A Comprehensive Account of American Radio History: From The 19th-Century to Digitalization

12 mins read
An old black radio in a black and white background showing American radio history.
By: Mirza Mustofa on Unsplash



Statistics showed that 88.1 percent of Americans (between 35 and 64 years old) had access to radio per week in 2021, including men and women, and it increased by four percent in older men who were 65 years old and above.

While another report showed the consumer behavior regarding radio consumption in the U.S., which was 99 minutes in the first quarter of 2020 and only decreased by three minutes from the same period of 2019.

One more data study showed the revenue of the U.S. radio market was 10.01 billion U.S. dollars in 2020 and claimed to reach 11.76 billion dollars industry by 2024.

American Radio History

The data above clearly indicates that there’s still room for radio in people’s hearts, especially; American radio reached its peak on its advent in the early 20th-century, hinting at the American radio history.

1. Radio’s Reputation

The thought of radio still being a people’s pick might sound like an old-school thing in this modern age of the internet. But the effects of what was once used as radio technology on today’s telecommunication and high-tech environment are genuinely eye-popping.

There was no turning back when the radio industry reached a larger audience. For its variety of services, be it news, weather reports, sports, or entertainment, radio broadcasting had emerged as the most trustworthy source due to its existence for more than a century now when the mistrust in today’s social media was rampant.

A brown shade radio on a shelf and pictures around it.
By: Paul Okrema on Unsplash. Copyright 2021

In this post, it continued to be a trustable electronic media during the pandemic that also helped in community building and a feeling of mutuality, said Abe Thomas, CEO of Reliance Broadcast Network Limited. The same feeling radio provided in its initial years during the war when American radio history brought the nation together.

When it comes to radio advertising, Anupama Singh, Consultant – Content Management of Carat India, informed that it’d keep growing because of its reach in rural and uncharted areas and cost-effectiveness for small businesses.

Radio’s survival to this day can be seen by the fact that youngsters between 12 and 35 years old listened to online radio in the U.S. in 2021, with 86 percent of them listening in a month. The monthly consumption of online radio has even increased in older adults.

The radio industry has its roots worldwide, and especially American radio history has a cultural history worth knowing. How about digging deeper? Well, that sounds like a plan.

2. Basics – How Does a Radio Work?

When you usually speak, your voice can travel up to 20 m at a point, and in case of a shout, it goes up to 100 m. So distant communication was a chore back then. It used to take forever to send messages using wires. Thus, scientists needed a system that could make communication seamless.

Electromagnetism sorted it out. The radio transmissions were less time-consuming as EM waves can match up to the speed of light as it travels through space at 299,792 km per second (around 186,282 miles per second). The first radio transmission by Marconi was around 2000 miles – a landmark in the history of radio.

So, radio networks use EM waves for their far and wide reach. It starts with a human voice creating vibrations which are changed into electric signals using an electric device. These vibrations are sent through transmitters after modulating to adjust the information you want to convey.

The data sent by the radio waves or carrier waves (which are of low frequency and energy) can’t travel independently because of their low power. So, it’s modulated by using amplification or frequency modulation (AM or FM modulation) and then sent through the antennas at the light’s speed.

The waves move through space, and the radio receivers on the other side detect the required signal with the help of a detector and boost it with an amplifier. The detector then starts the demodulation process to detect necessary information. The signal then passes the speaker and becomes audible by the vibrations it produces.

Two kids trying to turn on the radio.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels. Copyright 2021

Apart from the analog radio, more digital radios are used to ensure the privacy of the information. Digital radios use binary codes to send information that tends to be safe and transparent.

3. Who Should Be Given Credit for Inventing the Radio?

While talking about American radio history it is important to talk about the creators. Did Marconi contribute to American radio history? Probably. The apparent answer says it’s Guglielmo Marconi, but it’s complicated. Marconi began his experiments with the findings of Hertz and what he observed and gained from other inventors in 1894 in Italy and later moved to England.

The fact that he is the leader in giving early radio to the world is a half-truth as many scientists and intellectuals explored the theory of wireless communication before Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian physicist, actually capitalized on the idea of sending radio signals over the Atlantic using the Morse code and a coherer which was initially designed by the Indian physicist and professor Jagdish Chandra Bose.

Bose was one of the first men to lead the invention of the radio in 1899 when he finished making his improved design of mercury coherer but couldn’t patent it because he didn’t believe in making money out of his inventions. However, he presented his coherer working model in London’s Royal Society in 1897.

The component coherer was a great aid in receiving wireless messages and led Marconi to use its slightly different version in making his first impression on wireless communication in 1901. He and Karl Ferdinand Braun jointly got the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for their breakthrough in radio technology.

Marconi won the patent for it against Tesla in 1915. Later on, the Supreme Court altered its orders in 1943 to give back the rights to Tesla, for which only he had the rights.

Who was Tesla in this legal battle of wireless telegraphy? Serbia-based visionary and scientist Nikola Tesla emigrated to New York City in 1884 only to advance the world toward technology. Tesla envisioned wireless technology but couldn’t proceed further in this direction due to the lack of money and investors’ support.

He was the first to show the wireless transmission in 1893 using his own Tesla coil. He developed the well-known Tesla coil, which is still used in radios and people’s homes as plasma balls for decor.

4. Radio’s Evolution in American Radio History

Radio has an active history from radio waves to the invention of radio transmitters and detectors, the first sent signal, developing sets, early big-size radios, the original radio sets occupied in our heads, and finally to the present online radio.

The radio’s evolution had a long history when there was no phenomenon like electromagnetism. It started taking shape in the late nineteenth century when the physicist James Clerk Maxwell introduced his theory of electromagnetic waves in 1864 to advance the theory of wireless telegraphy.

Electromagnetism is one of the four forces of nature, like gravitation, that generates energy. The electromagnetic force is helpful in the daily lives of people and even protects the earth from harmful rays. Under the earth’s deep core, moving electrical particles form magnetic fields, interact with them, and send energy into space. Some of these waves carry out broadcasting operations on radio and television. These waves are called low-frequency waves, while high-frequency waves like x-rays help medical treatment.

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Electrical telegraphy existed before wireless telegraphy, popularized by Samuel Morse and others in the U.S between the 1830s and 1840s but was first introduced in Britain by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1837, which made it possible to send a telegram using a telegraph (a transmitter and receiver) and Morse code over a single wire for distant communication.

However, one could only send one message at a time using this system which got replaced by the telephone and radio by the late nineteenth century.

4.1. Other Inventors Joined the Wireless Revolution

Mahlon Loomis, an American dentist, was the first one to experiment with wireless telegraphy on 20 July 1872 and even secured a patent for his early findings, contributing to American radio history.

In 1888, German physicist Heinrich Hertz also proved Maxwell’s theory that electromagnetic waves can travel through the air with some speed which gave hope to new creators to advance in wireless communication.

Based on Hertz’s theory, some other scientists tested wireless communication. There was professor Oliver Lodge in 1894, Dr. Alexander Muirhead, Captain Jackson in between 1895-96, Russian physicist Alexander Stepanovich Popov in 1895, and finally, Tesla claimed to use it in 1893.

5. Marconi vs. Bose

They both play an important role in American radio history. Marconi first sent the radio signals in 1895 up to 2.4 kilometers by electromagnetic waves (Hertzian waves) and won its patent in 1896 in Britain. However, it’s claimed that J.C. Bose studied the different properties of radio waves in 1894.

Later he came up with a model he presented to the British Association in 1896 and appeared in Philosophical magazine in 1897. The same model is said to be used by Marconi with some minor variations in achieving the first-ever radio model.

Another twist is that some argue that the coherer used by Marconi was designed by the French physicist Édouard Branly in 1890, which was a tube having iron filings that fused with the applied radio signal voltage on one end. The coherer needed to be tapped regularly to imitate Morse codes repeatedly. Oliver Joseph Lodge further modeled this detector to demonstrate radio wave transmission in 1894.

6. Further Development in Early American Radio History

The making of the vacuum tube or diode in 1904 by the English inventor John Ambrose Fleming marked another important event in the early radio broadcasting history before transistors, which facilitated the conversion of alternating current to direct current.

Improving upon Fleming’s diode, in 1906, American inventor Lee De Forest discovered the Audion, a triode used as an amplifier in radio detectors, then used it in television and radio broadcasting before the arrival of transistors.

So, the first wireless communication and later development of radio were the cumulative efforts of many scientists, making American radio history special.

7. Commercialization of Radio

Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company started as the first commercial radio station under the name of KDKA to get its foot in the door on November 2, 1920. KDKA covered the Harding-Cox presidential election for the first time, which now stands as the first radio broadcast.

WWJ – the Detroit News radio station is also considered one of the first broadcasting stations in the history of American broadcasting. It began daily broadcasts with an amateur radio license on August 20, 1920. After four years of commercialization, 600 radio stations competed in the American radio industry as per the Federal Communications Commission.

On February 23, 1927, the federal government formed the Federal Radio Commission to handle radio programming in government stations and local stations under the radio act. Edwin H. Armstrong introduced the first FM radio to the FCC on June 17, 1936.

On AT&T’s exit from American broadcasting, both radio networks (NBC & CBS) launched broadcasting stations. Where National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was led by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1926, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) ensued in radio communication after a year.

Around the 1950s, television sets occupied the center stage replacing the radio and ending the Golden Age of American Radio history. But interestingly enough, radio broadcasts existed side-by-side with television focusing on content like news, sports, and talk shows, and re-established themselves in the modern age as digital radio.

8. Marconi’s Wireless and Titanic

A black and white ship on sea.
Photo by Burak Kulu from Pexels. copyright 2021

The story of Titanic is renowned for many reasons. On her first voyage, the Titanic crashed into an iceberg on April 15, 1912, and sank due to distorted communication. Did you know that Marconi played a specific role in Titanic? What’s common between Titanic and Marconi is the communication system devised by him at that time.

Before Marconi’s wireless telegraphy, distant communication was made using different codes in the navy and war regions. The International Code, the semaphore, and the flashing signals were common ways to connect with other naval ships. The flashing technique was adopted preferably at night and for a great distance where semaphore signaling (use of flags to communicate) was considered ineffective.

Although Titanic had the opportunity to use wireless communication on her first journey set up by the Marconi company, the technology was in its infancy.

The telegraphers on the RMS Titanic started sending distress signals using CQD and SOS emergency codes. Those messages were sent using wireless transmission aided by Morse code. Only RMS Carpathia could reciprocate the messages. The radio signals were on and off, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives on that tragic day.

The wireless technology in the silent cabin could only save 705 passengers, including women and children. Compromised lives were called for by the Radio Act of 1912, passed by Congress, which required improved technology and safer radio equipment, licensed operators, and different ways to respond to warning signals.

According to news reports, the RMS Titanic Inc. company, which has the exclusive rights to Titanic’s artifacts, wants to reclaim the best wireless technology of that time. This wireless radio brought a revolution in radio technology apart from saving hundreds of lives.

9. First World War and American Radio History

During the First World War rush, communication was difficult without technological advances. The most effective method to send out information was using telegraphs which used wires. Other means were pigeons and semaphore signaling, which created barriers to accessible communication.

Radio was introduced much later in the First World War. By 1917, the radios used were heavy with an antenna causing the danger of being spotted by the enemy.

10. Radio’s Connection with America

These days, people are connected by the latest technology, unlike American radio history, which closely resembles the internet itself, a large group of computers covering the whole world.

The radio fits this scenario in two ways. First, in terms of the technology we use today in watching T.V. shows in our home’s comfort, listening to podcasts or radio stations, communicating with the latest technology, cooking food, accessing medical services, and many more which have been gifted to us by the radio technology of the era where the radio occupied the center stage and was the hero. Second, it connected people of different interests.

Earlier radio was a big machine taking up enough space so it couldn’t be avoided. People felt a solid connection to their new radio sets by finding an all-rounder device that could produce music, soap operas, news, sports, and entertainment.

America was closely knit with radio, the backbone of its media and entertainment industry, most probably around the Great Depression and World War II. It connected people in a way that the national flag invokes nationalistic feelings.

When the first presidency was fought over the radio broadcast, it was a new mass communication system. It was the time around 1928 that brought Americans the newness of radio communication as a means of entertainment broadcasts along with the political news, which continued till it became the dominant electronic media.

Different radio transmitters and radios on a shelf.
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels. Copyright 2015

According to an estimate, by 1940, around 82.8 percent of American homes had radios. Radio was the house of shows like ‘Adventures of Superman‘ and ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ before the tv stations.

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Radio stations provided local programs, the radio news related to the war, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats.’ Advertising companies also thrived on advertising revenue, benefiting from a large audience for the radio industry.

11. FM vs. AM Radio – The Difference

AM radio or amplitude modulation radio means changes in the amplitude of the carrier wave, while FM radio or frequency modulation radio refers to the changes in frequency.

AM radio stations can reach distant areas and thus have a high range but low frequency from 525 to 1705 kilohertz. However, FM stations are higher in frequency, from 88 to 108 megahertz, than in range. FM radio stations can only be heard within a city, while people can tune into AM radio stations across the country.

AM radio started around the radio revolution in the early twentieth century by Lee De Forest. In contrast, the FM radio was invented in 1936 by Edwin Armstrong due to the constant interferences in AM waves and low sound quality for its wide range.

12. FAQs – American Radio History

12.1. How Did People Entertain Themselves Before the Invention of The Radio?

Music, theatre, storytelling, visiting each other, and reading books were people’s preferences before the radio emerged as the sole entertainer.

12.2. What Is the Role of Radio in American History?

The American radio played a significant role as it emerged as the only cheaper electronic media for entertainment in the depression era. It provided information from the world war battlefield besides assisting in the war-affected areas as a means of communication.

12.3. What Are Radio Waves?

These long waves have lower frequency and energy than other waves on the electromagnetic spectrum and carry information to space to induce wireless communication.

12.4. What Is the Golden Age of Radio?

From the 1930s to 1950s in the United States, radio’s fame reached most homes as buying a radio meant cheaper access to worldwide radio news and entertainment because of the several local radio stations. In this era, people were far closer than ever due to the latest telecommunication technology, way before the internet.

12.5. What Was the First Radio Commercial?

AT&T company introduced the first commercial for the Hawthorne Court ‘Apartments’ in Jackson Heights on its New York City broadcasting station, WEAF (now known as WNBC), in 1922. The ad lasted for 10 minutes.

13. Radio Terminology

  • Frequency – The number of waves passing through at a given time measured in Hertz.
  • A Carrier wave is a simple wave with a constant frequency and no encoded information.
  • Modulation – The process of adjusting the information you want to send in the carrier wave is called modulation.
  • Coherer – A tube filled with iron or metal filings that were earlier used to receive the radio waves for wireless telegraphy.
  • Hertzian waves are the radio waves of the electromagnetic spectrum, which were called Hertzian waves when the German scientist Heinrich Hertz proved their existence in 1888.
  • Amplitude – It’s the maximum height of the wavelength when it moves from one point to another.
  • Electromagnetic waves take shape when the moving electrons attract magnetic fields.
  • Broadcasting – Communicating or transferring information by radio or television.

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