view of "Radio Daze" area of exhibit

Radio Daze

Election Day – November 2, 1920 – ushered in a new era as well as a new President. Radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh made the world’s first commercial broadcast, carrying election returns in the battle between Rpublican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox. By the end of 1922, there were 508 radio stations across the country, followed soon thereafter by the nationwide corporations of NBC and CBS. Radio sales rose from $10 million in 1920 to $852 million in 1929 when this new media could be found in over 12 million homes.

Families gathered around to listen not only to music but news, sporting events, comedy and lectures. It enabled everyone to hear the same opera, for instance, at the same time, no matter their social status or cultural background. It was a great leveler of society for radio “reached the illiterate as well as the literate.” It became the first instant media as people could hear the news as it happened, and radio allowed a politician to address the largest audience in history by simply speaking into the microphone. People gathered around the set to hear of Lucky Lindy’s historic flight or Dempsey knocking out Louis Firpo or the latest adventures of Amos ‘N Andy.

As a mass media, radio competed with newspapers for the almighty advertising dollar as a new venue for marketers opened. Business could now promote their products over the airways in dozens of cities at once, offering sponsors the greatest marketing target ever created. Some newspapers resisted this new messenger while others like publisher William Randolph Hearst bought their own stations, sometimes creating a media monopoly in a town. It wasn’t long until radio came under guidelines of a newly established Federal Radio Commission (the forerunner of today’s Federal Communications Commission), regulating an industry that was growing by leaps and bounds.

Those who lived during the 1920s became the first generation in history to instantly hear the decade’s events unfold as Presidents were sworn into office, the stock market rose, and the country hung on every word about Henry Ford’s pathbreaking new car, the Model A.