The New York Times
November 20, 1995, Monday
SECTION: Section D; Page 5; Column 1; Business/Financial Desk
SUBJECT: History of Radio
HEADLINE: How the Earlier Media Achieved Critical Mass: Radio; From Dots and Dashes To Rock and Larry King
BYLINE: By MITCHELL STEPHENS
The full technological potential of radio was made manifest on Christmas Eve 1906. Its potential as a form of mass communication did not become evident until much later.
Radio had been invented by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895 as "wireless telegraphy" -- a means for sending Morse code through the air. But on Dec. 24, 1906, a few wireless operators on ships in the North Atlantic heard not the usual dots and dashes but a voice reading from St. Luke's Gospel. It was Reginald Fessenden, an American who had devised a means for radio waves to carry signals for a range of sound. "Wireless telephony" had arrived.
Soon, amateur radio operators in the United States and elsewhere were using this technology to chat with each other. After World War I, radio's future seemed to be in transmitting long-distance telephone calls, and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company made sure it rounded up the key patents.
Some radio buffs set themselves up as broadcasters, playing music or reading newspapers to anyone who tuned in. But, as the historian Daniel Czitrom wrote, "virtually no one in the scientific, amateur, military or corporate communities had expected broadcasting to become the main use of wireless technology."
Indeed, the word broadcasting, which meant scattering widely, had not yet been applied to radio.
Then, in the fall of 1920, a Westinghouse Electric executive, Harry P. Davis, had an epiphany. The attention that a Westinghouse engineer had attracted with his amateur transmissions from his garage in East Pittsburgh, Mr. Davis later wrote, "caused the thought to come to me that the efforts that were then being made to develop radio-telephony as a confidential means of communication were wrong, and that instead its field was really one of wide publicity." Mr. Davis realized, in other words, that radio transmissions could be heard by the masses.
On Nov. 2, 1920, at Mr. Davis's urging, Westinghouse introduced what is considered the first commercial radio station -- KDKA in Pittsburgh -- with a report on the Harding-Cox Presidential voting. By the end of 1922, 576 commercial radio stations were operating in the United States.
But a large question remained: How would these new stations make money? Mr. Davis's financial goal for KDKA was simply to help Westinghouse sell more radios, and in 1922 about 100,000 radio receivers were purchased in the United States. But that same year, AT&T was already introducing a new way to profit by charging people who wanted to broadcast from AT&T's transmitters a "toll" for access to the audience of its growing group of stations. The strategy rapidly evolved into the the advertiser-supported model of broadcasting.
By 1925, 5.5 million radio sets were in use in the United States, and what was in Mr. Davis's words "the only means of instantaneous collective communication ever devised" had begun to capture its mass audience. The following year AT&T -- recognizing that radio no longer seemed to have much to do with telephony -- sold its stations to the newly created National Broadcasting Company.
GRAPHIC: Photo: 1920 -- The first regularly scheduled radio broadcast was on KDKA in Pittsburgh. Above, the sportscaster Harold W. Arlin in the early '20's. (Bettmann Archive)