Music’s been key to the scale of radio’s growth

Nate DiMeo Dec 22, 2006

Music’s been key to the scale of radio’s growth

Nate DiMeo Dec 22, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: This Sunday, citizens of Brant Rock, Massachusetts, will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of their town’s claim to fame. On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden became the first person to broadcast the human voice over the radio. He one-upped Marconi, who had only managed to transmit Morse Code up till then. A new documentary from American RadioWorks explores the role of radio in American life. Today we bring you part of it.

Reporter Nate DiMeo takes us back to the early 1920s, when radio first found a mass audience. And a few powerful corporate players used music to take control of brand new American Industry.

NATE DIMEO: It all just seemed to happen so fast.

SUSAN DOUGLAS: Radio in the teens was mostly Morse code, dots and dashes. So it was quite revolutionary when, in 1920, some people put on their headsets and they heard music.

Susan Douglas teaches communications at the University of Michigan.

DOUGLAS: These were called wireless concerts and they basically shoved a phonograph in front of a microphone and began playing records.

Newspapers wrote about a tidal wave of radio engulfing the country. At the beginning of 1920 there were no radio stations. Two years later there were about 600. Michelle Hilmes teaches at the University of Wisconsin.

MICHELLE HILMES: It could be a dry-cleaning business, or it could be a chicken farm. People who would come on the air for a few hours a day and simply play the music that they liked, or bring on neighbors or their associates.

The barriers to entry into the radio business were pretty much nonexistent. Getting a broadcast license was as easy getting as a marriage license.

WAAM ANNOUNCER: This is WAAM, 1 Bond Street, Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Scott at the console of the mammoth Edison organ opens with “Sweet and Low.”

The mom and pop stations were usually playing the songs that were popular in the neighborhood, the bands that were playing in the local dance halls. The incomprehensible singing of one of the new ethnic groups swelling the tenements of the Lower East Side.

Turn the dial . . . Black jazz from Harlem, during a tense time in America.

DOUGLAS: The 1920s as we know was a time of enormous racial strife.

Here’s Susan Douglas:

DOUGLAS: There was an explosion in lynchings, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. There was a rabid anti-immigration movement. So it was a time of enormous Anglo-American xenophobia and pride and racism.

Michelle Hilmes:

HILMES: You would never send your 8-year-old into this distant, strange neighborhood where people spoke a different language, but she could bring that right into her — your — living room.

And in that context, music became a battleground in an early culture war and in a fight for control of the booming radio industry. Companies like RCA and GE and Westinghouse were also starting stations.

HILMES: They were facilities that promoted a better kind of radio, something that would, you know, create a good impression in the public.

WEAF ANNOUNCER: This is station WEAF, New York.

On RCA’s flagship station WEAF, the New York Philharmonic: [sound of orchestra]

Cliff Doerksen wrote “American Babel: Rogue Broadcasters of the Jazz Age.: He says high culture was seen as an antidote.

CLIFF DOERKSEN: Classical music could enoble people. Classical music was an actual answer to the labor problem, OK? Like, if everyone listens to Bach and Beethoven, then we will live in unity and there will be no strikes.

In the boardrooms of companies like GE and RCA, people saw an opportunity in soothing people’s fears about radio. They wanted to build radio empires. They were building more stations. And they wanted to create networks. Cliff Doerksen says that in order to keep growing, they needed to stay within the good graces of the public and of Washington.

DOERKSEN: Music is the single-most potent signifier of a high-brow broadcaster’s good intentions and high ideals. You just can’t get better than that. That to have, like, a noted tenor like John McCormac is going to sing and that’s wonderful. Or you’ve got musical lectures and musicologists, and musically educational programs aimed at children, etc.

MUSIC APPRECIATION HOUR ANNOUNCER: Good morning, my dear children. Today I shall introduce to you some more members of my musical family. Mr. Devries, will you let the boys and girls hear your flute?

It’s remarkable to look back at this period and see that, up to a point, a belief in the awesome power of the flute actually helped change the course of American industrial history. But it did.

In 1927, Washington wrote the first real broadcast regulations. And they were worried about the same things that politicians worry about today, including decency and guarding sensitive ears.

The big corporations were more than happy to corner the high-brow market. And, like today, the government was more than happy to stack the deck in their favor. The time when radio was wide-open to small entrepreneurs was over. And the era of corporate control of the airwaves had begun.

For Marketpalce and American RadioWorks, I’m Nate DiMeo.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.