When World War I ended, it didn’t go unnoticed what a powerful role radio communication had played in the outcome. Led by the General Electric Company, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was formed in October of 1919. With guidance from the federal government, RCA brought together GE, Westinghouse, and AT&T to develop the radio broadcasting industry in the United States.
In the early 1920s, no one knew what radio might become. RCA would be the entity to coordinate the manufacturing and sales of all radio receivers. They held all the patents from GE, Westinghouse and AT&T and it was RCA that would authorize others to use these patents to produce radio receivers, as well as collect and distribute the royalties to the patent owners. GE, Westinghouse and AT&T could manufacture equipment for their own use, as well as build and operate their own radio stations.
The Interstate Commerce Commission
Initially, the regulation of radio broadcasting fell under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). In 1920, interest in broadcasting ranged from amateurs to experimenters and businesses. Some talked, some played music, and some began broadcasting news of local interest and weather reports. In an effort to bring some order to what had become a chaotic broadcasting environment, the ICC decided to place amateur broadcasters into the less desirable air space, below 200-meters, as well as restrict the type of broadcasting they could air. Amateur broadcasters had to agree that their radio stations could no longer air weather or market reports, music concerts, entertainment, speeches, news or other similar information. The ICC would begin to issue a new broadcast license on the 360-meter band for radio broadcasters that would be licensed to provide such services. All the members of RCA, including RCA itself, would begin to build radio stations. Westinghouse would be the first to establish one of these new radio stations, with their own inhouse amateur radio enthusiast Dr. Frank Conrad, and what became KDKA in Pittsburgh on November 2, 1920. Westinghouse followed this station with WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts and WJZ in Newark, New Jersey.
However, Westinghouse management quickly realized that merely providing a superior broadcast service, which would create demand by the public to buy the new radio receivers they manufactured, would be futile if their broadcasts were harassed and interrupted by uncontrolled amateurs disrupting their ability to be heard.
Quality vs. Quantity
The ICC now had a new problem on its hands. Broadcasters interfering with other broadcasters, and what kind of culture should America’s new, growing middle class, be hearing through their radio sets? Since the decision had been made to not have radio be government controlled in the United States, broadcasters said they needed the government to regulate radio in order to help establish order and control.
Westinghouse proposed a solution to the ICC, to create two classes of commercial radio service.
Broadcasters on the current 360-meter band would become Class A broadcasters and a new service on the 400-meter band would be reserved for Class B broadcasters.
In order to qualify as a Class B broadcaster and receive higher power authority (500 to 1,000 watts), the licensee would need to never play phonograph records on the air, or any other kind of recorded material. Class B broadcasters would only air live talent and performances. Such a requirement would insure the public was receiving radio entertainment that was unique and original and not available on any other radio station.
The new license would also mean that only wealthier and more established organizations would be able to afford to operate radio stations under these new conditions.
Westinghouse’s concept, having government and business working together, was a way to “improve” radio broadcasting through restricting it to “responsible” parties without stepping on anyone’s First Amendment rights as to what a radio broadcast should consist of.
The Radio Act of 1927
This act laid the foundation for what radio broadcasting in America would be for the next several decades. The first being that radio broadcasting would not be open to everyone, but restricted based on quality. The feeling being that Americans would be better served by a few quality broadcast radio stations, rather than a plethora of mediocre ones. The new act also introduced the hard to define concept of “operating in the public interest.”
Radio, unlike newspapers or the movies, was to become a government regulated medium, with decisions about quality and public interest being made through an alliance of government and private interests.
And it was with the Radio Act of 1927, that America decided that radio broadcasting would be a commercial medium operated in private hands. Radio would support itself through the selling of advertising.
Today’s Radio Marketplace
From June 1927, when 705 commercial radio stations were on-the-air in America (all on the AM band and most with transmitter power of under 1,000-watts) to June 2019, we now have 25,819 radio stations (21,209 FM / 4,610 AM) with transmitter power up to 100,000-watts on the FM band and 50,000-watts on the AM band.
The concept of quality over quantity is certainly no longer the guiding principle.
The Ad Pie
As I read about how radio revenues are doing, I’m struck that both public and private radio broadcasting companies are reporting that local advertising revenue is dismal for Q2. However, major radio stations that enjoy eating from the national trough, saw this category of advertising as their only bright spot for radio ad revenue.
While digital revenue is hoped to be a new area to grow advertising revenues for radio broadcasters, the reality is that Facebook, Google and Amazon are already gobbling up about 90% of those dollars, so how fertile is this area for broadcast radio?
Reading comments being made about radio advertising conditions, I was struck by what Beth Neuhoff, CEO of Neuhoff Communications had to say when Radio Ink asked her, “what are local advertisers saying about the economy?” She responded by saying: “Local advertisers seem less focused on the economy and more concerned about over-saturation of the competitive landscape.”
It’s something that I believe the radio industry should be just as concerned about when it comes to OTA (over the air) broadcasting.
Gone are the days when putting another broadcast station on-the-air is a license to print money. People who aren’t use to quality, always will chase quantity.
6 responses to “The Birth of Radio in America”
Excellent short history of radio broadcasting! I learned things I never knew before. I think it also points out one of radio’s greatest problems: emphasis on quantity rather than quality in most markets.
Every community, no matter how small, should be served by at least one local station, but every station has to provide programming that is informative, relevant to the community, and entertaining if it expects to attract and hold listeners. To me, that means live, local, original work by professional broadcasters who strive to provide what its audience needs as well as what the audience wants.
Stations (and individual broadcasters) that “slack off” dilute the marketplace and ruin things for all of us. Would you really have so many competitors if your station was doing its very best to serve your community? Or are you slacking off somewhere, and allowing other stations to take some of your potential audience? How many of your current competitors would really be “competition” if you were doing your very best, in every department and every daypart, all the time? How many competing stations could you, for all practical purposes, put out of business just be being the best local station your can possibly be?
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Thank You Walter for sharing your perspective.
WKDZ in Cadiz, KY is just such a local radio station that super-serves its market. They are a leader in how to do great radio today.
Good article, Dick. I do think the opportunity is there for creative local broadcasters to get a piece of the digital pie more readily than one might think. In our very small rural market, very few businesses are currently doing any digital advertising other than perhaps free on Facebook. Many small businesses have no web site! There’s a gap here that perhaps digitally savvy broadcasters can fill and monetize. I’m working on it but I’m not getting any younger!
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I don’t disagree. I’ve seen the great job a local broadcaster can do in WKDZ in Cadiz, KY. The problem is, they tend to be more the exception than the rule Maynard.
You keep fighting the good fight in your market.
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