Catching a Wave

If you lived in this country, just over one hundred years ago, and you wanted musical entertainment in your home, you were pretty much screwed.

Unless you could master a musical instrument, your options were severely limited: You could crank-up a music box, or pump-up a player piano, or wind-up a gramophone—or, if you lived in the greater Pittsburgh area, and were an amateur radio operator, you could tune-in and experience what many consider the birth of commercial broadcast radio.

In 1919, Westinghouse engineer and wireless amateur, Frank Conrad, built an experimental transmitter to conduct experiments between his home laboratory and work facility.

Westinghouse engineer, Frank Conrad, credited with the first radio broadcast

Conrad was also an early record collector, and would often place his Victrola phonograph near a microphone during his tests, and transmit 78 rpm music over the air. This not only allowed Conrad the freedom to conduct his experiments while saving his vocal cords, but it also served as entertainment for local radio operators tuning-in near his Pittsburgh residence.

Though radio existed at the time, it was primarily used as a means of two-way communication and referred to as wireless telephony. Crystal radios were by far the most popular type of receiver as they were cheap, dependable, and did not require batteries (using an outdoor wire antenna to capture radio waves for power). In 1919, radio had little commercial use, mostly relegated to technicians and amateur operators.

That was all about to change.

Local operators began to mail Conrad song requests along with their signal reports. These specific requests became so frequent, that Conrad started to regularly “broadcast” his recordings for two hours, on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

It was Conrad who first chose the gardening term broadcast, meaning to cast or scatter seeds over a wide area. It was also Conrad who first secured an ongoing supply of the latest music from a local radio store—providing he announce the name and location of the business, so listeners know where to purchase the songs and radios.

His broadcasts were a big hit, and soon included the results of local sporting events, news, even weather.

About this time, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, intimately aware of radio’s potential, also saw Conrad’s concept, and wanted to use his model to create a demand for their radio products. The goal was to offer a variety of regularly scheduled programs (i.e., sports scores, entertainment, news) and establish a consistent, hopefully loyal, listenership.

First, they needed a radio station.

So, a team of engineers erected a 100-watt transmitting tower on a roof top at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and on October 27, 1920, the Department of Commerce issued the first commercial radio station license under the call sign KDKA.

Original KDKA logo

Yet, in 1920, less than 1% of the American public owned a radio receiver and couldn’t listen even if they wanted to.

Westinghouse knew for radio to become a household fixture, it had to be easy to operate, affordable, and already assembled.

That same year they introduced the Westinghouse RADA combination tuner, detector/amplifier, with loudspeaker, the very first radio receiver produced and sold for use in the home.

These paired components were manufactured specifically to coincide with the launch of KDKA, creating a one-two punch from Westinghouse who both established the world’s first commercial broadcast radio station, and manufactured the world’s first radio receiver for the home. An original Westinghouse RADA radio is on display at the SPARK Museum, and can be viewed in the Radio Enters the Home Gallery.

This is KDKA of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We shall now broadcast the election returns. We are receiving these returns through the cooperation and by special arrangement with the Pittsburgh Post and Sun. We would appreciate it if anyone hearing this broadcast would communicate with us as we are very anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received…”

— Leo Rosenberg, KDKA’s first broadcast, November 2, 1920.

Early KDKA broadcast. Photo courtesy of Entercom Communications Corp. Source:

So it begins, the birth of commercial radio. This inaugural broadcast started a whole new music and entertainment industry, one that would grow and spread across the country like wildfire.

Soon KDKA’s transmitter went from 100-watts to 500-watts, increasing their signal, reaching thousands of listeners, over hundreds of miles across the U.S. and Canada.

In less than 2 years, there were over five hundred licensed radio stations on the air, broadcasting real-time information and entertainment directly into homes of Americans everywhere.

How surreal it must have been—exactly one hundred years ago today—having a glowing wooden box capturing distant waves of sound, through the air, then instantaneously filling your home with disembodied voices.

Amazing, curious, spooky.

By 1944—just 20 years later—over 90% of American homes had at least one radio. Now a whole new world of entertainment and information became available to anyone with a receiver. Millions of Americans across the country were tuning-in Bob Hope, Benny Goodman, Winston Churchill, and Flash Gordon right in their privacy of their own homes.

In less than 25 years this cutting-edge technology developed into the first electronic mass medium, and for better or for worse, connected Americans ever since.

Stay tuned, stay grounded.