming sounded like the popular vaudeville theatre circuit, from which many of radio’s early personalities emerged. Announcers were frequently chosen not just for their voice quality, but also for their ability to play the piano or another instrument to fill in holes in programmes. Because few stations could afford to hire artists, early shows focused on what was available, such as a professor debating a topic, a visiting singing star, or a local band. Music was the most popular genre, accounting for two-thirds to three-quarters of most stations’ steadily increasing airtime. Almost the majority of the remaining time was devoted to some sort of discussion or informational stuff. Stations like Westinghouse’s KYW were uncommon.

As a result, a typical broadcast day consisted of a series of unplanned segments devoted to chat, music, or humour, each lasting as long as it sounded “appropriate.” Early commercial radio broadcasting resembled a small-scale “mom-and-pop” operation rather than a well-oiled corporate machine. During the first decade of commercial radio (the 1920s), the broadcast day was frequently filled with anyone who was available. The pioneer broadcasters were the first to be tasked with providing entertainment and information for a significant portion of the day and evening; as a result, in the 1920s, just about anything audible that was slightly intriguing was paraded before the microphones. Gale Gordon, who went on to become a prominent supporting actor on numerous 1940s radio shows, remembers making his debut over the radio.


Comedy shows were among the most popular and long-running shows on radio. Many of the first comedians in the genre acquired their craft in vaudeville. The daily practice of playing in front of a variety of audiences refined their timing, which was crucial for radio. Early comedy shows resembled vaudeville performances. From 1932 until 1935, Ed Wynn, who played “The Fire Chief” for Texaco gasoline, stood on a stage and delivered jokes, with announcer Graham McNamee serving as his straight man. Many comedians embraced the narrative techniques of dramatic radio as the medium grew, either performing a sketch during the show or changing the format of the entire performance to a story-style show.

Jack Benny’s show, which first aired in 1932, is a good example. During the 1940s, it evolved from a revue to a story presentation, frequently taking place in Benny’s house, with Benny and his guests exchanging banter and then performing a sketch with the guest star of the week. Benny and his writers employed sound in a way that no other comedian had done before. In a 1972 documentary, his pal George Burns observed:

Variety shows

The variety show, which featured a mix of comedy and song and almost always featured a singing host and a guest celebrity for the week, was very popular at this time. A comic sketch was frequently incorporated into the proceedings. A popular dancing orchestra was frequently used in the early versions of the style. For example, The Goodrich Silvertown Orchestra, which aired on NBC from 1926 to 1928 and was called for its sponsor’s tyres, was an hour-long programme that included “the Silver-Masked Tenor,” a singer whose identity was kept hidden. Rudy Vallee, a singer-saxophonist-bandleader who starred in The Fleischmann Yeast Hour on NBC for a decade starting on October 24, 1929, was the true creator of the variety programme. The wavy-haired heartthrob not only sang and played dance music but also interacted with the audience.

From 1932 through 1939, singer Al Jolson, hailed as “the World’s Greatest Entertainer,” featured on various variety shows, but his greatest radio triumph came when he took over as host of The Kraft Music Hall from October 1947 to May 1949. That series, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to Bing Crosby, who presented it for a decade starting in 1936. Crosby had already established himself as a top recording artist and had starred in several blockbuster films, but his weekly radio appearances in America’s homes cemented his status as the country’s most popular performer. Crosby had a laid-back but sophisticated demeanour. He was a good light comic, and he had a thing for strange and alliterative terms, which his head writer expanded further.

Anthology shows

Anthology shows on radio featured casts and storylines that were completely different from week to week. These programmes gave some of radio’s best artists a chance to shine, as their abilities were too outstanding to be limited to the more formulaic shows. Orson Welles and Norman Corwin were two of the most notable.

By 1937, Welles was one of the busiest radio actors, and his Mercury Theatre team was causing a stir on Broadway. He was a regular on The March of Time, where he played The Shadow on a weekly basis. Welles’ success in the theatre led CBS to offer him an hour-long weekly show called The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The scripts were written by Welles’ partner, John Houseman, and published by Mercury.

With a landmark broadcast on October 30, 1938, Welles became a household name: a dramatisation of H.G. Wells’ fantasy story The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion. Welles had decided to remake the story (which was originally set in England) as a current American incident, which would be broadcast on television in news bulletins. The presentation was explicitly labelled as a dramatisation from the beginning. Many listeners, on the other hand, listened in halfway through what they mistook for a series of legitimate news reports. Affiliate stations began reporting listeners’ frightened reactions, which began in New Jersey (where writer Howard Koch had placed the “invasion’s” beginnings) and moved across the country.

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