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Family listening to the radio, 1920s, by Harris & Ewing, photographer (Library of Congress)
The airwaves were buzzing on November 2, 1920, when Pittsburgh station KDKA became the the first commercial radio station to broadcast election results—but most American homes didn’t have a way to hear the excitement. Over the next 4 years, that would change drastically, as more than 600 commercial stations began operation, and by the end of the decade more than 60% of American families were regularly gathering around their home radio sets.
They tuned into ball games and serials, opera and news. Music of all kinds and from every corner of the country filled their living rooms, from the big-band dance music of hotel orchestras to programs showcasing the latest jazz to country tunes broadcast from the stage of the Grand Old Opry. Throughout the 1920s, radio radically changed the entertainment industry and the American news and political scenes—often creating a tension between modernity and traditional values.
Jill Ahrold Bailey, producer of WAMU 88.5’s “The Big Broadcast”, describes 1920s radio as a new frontier—and like most frontiers, it was lawless, experimental, and exciting. In a program enlivened by vintage sound clips and a sound-effects demonstration, she traces a period in which stage and vaudeville performers like Abbott and Costello and Jack Benny found even bigger stardom in radio; new styles of singing made possible by the microphone emerged, seen in performers like Gene Austin, the first “crooner”; and the role of the band leader expanded into emcee, giving rise to all-around entertainers such as Phil Baker and the wildly popular Rudy Vallee.
Radio also broke barriers: Bessie Smith’s recordings brought the blues to listeners across the country, even the segregated South. Advertising and programming directed to women recognized their growing market power, and “The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” (with the show’s writer and first host in the role of its fictitious namesake) began its long run in 1924. And as radio became a growing national industry, the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the FCC) began to define the role of government in regulating paid programming and advertising.
Though the sounds of the Majestic Theatre of the Air, the National Barn Dance, and the Goodrich Silvertown Orchestra (with its “Silver-Masked Tenor”) have long faded from the air, the colorful world that gave birth to them remains a seminal one in the development of American broadcasting and for understanding the social, cultural, and technological changes of the 1920s.
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