It’s in your car. It wakes you in the morning. It’s on at the deli. It’s radio, one of the 19th century’s quaintest inventions! It’s still here, and it still works. Let’s see if KevinHart.com can make that claim down the road.
And you know why radio is still here? (No, not just to entertain the blind.) It’s built on a solid foundation of exceptional history.
It was in 1896 that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi developed and tested the first radio device. He transmitted signals out over a mile from his home. It was an immediate success, as people contacted him…
Caller: Hello, Mr. Marconi? Yes, hi, I was listening to your transmission, but I’m a first time caller. I agree with your broadcast, all right, but what about the children?
Before long, amateur broadcasters had sprung up like so many walk-in medical clinics around the USA. The major drawback was that only broadcasters existed — there were no broadcastees. No one was listening. Needless to say, radio in the 1910s was thought of as a geeky, clique thing. The term “radio nerd” first appears around this time.
In 1920 the Westinghouse Company established KDKA, the first radio station, in Pittsburgh. It was here that we saw the birth of “stunt” programming, when the station sent announcer Wendell Fedlock up in a hot air balloon to broadcast live from the annual county fair. It did not go well.
The Fedlock Tragedy, as it came to be known, was a minor setback for the medium. By 1922 there were 60,000 radio owners in the United States and they’d pretty much listen to anything. Hit shows of the 1920s included “The Stereotype Hour,” with its catchphrase, “How about I make-a you some-a nice spa-ghet?”, “Mel Talks About His Day,” hosted by a guy named Mel who talked about his day, and “Breakfast with the Pets,” which involved animals wearing microphones at feeding time. Each of these shows stayed on the air for a surprisingly long time.
By 1934 there were 600 radio stations broadcasting to 20 million homes. And those homes were getting particular. Now any show featuring dancing or charades was quickly canceled. On the other hand, Edgar Bergen, with his puppet Charlie McCarthy, became a superstar in 1937 as the first radio ventriloquist. Other novelty acts attempted radio series as well, with limited success. They included The Amazing Atwell, radio magician; The Flying Pimento Brothers, radio acrobats; and Adam Davis, radio plate spinner.
By December of 1941, people were getting jaded about radio. They dismissed the reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as another “Orson Welles trick.” Who could forget FDR’s riveting speech afterward as he declared, “December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy! No, really. I’m not kidding. It really happened. Stop snickering! Eleanor!!!!”
It was radio that brought us the news of World War II. Edward R. Murrow began broadcasting reports live from war-torn London. I mean, he told us he was in London. How would we know where he really was? It’s not like we could see him or anything. And those bomb explosions could have been the sound effects man making the noises with his mouth, you know? In retrospect, I realize now that Orson Welles really ruined radio for everyone.
During the war, radio became the home for the great comedians of the day. George Burns, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello and Red Skelton all hosted popular programs, all competitive and all trying to top and outdo one another. In 1946, Jack Benny set the record for radio’s longest comedic pause in this classic episode:
Mary Livingston: Oh, Jack, you sold those nuclear secrets to the Russians for one million dollars! How could you?
(Pause. Long pause. Audience laughter builds and builds.)
Mary Livingston: Jack? Jack? Are you okay? Jack!
As it turned out, it wasn’t a pause at all. He had passed out from a high fever. That’s the way it was back then. The show always went on, despite illness and buzz bombs. Of course the Golden Age of Radio Comedy came to a crashing halt when “The Marcel Marceau Hour” premiered and was canceled two weeks later, right during the bit where he gets trapped in a box.
During the 1950s, radio became over-shadowed by television. As its stars and series moved to the new medium, radio shifted from comedy and drama to music. It became the incubator for rock & roll and a Mecca for teenagers. Kids would cruise in their cars with the radio on, listening to disc jockeys like Alan Freed or Wolfman Jack, playing “stacks of wax” and “pimple cream commercials.” Sometimes these were indistinguishable.
Back then, DJs would play music loudly, howl, honk horns and accept payola. The music lived on into the sixties, as the counter culture made its home on the FM dial, listening to the likes of Hendrix, the Airplane and Janis, sometimes with the radio on.
But again the times would change, and radio would reshape itself once more. In 1974 the FCC ruled that all morning radio DJs must be “wacky.” This, of course, brought the phrases “caa-caa” and “poo-poo” into the radio lexicon. Soon after came the rise of talk radio, a place with enough voices and opinions to drown out the voices and opinions in your head.
Today we live in a world with a thousand radio stations and podcasts that are just a click away. In an instant we can hear shows like “The Stereotype Hour,” “Mel Talks About His Day” and “Breakfast with the Pets.”
This is radio. It lingers on, and with it a tradition that broadcasters attempt to uphold and continue, from hot air balloons to lazy ventriloquists, to dining with pets and loud mimes. On behalf of them all, thank you for listening.