On this day in 1920, the KDKA radio station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sent out the first-ever regular radio broadcast in the United States. According to the jargon of the day, the Harding-Cox presidential election results were sent out “over the ether.” At the time, only 5,000 Americans owned radios. In its early days, no one could imagine how radio might be lucrative. As media moguls began to get creative, a mad grab began for control of the airwaves.
Some wanted radio to be a public good, used for education and enrichment, and funded by the government. These early proponents of public radio didn’t get their wish until 1967, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law that created NPR. Commercial radio won out initially, when, in 1922, the New York station WEAF (later known as WNBC) began selling on-air advertising.
While companies were initially skeptical, radio advertising soon proved wildly effective. This was the first time in history when advertising could enter private places without being deliberately carried inside, such as in the pages of a newspaper. A listener might tune in to hear the first broadcast of a baseball game, for example — also compliments of KDKA, in 1921 — and would have no way of evading advertisements, short of switching off the dial.
The result was a totally new relationship between the American public and consumption. Suddenly, private life was punctuated with reminders about product options, and the ability to purchase more and better goods increasingly defined American success. Commercial broadcasting successfully linked status, self-worth, and identity with shopping.
Radio changed culture in many additional ways, from the introduction of instantaneous news, to providing a platform for politicians, to shaping the way Americans thought about important current events, such as World War II, the first major war in the era of broadcasting. Radio also paved the way for other media. Once Americans grew accustomed to the voices of radio advertisers in the home, it was easy to invite television, and then internet ad banners, into the family.
In 1906, the American inventor Lee de Forest created an amplifier that made broadcasting possible. Of commercial radio, de Forest said: “What have you done with my child? You have sent him out on the street in rags of ragtime to collect money from all and sundry. You have made of him a laughingstock of intelligence, surely a stench in the nostrils of the gods of the ionosphere.”
Broadcasting has expanded American thinking and reminded listeners and viewers of our potential outside of the mall. Yet we can trace our modern shopping habits all the way back to that first Pittsburgh broadcast, 97 years ago today.