Radio Entertainment in 1920s

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The Buggles released their first song, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” on September 7th, 1979. However, it gained widespread popularity when it premiered as a music video on MTV at 12:01 AM on August 1st, 1981. This event occurred almost a century after radio was invented. In 1886, German physicist Henirich Hertz laid the foundation for radio by demonstrating the transmission and reception of electric waves without a physical medium. Nokolai Tesla expanded on Hertz’s design and in 1893, he showcased wireless signal transmission in Saint Louis, Missouri.

In 1896, Guglielmo Marconi, who is considered the father of radio, was honored with an award for his advancements in radio technology. Marconi’s early radio utilized Morse code, also known as dot-dash telegraphy, to send messages between ships (Spiker 3). Radio technology and Morse code were used by ships in distress to communicate and request assistance, such as when the Titanic collided with an iceberg in 1912 and sank. The public use of radio technology was temporarily suspended during World War I.

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Radio was used by military officials during this time to communicate with soldiers and non-combatants as a precaution against espionage. The first government-operated radio station in the United States, KDKA, mainly provided updates on the Harding-Cox presidential race (Taylor 427). This resulted in the rise of many other radio stations that offered various types of entertainment like music, drama, and news. The influence of radio on American culture is widely recognized as the most important technological advancement of the 20th century.

The music industry experienced changes and the economy was significantly impacted by radio. In the 1920s, advancements in radio technology led to an expansion of transmission capacities for many stations in the United States. This involved constructing larger studios, improving transmission equipment, and developing microphones to enhance sound quality (Spiker 5).

The receiving equipment used by listeners, such as the vacuum tube, experienced advancements. In the early 1920s, all stations operated on identical frequencies due to the absence of government regulations regarding frequency use. However, as more radio stations emerged, some started operating at higher frequencies. This situation required government intervention and ultimately led to the establishment of the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) in 1926 and the enforcement of the Radio Act of 1927.

The FRC and the Radio Act of 1927 implemented regulations to reduce interference and ensure listeners could enjoy their preferred programs. This led to conflicts between traditional and modern values in American society. Radio stations competed for audiences by offering a variety of programs to appeal to as many listeners as possible (Lafollette 18). However, this resulted in overlapping programs and left listeners confused.

Listeners faced the challenge of balancing their traditional beliefs with the influence of radio programs, which showcased a more modern approach. Despite the love for traditional songs, radios presented modern music produced with advanced technology that captivated listeners more than the traditional tunes (Fredrick 137). This dilemma left listeners uncertain about sticking to their traditions or embracing a more contemporary way of life.

In the 1920s, the introduction of radio entertainment resulted in the emergence of various music genres and promoted cultural sharing. Most radio stations during this period focused on playing Jazz, Broadway, and Ragtime music (Taylor 427). Although Jazz was initially criticized as sinful music, it gained widespread popularity as more people began to appreciate its unique sound. The authenticity of Jazz was confirmed by Paul Whiteman, often referred to as the king of Jazz, in 1927. Through radio broadcasts, these musical styles gained popularity even in remote areas that would otherwise have had limited access to them (Taylor 430).

During this period, musicians seized the opportunity to communicate their narratives, educate, and captivate audiences. The era witnessed a variety of music genres which fostered creativity and pushed musicians to find ways to captivate listeners (Barfield 201). Jazz, Broadway, and Ragtime, though not initially fused genres, gradually found their way into dance halls and clubs. The incorporation of African dances such as chicken scratch and turkey trot further enhanced the popularity of these novel dance styles among Americans.

During the 1920s, radio advertising played a vital role in manufacturers’ efforts to promote their products and services to consumers. This era in the United States was characterized by prosperity and a diverse range of goods and services, leading people to seek ways to maximize their resources and have faith in technology. However, manufacturers faced the challenge of finding suitable markets and distribution channels for their surplus inventory due to an abundance of goods. Consequently, many turned to radio advertising as an effective strategy to stimulate consumer demand (Fredrick 133).

During this period, radio listeners displayed great enthusiasm for following radio programs. Unlike newspaper advertisements, radio advertisements could not be skipped. If listeners missed a radio advertisement, they could potentially miss part of their favorite show (Hilmes 254). These advertisements, also known as adverts, were strategically placed within shows that were popular among listeners. They were highly persuasive and presented in a friendly manner, with the advertiser perceived as a friend offering advice to the audience (Hilmes 255).

This resulted in a boost in sales for additional products and services, ultimately contributing to the growth of the American economy. The increased amount of advertising by various manufacturers during the 1920s led to the commercialization of radio, which consequently created employment opportunities for performers. Despite not receiving payment initially, many performers and deejays were heard on the radio. However, thanks to the profitability gained from radio advertising, performers began to refuse to work without compensation (Hilmes 257).

Radio station owners faced a challenge with performers and deejays requesting high fees for appearing in advertisements. To address this, radio stations implemented the concept of air time to generate sufficient funds to cover the increasing expenses linked to radio entertainment. As a result, advertisers purchased a significant portion of the air time and even sponsored entire shows, gaining complete control over them (Hilmes 257; Hilmes 208). Consequently, during the late 1920s, advertisers became the primary sponsors of radio shows, taking over production responsibilities from the radio stations themselves.

According to Hilmes (258), the programs were designed with the goal of attracting many listeners, who were considered as customers. The larger the number of listeners, the greater the number of customers attracted. Radio targeted all types of listeners, regardless of their backgrounds, and aimed to promote unity and discourage differences. The radio entertainment in the 1920s not only revolutionized the way goods were advertised, but also had an impact on how Americans went about their everyday tasks.

Before the introduction of radio entertainment in the 1920s, Americans would start their day early by performing various tasks such as work, chores, or attending school. They would then return home for dinner and eventually go to bed. However, the arrival of radio drastically altered American culture. The introduction of radio programs in the 1920s catered to different groups during their leisure time (Barfield 56). In the mornings, these programs were designed for the whole family since all family members were usually at home, with some preparing for work and children getting ready for school (Hilmes, 203).

During the day, women had the option of tuning in to their radios to listen to programs created specifically for housewives (Barfield 58). These programs were targeted towards women and were often sponsored by soap manufacturers such as Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, Palmolive, and Lever Brothers, earning them the nickname of “soap operas” (Taylor 434). These soap operas typically featured dramatic storylines that invoked strong emotions in women, causing them to cry throughout the day as they followed their favorite characters’ journeys to achieve their goals (Barfield 59; Spiker 217).

Additionally, advertisers acknowledged the importance of creating programs catering to children. Radio stations broadcasted a range of shows that were suitable for children, with a focus on educational or entertaining content (Barfield 71; Spiker 298). Advertisers developed an assortment of programs specifically tailored to their target audiences. For instance, programs aimed at men included news and weather updates, while soap operas were produced for women. As for children, programs featuring educational material or enjoyable stories like The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger were created and aired during times when the intended audience was most likely to be tuning in.

During the 1920s, radio entertainment played a pivotal role in fostering investment in radio telecommunication and promoting unity across diverse ethnic and racial groups. Unlike the previous focus on manufactured and agricultural products, radio communication introduced a new realm of business centered around entertainment programming. By 1922, approximately 600 radio stations were operational in the United States. The pioneering Chicago-based radio station KYW, established by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in 1921, primarily broadcasted soap operas throughout the week (Taylor 435).

After the opera season ended, KYW acknowledged the importance of diversity in its programming. As a result, it started broadcasting a variety of shows encompassing music, sports events, news updates, weather reports, and political commentary. This change ensured that individuals from different communities, ethnicities, and races felt included as they were offered programs tailored to their specific interests. In the mid-1920s, radio entertainment had a profound impact on the general public and became an integral part of their daily routines. The songs played during this period not only represented ordinary occasions but also held symbolic significance for special events like weddings due to the messages they conveyed.

The wedding in Chicago in the spring of 1924 was featured in Lohengrin, an opera composed by Richard Wagner (Barfield 78). Funeral ceremonies also incorporated radio music. In 1929, a funeral director introduced funeral music to radio programs and established specific time slots for its airing (Barfield 80). As a result, radio entertainment became more diverse and extensive, catering to the diverse needs of society. Undoubtedly, radios’ influence on United States culture is considered the most noteworthy technological advancement of the 20th century.

Radio entertainment revolutionized American daily life, facilitating cultural exchange and profoundly impacting the economy. In the past, manufacturers relied heavily on newspaper advertising. However, radio advertising emerged as a powerful tool to engage consumers, allowing them to promote products extensively and build customer trust. As a result, manufacturers achieved significant financial success. This thriving industry also opened up numerous career opportunities in fields such as presenters, deejays, news reporters, and other professions driven by radio advertising.

Radio played a role in the emergence of innovative music, as numerous artists started to explore different genres to draw more followers. Listeners embraced this music’s message and gradually shifted away from their conventional cultural background to a more contemporary perspective and way of life. Through radio, individuals from various communities, ethnicities, and races found common ground, fostering unity and a sense of inclusivity as they tuned into programs that catered to their interests.

The impact of radio on American culture during the 1920s cannot be underestimated. It revolutionized the way people consumed entertainment and played a major role in shaping traditional American culture. Numerous sources have explored the significance of radio during this time period including Barfield (1996), Fredrick (1964), Hilmes (1997), Lafollette (2002), Messere (1997), Spiker (2006), and Taylor (2002).

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