Fundamentals of Radio Broadcasting: The Development of Radio Broadcasting

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The concept of contemporary broadcasting began with a memo written by David Sarnoff to the general manager of the Marconi Wireless Tele graph Company of America. The idea he expressed was to "bring music into the home by wireless."' This concept seems obvious to us now, but in 1915 it was a new idea. Radio had been born only 19 years before, when Guglielmo Marconi filed for a British patent on a device for the wireless transmission of telegraphic signals. Not until 1901 was the first radio signal sent across the Atlantic Ocean.

[1. Sydney W. Head, Broadcasting in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), p. 132. ]

Before Sarnoff’s memo, wireless transmission was seen as a point to-point method of communication-one person to another. It had been used as a means of transmitting messages and news events, but to individuals, not to a broad audience. Furthermore, radio was conceived as an information, rather than an entertainment, medium. The only sound the system could produce was an unvarying tone. This was switched on and off to form the dots and dashes of Morse code, and in this way messages were sent and received. Those who knew the code and had receiving sets were few in number, and so David Sarnoff’s memo seemed to suggest only a remote possibility. In order to send music into homes, a way had to be found to modulate wireless signals with sound, rather than merely chop them up into short electric impulses. This transmission system of sound -modulated radio frequency signals became known as radiotelephone communication. As early as 1908 Lee De Forest, an American inventor and pioneer in radiotelephony, broadcast phono graph recordings from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and in so doing, became the first disk (rather, cylinder) jockey. In 1910 he attempted a broadcast with Enrico Caruso from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but microphones were then of poor quality and the voices were barely understandable.

By 1912 there were over a thousand amateur radio operators in the United States. In that year Congress passed the Radio Act, which was to be the first in a series of laws regulating radio communications. The Radio Act of 1912 proved to be ineffective because Congress had failed to make any provision for enforcement. Authority to administer the act was given to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but it had power only to issue licenses, not to establish rules and regulations. In 1920 broad casting became a reality, putting even greater strain on the limitations of the Radio Act.

Commercial Development

There is some disagreement on the date and place of the first commercial broadcast. KQW in San Jose, California, began in 1909 and by 1912 was running regularly scheduled programs for a general audience. But the station often given credit for being first is KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While there may have been others operating on a regular basis, KDKA was the first station to be issued a license by the Commerce Department for the specific purpose of broadcasting. The station was owned and operated by Frank Conrad, an engineer for the Westinghouse Corporation. Westinghouse was beginning to manufacture radio receivers and could see the possibilities in broadcasting. Dr. Conrad had been regularly playing phonograph records on the air and making announcements of various sorts, sometimes accommodating people who wanted to hear specific selections; this was perhaps the first request program. Westinghouse bought the enterprise and constructed a transmitter specifically for the purpose of broadcasting. On November 2, 1920, the new station, KDKA, went on the air with the returns of the Harding -Cox election-the first news report from a licensed broadcasting station.

But KDKA inaugurated another far-reaching concept. In addition to music and news, the station gave information about radio kits that were manufactured by Westinghouse and sold for $10 at Horne's Department Store. Radio commercials had been born.


By the mid 1920s it was clear that the Radio Act of 1912 was inadequate. After being licensed, stations were changing their power and frequency, and there was nothing the Commerce Department could do about it.

Furthermore, the act did not make any provision for denying a license, and there were more applications than there were available channels. In 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Commerce Department had an impossible task, but it was not until four years later that there was new legislation.

In February 1927, a new Radio Act was passed-the first to recognize the concept of broadcasting. It established a five -member board, called the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), that was appointed by the President. Even more significantly, the Radio Act addressed itself to the philosophy the government was to maintain toward the radio industry. It acknowledged that broadcasting was a unique service; that the "air waves" and the channels into which they were to be divided belong to the people; that not everyone was entitled to or could receive a broad casting license; that broadcasting was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment; that service must be equitably distributed; and that the government had discretionary regulatory powers. Both the philosophy and the structure of this act were later incorporated into the Communications Act of 1934. The 1934 legislation will be discussed in more detail in Section 3.


The years that followed the Radio Act saw tremendous developments in broadcasting, culminating in what we now call the "golden age of radio." This prodigious period ranged from the late 1920s until the late forties when television began to dominate electronic entertainment. The golden age spanned two decades that were highlighted by lovable personalities, stalwart heroes, hilarious comedians, insightful commentators, creative drama, and sentimental music. Best of all to a nation of people struggling through a depression, it was all free. For many it was virtually the only form of entertainment available.

The Rise of the Networks

The commercial concept of broadcasting had been established by station KDKA and Westinghouse. There was money to be made in broadcasting, but it required the organization of big corporations. The first of the big networks, NBC, was formed in 1926 by RCA, General Electric, and American Telephone and Telegraph. It was actually two networks; AT&T operated what it called the Red Network, and RCA had the Blue Network. This arrangement was not only very confusing to the public, but to announcers as well. In 1927 the Columbia Phonograph Company incorporated what is now the Columbia Broadcasting System. This net work was quite successful in increasing the fortunes of one of its advertisers, the Congress Cigar Company of Philadelphia. Its sales doubled in one year. The advertising manager of that company, William Paley, became intrigued by the success of CBS and began to devote his energies to broadcasting rather than to the marketing of cigars. He eventually be came chairman of the board of CBS and retained the position for 50 years.

The networks were responsible for the memorable programs that were produced in the 1930s and 1940s. Local stations were not able to pay the large sums that were necessary to attract the big-name entertainers. Small stations had to rely on local talent and phonograph records, programming fare that could not hope to compete with the network shows. In the mid-1930s almost half of the existing broadcasting stations were affiliated with networks, and few of the others were making money.

In addition to being responsible for the popularity of local stations, the networks made stars out of a number of small-time entertainers. Vaudeville was the training ground for the broadcasting studio, and almost any act that was adaptable to the sound medium was given a chance. Some of the acts had to be modified, such as that of a performer who had been billing himself as the World's Worst Juggler. He might have retained that title had he not changed his name to Fred Allen, abandoned juggling, and become a comedian. The networks tried whenever they could to advance the careers of talented people. Not for altruistic, but for monetary reasons. The public loved it when an unknown performer became a star. This social characteristic was responsible for the success of the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, which launched the careers of many per forming artists as well as entertainers. Among them were Robert Merrill, Vic Damone, and Frank Sinatra.

It was difficult then as it is now to predict what combination of personalities would be a hit on radio. An important factor was the partnership. For some reason performers on radio seemed to do better in pairs. The evidence for this is Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber Mc Gee and Molly, Bob and Ray, Lum and Abner, and the Easy Aces. Perhaps the most successful pair on radio were Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who in 1928 began syndicating a program called Amos 'n' Andy. For 20 years the series was one of the most popular programs on the air. Patrons in movie theaters would get up in the middle of a film to step into the lobby and listen to Amos 'n' Andy. While the two per formers became legendary, their popularity terminated in the fifties as a result of the visual element introduced by television.

A Medium of Sound

Television was responsible for the demise of many programs that had been popular on radio. One factor was that characters in a drama often did not look the part. Sometimes heroes did not appear to be heroic, and heroines were not the gorgeous creatures described. Furthermore, sets were less elaborate. No television studio could ever devise a set that could compare to the one created in the imagination. The visual element put severe restrictions upon script writers. Considerably less can be done when images are confined to that which can be seen. On October 30, 1938, there occurred a phenomenon that could never be duplicated on television. It was the radio production of The War of the Worlds. When the characters in the Orson Welles drama began describing the invasion of the Martians, millions of people all over the country "saw" it in their minds, and this "staging" was more realistic than that created in Star Wars. Through the medium of sound, audiences could be transported instantaneously anywhere in the world. The only set designer needed was a sound effects man with a creative imagination. Scene changes were effected by means of musical "bridges"-short musical passages, a few seconds in length, that suggested transitions in time or space. Timing was an essential factor, because dramatic programs were seldom more than 30 or 60 minutes in length. Each program had to fit into the "block" of time allocated for it.

Block Programming

Block programming is a term used to refer to the policy of dividing the broadcast day into segments. At one time it was common practice, but today only a few stations select that option. Television retains the block programming concept, but not radio. Program blocks were usually in 15-, 30-, or 60 -minute segments, and the time was sold in its entirety to a single sponsor. In the early days of broadcasting we spoke in terms of "radio programs," and each one was a separate unit, with its own introduction and conclusion. People would listen for the specific programs of their choice and were very much aware of the time that each one started.

There was also very strong sponsor identification during the days of block programming. Listeners were as familiar with the products advertised as they were with the performers on the program. The term "soap opera" was coined to refer to all of the human interest dramas that were sponsored by soap manufacturers. In those days listeners knew each brand of soap as well as they knew the characters in the drama. Often the announcer who read the commercial would have a role to play in the program. Sometimes he (almost always male) would serve as the narrator and, occasionally, as one of the personalities. Don Wilson, for example, was as much a part of the Jack Benny program as any of the other entertainers, but his primary function was to read the sponsor's message.

The strong identification was very advantageous to the sponsor. The listener's loyalty to Jack Benny was extended to Don Wilson, and subsequently to Jell-O or to Lucky Strike or to whatever other product was advertised on the program.

The fact that radio has moved away from the block programming concept is a significant one. It has taken away the influence of the sponsor and put the responsibility for programming into the hands of the local station. In the early days of radio the sponsors made all the important decisions. They were the ones who decided whether a program would continue or be cancelled; they hired and fired performers and announcers. They provided the money and they had the power. Their 15 -or 30- minute block of time was their own to do with as they wished. This is no longer the case. Radio stations sell air time on a participating basis.

The advertiser buys only a spot announcement of one minute or less in length and has no control over the programming of the station. The change came about in the 1950s when stations began to realize that people were no longer listening to individual programs, but to the radio station itself. And they wanted the "sound" of the station to remain more or less consistent throughout the day. A modified form of block programming may be heard today on radio stations that choose to pro vide variety in the type of music that is offered. The segments may be several hours in length at a particular time of the day, and might feature concert, operatic, or "easy listening" music. Occasionally you may find a station that offers an advertiser the option of buying a block of time at a special rate, but, for the most part, commercial stations choose to pro gram a consistent "sound" throughout the day and sell air time in short, spot announcements.


In the years after World War II a new dimension was added to radio broadcasting-frequency modulation. Along with the invention of radar during the war, considerable other development had been done with radio transmission in the very high frequency range. The Federal Communications Commission set aside the band from 88 to 108 megahertz (then called "megacycles") for commercial and noncommercial broad cast, utilizing FM transmission. FM produces sound of much higher fidelity than AM and was designed in the beginning as a music medium.

While FM is limited in the distance it can cover, its superior sound quality and, now, stereo capability make it a most valuable medium of broadcasting. FM has a wider frequency band. It is measured in millions rather than thousands of cycles per second. There are two hundred thou sand cycles between each FM channel and the next-an interval wider than the entire AM band. The wider range permits clearer tones in stereophonic as well as monophonic sound. Technology is now available to provide stereo on AM, but the quality will still not be as good as that on FM. Furthermore, some FM stations have begun to experiment with quadraphonic sound. These new developments will mean, of course, that new receiving sets (or, at least, adapting equipment) will have to be purchased by the public; this is one of the factors of marketing that has always played a part in the growth of the radio industry.

In 1945 there were only fifty FM transmitting stations in the country. There were not many receivers either, and advertisers were reluctant to spend money on commercial messages that would be heard by so few people.

Growth was rapid in the early years, and by 1949 there were 743 stations. But there was a decline after that, when FM stations failed to become as popular as had originally been expected. One reason was that recording facilities had not been able to match the quality of transmission. Live music sounded excellent on FM, but recorded music still left much to be desired. Sales representatives found it difficult to sell time on FM stations and continued to look to AM for financial solvency. Most FM stations were owned and operated by AM broadcasters who would simply duplicate the programming on both stations. This practice is called simulcasting and was quite common until the FCC put some restrictions upon it. FM limped through the fifties without coming close to the expectations of its founders.

In 1965 the picture began to change for FM. The FCC ruled that not more than 50 percent of its programming could be simulcast. Broad casters began to sell their FM "outlets" to independent operators, and FM started to develop an identity of its own. At the same time, recording equipment had improved, stereophonic sound had become a reality, and the public was beginning to trade in its old equipment for new models.

As the number of FM receivers increased, so did the financial climate of FM broadcasting. Today there are twice as many FM stations as AM, and the advertising dollar is shared about equally between the two.


Ever since the Radio Act of 1927, the federal government has had difficulty in defining its regulatory power over broadcasting. The Radio Act made clear that broadcasting was protected by the First Amendment and at no time was the FRC (later the FCC) intended to impose censor ship upon radio stations. But difficult questions have arisen in regard to the broadcasters' responsibility to the public. One of these questions has to do with the matter of indecency. In the early 1970s radio talk pro grams became quite popular. At first the programs dealt with local and national issues, but as society became more permissive, the subject matter started to change. Topics on talk shows switched from social issues to sex. People who called in were quite willing to discuss the intimate de tails of their own sex lives. The public loved it and so did the broadcasters. Ratings soared on the talk stations. But at the same time, letters of protest began to flow in. Eventually the FCC had to take action.

WGLD-FM in Oak Park, Illinois, was fined $2,000 for violating the FCC rule pertaining to obscene and indecent material. But the case was never appealed to the courts and the FCC ruling remains indecisive. In a more recent case, station WBAI-FM, in New York, was cited by the FCC for playing a recording by comedian George Carlin called Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1978 that the FCC does have the power to impose fines on stations which broadcast material that is "patently offensive" and without socially redeeming value.


The question of government regulation over program content was one that was anticipated by broadcasters. In 1937 an organization was formed known as the National Association of Broadcasters. The purpose was to establish a self-regulatory agency to minimize the need for government intervention. The NAB framed a Radio Code and revised it in 1945. In the Radio Code, acknowledgment was made of the fact that standards for broadcasting can never be final or complete, but are subject to periodic revision as social attitudes and mores change. The position of code authority director was established to "maintain a continuing review of all programming and advertising material presented over radio . . . to receive, screen and clear complaints concerning radio programming . . . to define and interpret words and phrases in the Radio Code . . . [and] to develop and maintain appropriate liaison with governmental agencies. . . ." [2]. In addition the code prescribed for the quantity and quality of advertising, the treatment of children's programs, and the handling of controversial issues. Most broadcasters have found the NAB code to be reasonable and recognize the validity of its standards. Yet, membership in the association is voluntary, and some stations choose to set their own guidelines.

[2. National Association of Broadcasters, The Radio Code, 1976, p. 21.]


Radio transmission spans a history of just over 80 years; broadcasting less than that. The names we will remember in the electronic phase are Marconi, Hertz, and De Forest; in programming and general development we will remember Sarnoff, Conrad, and Paley. The first corporations instrumental in radio's progress are Westinghouse, AT&T, General Electric, and RCA. The golden age of radio will always be a memorable period in the history of the United States, having contributed much to the entertainment and information needs of our citizens. FM has developed slowly but is now finally coming into its own. The ethics of the broadcasting industry will perhaps always be in question, and, as social standards change, there will be a continuing need for reevaluation.


Block programming


Participating (advertiser)

Point-to-point communication





Sound-modulated radio signal



1. Visit your public library and see if it has a record collection of old radio programs. Listen for the sound effects and music bridges to see how the director sets the stage and brings about the transitions.

2. Buy a kit in a hobby store to make a crystal set. See how many stations you can pick up. Think of the progress that has been made in the development of radio receivers. Consider the quality of the sound and the difficulty in finding stations.

3. Write and produce a radio drama in the style of the old-time radio plays, using sound effects and music bridges. Record the production in a 15- or 30 -minute block of time.

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