Radio

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

Radio wasn’t invented in the United States. It rested on the work of many man, mostly Europeans, throughout the 19th century, culminating in Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. He was awarded the first (British) patent for a radio wave wireless telegraphic system, and he is credited with turning radio into a global business. Brazilian priest Roberto Landell de Moura transmitted the human voice wirelessly in a public experiment in the year 1900, and was awarded fundamental patents by the Brazilian and American governments.

Nor, at first, were Americans particularly in the forefront. The Japanese Navy used it while scouting the Russian fleet in 1905. Passenger liners began carrying “wireless” transmitters; when the British liner Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic, in April, 1912, radio transmissions made its condition known to other ships, and to stations on shore, which was a first. In World War I, both sides used radio to communicate with their armies and navies, and Germany, when it realized that the British were tapping into its submarine (telegraph) cables, began using radio to communicate with its overseas diplomats. However, Americans learned fast, and toward the end of the year, the contents of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points were transmitted to the German government not by the circuitous route that would have been demanded by the fact that so many other sources had been cut, but by radio.

And then after the war, radio experienced a boom the way personal computers did at the end of the century.

In August, 1920, station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan, broadcast the first news program. Two months later, station 2ADD introduced public entertainment broadcasts, with the first of a series of Thursday night concerts. Initially, these were heard within a 100-mile radius, but that soon expanded tenfold. Throughout the 1920s – not just in the United States but in much of Europe, and to a lesser extent elsewhere — new stations were starting up, and people were buying radio receivers, and advertisers were beginning to see just how profitable the new medium could be. The late 1920s saw the beginning of what is called the Golden Age of radio, which lasted until it was supplanted by television in the mid-1950s. For nearly three decades, commercial radio broadcasts brought news, music, and entertainment to people’s homes– for free. (Well, free once the radio was paid for, but as greater numbers were manufactured, the price fell steeply, and anyway it could be bought “on time.”)

Radio transformed politics, allowing charismatic personalities to reach people literally by the million, rather than one group at a time. Franklin Roosevelt used it to bypass the largely hostile newspaper chains, and speak directly to the American people. His occasional “fireside chats” communicated emotionally as well as factually, and helped him build a solid constituency that trusted him through thick and thin throughout the hungry thirties.

Others learned how to use it, too. One was Canadian-born Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest.” As his peak, his weekly broadcasts had a listenership estimated at thirty million – in a country of maybe 120 million. At first a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, his National Union for Social Justice called for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor. Gradually his hatred of bankers led him first to anti-Semitism, and then to tacit support of fascism. (His career is very interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Coughlin) He was perhaps the prototype of the televangelists, before the advent of television.

The effect that the radio had in opening up the world to people is hard to over-estimate. Before radio, people’s day-to-day contact with the outside world consisted of newspapers and magazines; their entertainment was local. With the coming of radio – particularly with the coming of radio networks that could pipe the same programming all over the country at the same time – suddenly your isolation was ameliorated. It didn’t matter how far out on the plains or how far back in the woods you lived, you could hear the same shows they were listening to in New York City. In a sense, the world was shrinking; in a sense, your personal world was expanding. We’ve seen it happen again with the World Wide Web: Suddenly people have access to information and interaction that previously was inaccessible to any but those who could afford to travel to get it.

Radio accelerated an on-going process of turning a collection of subcultures into one American culture. It would take a good while yet for the transformation to take place, but it was a big, big step when those flat Midwestern voices began coming into the living rooms of homes in New England and the east, and throughout the south, and the far west, and the mountain states, no less than in their native Midwestern flatlands. It began, or accelerated, the process of the various parts of America learning to talk more like each other on a nationwide, rather than a regional, basis.

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