12 April 2010

News and Media: Radio

By Delia DeLeest

Nowadays radio seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. It's used to maybe catch a few minutes of the news on your way to work. Otherwise, if you want entertainment, you'll take out your iPod or get on the internet. But less than a hundred years ago, radio brought the world to places that previously only got their news and information from the newspapers, sometimes days after it actually happened. Radio was the first modern mass media and it changed the world.

The year 1923 seems to be the turning point from radio being a specialized tool to becoming accessible to the masses. Sears & Roebuck offered radios for sale for the first time in their spring catalog and 556 stations dotted the country in such diverse places as Paducah, Kentucky and New Lebanon, Ohio. Over 400,000 homes had a radio by the end of that year, up from only 60,000 the year before. In the beginning people were so excited to hear voices coming from that big wooden box in their living room that they would listen to anything. Here's an example of a common broadcasting lineup in 1923:

5:15 Rinaldo Sidoli, violinist
5:30 Rea Stelle, contralto
6:00 Peter's Adventures, by Florence Vincent
7:30 Frederick Taggart, baritone
8:15 Lecture by W. F. Hickernell
8:30 Viola K. Miller, soprano
8:45 Salvation Army Band concert
9:15 Viola K. Miller, soprano

As the 1920s rolled on, politicians discovered that radio was a wonderful way to get their campaign promises out to the general public. A New York Times reporter summed it up this way: "brief pithy statements as to the positions of the parties and candidates which reach the emotions through the minds of millions of radio listeners, will play an important part in the race to the White House." That would be 1928's version of the political soundbite so commonly used today.

By the time the Depression rolled around, Americans were so enamored of their radios that they became a family's most prized possession. Social workers found that many people were more apt to sell their furniture and clothing to make rent payments rather than part with the wooden box that kept them connected to the outside world. Radio had gone from being mere entertainment to a lifeline. It not only brought local and national news into their home, but the new radio shows coming out brought laughter into their lives in the form of Amos 'n Andy and Jack Benny. Radio shows like these became staples in America's homes and the Golden Age of Radio had begun.