How Did the Radio Affect America in the 1920s?

The radio served as an important communication tool in the 1920s, bringing news and entertainment into homes throughout the country and making information more accessible for the average American.

A Brief History In the late 19th century, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi developed a wireless technology that allowed him to send signals across a distance. Enthusiasts began playing with the new technology in order to broadcast their own signals, among them one Frank Conrad, who was an engineer for Westinghouse and set up his own station above the garage of his home. From there, he improved the transmitter and began broadcasting a variety of programming, including the historic message near the end of 1920 announcing Warren G. Harding as next president of the United States.

The federal government gave Conrad’s station the call letters KDKA, and radio’s popularity began to spread. Although KDKA dominated the airwaves for a time, many other radio stations began to vie for the public’s attention, enough so that publications appeared listing the various stations and programs available. The U.S. Department of Commerce soon adopted new regulations, ensuring that broadcasts made for the general public met the standards set out in a new broadcast service classification. Despite these regulations, radio continued to grow until it had spread to every state.

Uniting the Nation As more stations began broadcasting throughout the country, radios started appearing in quite a few homes. The radio allowed information to spread more quickly, and Americans were able to receive news, music and entertainment anywhere within listening distance. This helped create a firmer sense of American culture since now everyone in the country could listen to the same programming regardless of where they were.

Radio programming wasn’t restricted by distance, which meant that people several hundred miles apart could tune in to the same entertainment or news programs. Because of the fierce competition for listeners, stations were constantly coming up with more innovative programming. Broadcasts included short stories read aloud over the air, operas and classical music, stock and farm market updates and political commentary. Many stations also reported the news, providing American citizens with information regarding important events happening throughout the nation.

Changing Other Industries Sports have a history of bringing Americans together, and the radio helped change the way people enjoyed these events. Because stations could only broadcast sound, they had to come up with a new method of bringing sporting events into people’s homes. They did so by describing each play as it happened, announcing what the players were doing and giving listeners the illusion that they were there at the game. With the introduction of play-by-play descriptions, radios were able to let everyone keep up with their favorite teams while popularizing star athletes. Certain sports figures became household names thanks to radio broadcasters describing their accomplishments over the air.

As the radio became more popular, the industry gradually became commercialized, with advertisers purchasing airtime in order to reach millions of potential customers at once. Radio started out as a not-for-profit venture but, as other businesses began to realize the potential gain, airtime grew more coveted. By the late 1920s, most broadcasts had become a mix of entertainment and advertisement, with a variety of companies paying a premium in order to advertise their goods and services in-between and during programming.