In Pittsburgh, a Revolution Begins in a Shack
Radio pioneers moved up to a tent; trains and moths were trials
PITTSBURGH — KDKA is generally recognized as the world's first real radio station. Here in Pittsburgh 75 years ago, it pioneered the idea of regular daily broadcasts at predictable times. It was the first station to get an experimental license from the federal government. And it quickly went into the history books for a string of broadcasting breakthroughs, including the first sporting event (a boxing match) and the first onstage theatrical performance.
KDKA's first broadcast, Nov. 2, 1920, was a rousing success. It aired returns from the presidential election in which Warren Harding beat James Cox. Cards poured in from people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia saying they had heard the broadcast.
Every evening thereafter, starting about 8 p.m., the all-volunteer staff at Westinghouse (it began and still owns the station) had to find something to air. It broadcast local news, invited live performers, and read bedtime stories for children.
"It's hard for us to imagine how exciting this was," says Charles Ruch, a Westinghouse retiree and the company's volunteer historian. Mr. Ruch's mother-in-law was chauffeured in a limousine to play the violin for one of KDKA's early broadcasts. Radio engineers dressed in choir robes took their equipment to a local Episcopal church for the first live radio church service.
The first studio for the first real radio station was located ingloriously in a small shack atop an eight-story Westinghouse building. When the station started to bring in groups of performers, a tent was erected on the roof. It provided some shelter for the musicians, but could not mask the sound of the train that roared by every evening an hour into the show. At one point, a tenor had to stop singing when a moth flew into his mouth.
Such glitches didn't seem to bother the rapidly growing audience. Since many of the radio sets were homemade in those days, "people thought something had gone wrong with their set, and they'd just wait awhile," Ruch says. Eventually, the music would come on again.
The station moved indoors. A professional broadcaster, Harold Arlin, was hired. His voice came over radio so well that women wrote to him about it.
Within two years, there were 550 stations and some 1.5 million radio receivers in homes, according to Michael Keith, professor of communications at Boston College and director of education at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. Pretty soon, "each metropolitan area in this country had its own KDKA."
In those early days, all radio stations were assigned to one of two frequencies. Overlapping stations sometimes worked out agreements to stagger their hours of operation. Others tried to drown out competitors with stronger signals. The resulting chaos almost killed the young industry until the government created the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the Federal Communications Commission) in 1927. By the time it restored some order, KDKA and other early stations were being eclipsed by the New York-based networks that would come to dominate the medium and eventually build an industry on an even more amazing technology: television.