Radio, a Brief History

Radio broadcasting, which is old-hat now, taken for granted as something most teens listen to on the Internet, or are forced to when their parent is driving, once was amazingly new, the cat’s meow for sure. The basic idea that electromagnetic waves could be transmitted, and with some form of intelligence embedded within, was first demonstrated by the Italian Marconi in 1895 when he transmitted local signals across his garden in Italy. In 1901, he had advanced his technology so that he transmitted a signal from a site in the west of England, in Cornwall, all the way across the Atlantic to a special receiving site in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada. Both of these were experimental in nature, but the transatlantic broadcast clearly demonstrated the power of this new technology. An American inventor, Fessenden, put an experimental station on the air from Massachusetts in late 1906, as did de Forest, in 1907, from New York City. Others followed, and by 1915 experimental AM radio stations were on the air from other places. The first commercial AM broadcast station usually is considered to be today’s KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA. Owned by the Westinghouse Corporation, KDKA began as 8XK in 1916 as a 75 Watt station on its present frequency of 1020 KHz.

Others began as it became clear that the American public was entranced with the ability to receive news and music, and later variety and dramatic programs. The reason the early stations had call-signs like KDKA’s 8XK was that all the early stations were “experimental,” and were assigned call-signs identical in form to the early ham radio experimenters. The number “8” in 8XK represented an area that included the state of Pennsylvania, which at that time was in the eighth district of the US. Early ham radio experimenters in Michigan and Pennsylvania would have been assigned “calls” of the number 8 and two letters. The very, very early ones would have had the “8” and an “X” plus one additional letter, indicating both the region of the US as well as the fact that they were “experimenters.”

In 1920, the first known news broadcast was transmitted from 8MK in Detroit. The Scripps family, which also owned the Detroit Free Press newspaper, invested in this new form of technology, almost as a hedge since they were concerned that radio would put newspapers out of business. Of course both prospered, but now the Internet and social media indeed are threatening the traditional newspaper business. Station 8MK became WWJ, still an all-news station on 950 KHz AM in Detroit.

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1 Response

  1. JK James George
    From WD: Thanks for your “brief history”, with references to the significant role KDKA played. As a young teen, I learned commercial broadcasting hanging around their studios, especially from the then overwhelmingly favorite morning personality Rege Cordic (ask any Pittsburgher). ***********************************************************************************************************

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