Old Time Radio – The Beginning

Old-Time Radio (OTR) and the Golden Age of Radio refer to a period of programming in the United States starting in the 1920s and lasted until television replaced it in the late 1950s.  During this period, when radio was dominant the airwaves were filled with a variety of radio formats and genres. In fact, according to a 1947 C. E. Hooper survey, 82 out of 100 Americans were radio listeners.

The Golden Age of Radio had its origins with the Théâtrophone or “Theater Phone”. Broadcasting began at the 1881 World’s Fair with audio recordings of musical acts and other vaudeville. These were sent to people by means of the telephone. Visual elements, such as effects and sight gags, were adapted to have sound equivalents. In addition, objects and scenery were converted to have audio descriptions.

On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden is said to have broadcast the first radio program, consisting of some violin playing and passages from the Bible. While Fessenden’s role as an inventor and early radio experimenter is not in dispute, several contemporary radio researchers have questioned whether the Christmas Eve broadcast took place.  Fessenden’s wife Helen recounts the broadcast in her book Fessenden: Builder of Tomorrows published in 1940, eight years after Fessenden’s death.

It was not until after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 that radio for mass communication came into its own.  Investors inspired by the work of amateur (or “ham”) radio operators began to use the medium to promote news events. Radio was especially important during World War I as it was vital for air and naval operations. War brought about major developments in the radio, superseding the Morse code of the wireless telegraph with the vocal communication of the early two-way devices.

After the war, numerous radio stations were born in the United States and set the standard for later radio programs. The first radio news program was broadcast on August 31, 1920 on the station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan.  That night the station covered local election results. This was followed up later that year with the first commercial radio station in the United States (KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Regular entertainment programs began being broadcast in 1922.  The highlight of this time came on January 1, 1923. The Rose Bowl was broadcast on the Los Angeles station KHJ.  Radio went on from there and began to increase in quality and popularity.

During the Golden Age of Radio, it featured just about every genre that was popular in other forms of American entertainment.  These venues include Broadway, traveling road shows and of course Vaudeville.  Some of the genres covered were: Adventure, comedy, drama, horror, mystery, musical variety, romance, thriller, classical music concerts, big band remotes, farm reports, news, panel discussions, quiz shows (beginning with Professor Quiz), sidewalk interviews, talent shows and the all-important weather forecast.  As you can see just about everything that we watch today on our current television.  It all found its start in Old Time Radio.

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