One hundred years ago this month, a new medium entered Grace Kingsley’s columns: radio. Commercial radio was just getting started in Los Angeles. She wrote about one little change it was causing:
The radio is going to increase some lucky newspaper’s circulation by at least one, take it from no less an authority than Louise Lorraine, who has installed apparatus in her apartment in Hollywood.
“I’m becoming a regular news hound,” explained Miss Lorraine, “whereas before I had this radio machine I never read a newspaper. Now, since listening in on this radio broadcasting arrangement, I’ve decided to take two newspapers instead of only one, and what’s more I just can’t wait nowadays to find out all about Russia, and I’m getting an awful kick out of the Irish situation, too.”
Louise Lorraine was an actress who appeared in many Universal serials. For her, being able to hear news over the radio was not a threat to newspapers’ well-being. However, other negative effects of the new technology were being proposed; the following day Kingsley blamed it for triple-decker novels’ decline in popularity. In her review of The Count of Monte Cristo she pointed out that the story was “from a time when they wrote novels, they wrote volumes, which people with no telephones or radios had time to read.” Nevertheless, she thought the movie was a delight.
Using radio for something other than communicating with ships or as a replacement for telegraphy had been going on for quite a while: amateur operators had been playing music over the airways since 1906, according to the American Experience site. But the United States government had only recently begun to issue licenses for commercial stations. The first went to KDKA in Pittsburgh. They got their license from the Department of Commerce in October 1920. Their first scheduled broadcast was on November 2, 1920, and their first transmission of a professional baseball game was on August 5, 1921.
By early 1922, there were four small stations in Southern California: one at Hamburger’s Department Store (operated by the Meyberg Company), one in the Kinema Theater Building (Western Radio Electric Company), one in Hollywood at the Electric Light and Supply Company and one in Pasadena run by J.J. Dunn at his car battery service store. You could even see the one at Hamburger’s in action. Installed next to the boy’s department in August 1921, they broadcast live concerts several times a week. For example, on December 5th the program included songs like “Sweetheart,” “Say It with Music,” and a saxophone solo called “Saxophobia.”
Then a big company entered the market: the Los Angeles Times. A station with the call letters KHJ was installed at their downtown building, and on April 11th they broadcast a fifteen-minute test at 12:15 p.m. The program featured Cyrena Van Gordon of the Chicago Grand Opera singing Azucena’s aria from “Il Trovatore” and “Lift Up Thine Eyes” with piano accompaniment. The Times article still called the technology a “wireless telephone.” The test went well and the following day the station was formally dedicated and opened. The newspaper reported:
The Times was host last night to the great Southwest! Its radio broadcasting station was the throbbing heart of an area bounded by hundreds of miles. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Southland dwellers listened in. By the fireside, in mountain fastness, at public places the pealing notes of grand opera singers were heard and applauded by a history-making audience.
While the station couldn’t charge listeners, the equipment to listen was really expensive. Dean Farran, the engineer who installed the Times’ station, said that a set for family service would cost $125 (roughly $1,750 today), but the ideal set would cost $400. Even with the high price, the Times reported a shortage of equipment: “Realizing the great future possibility of regular entertainment in the homes, residents of the Southland have flooded the market with demands for apparatus, yet to be manufactured and delivered.” Prices did drop in the following years; according to encyclopedia.com, by the middle of the decade the price for a decent set was $35.00.
New stations were opening daily. In March 1922 the Radio Service Bulletin listed 67 professional stations, but by June 1922 it had jumped to 378 stations. You can find all kinds of information about the early days at Thomas H. White’s Early Radio History website.
In the early 1920’s very few people were concerned that radio would take audiences away from live music, sports, or theater. I found only one article from 1921 about the musicians’ union opposing it, because they were worried about unemployment among their members. In the beginning, people were optimistic about the wonders of the new medium. Edwin Schallert, the Times’ entertainment editor, gave a speech over the airways on April 25th, and he proclaimed, “the destiny of music is now linked definitely with the radiophone.” He thought it would democratize music because:
there was a day when music was reserved for the narrow confines of princely palace…Now music travels on the wings of electric energy, now it reaches into each separate household and makes it a princely domain.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what effect radio had on live events and print media. There was some speculation, but no hard evidence. For example, radio (and later television) pioneer David Sarnoff, who at the time was the general manager of the Radio Corp of America (RCA), said in an address at the Sphinx Club in New York City in early 1925 that while many worried it would shrink attendance at the theaters and the concert halls and would even hurt newspaper circulation, he thought such fears were “groundless.” Talking Machine World reported he said:
“The broadcast of musical events has had the effect of increasing attendance at the theater. As proof of this he cited the case of a New York theater which regularly broadcasts its Sunday night musical programs, with the result that the attractions play to a packed house all week.”
Sarnoff thought that “radio will prove to be one of the greatest accelerants, both from the standpoint of circulation and advertising, that newspapers and magazines have even known…radio gives but the headlines and the listeners must read the papers to get the necessary details.” Just like Miss Lorraine was inspired to learn more about the news after she got her radio. It seems that people had enough free time to listen to the radio, on top of everything else they were doing.
John S. Daggett, “Times Radio Station Dedicated Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1922.
“David Sarnoff Discusses Radio Relationships,” Talking Machine World, February 15, 1925, p.86.
“Great Throng Hears Radio,” Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1922.
“Radio Brings Music Home,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1922.
“Radio Grand Opera Today,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1922.
“Radiophone Concert is Heard Far Away,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1921.
“The Times Dedicates Radio Telephone Broadcasting Station,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1922.
“Times Radio Service Near,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1922.
“Times Radio Club Growing,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1922.
“Unions Protest the Use of Radio Music,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1921.
E.M. Wickes, “Melody Mart,” Billboard, March 18, 1922, p.54.