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NBC's 1948 Promotional Short, 'Behind Your Radio Dial'

Radio's Early Networks were the means by which we recovered from both the Great Depression and two crushing world wars

While there were several concurrent, independent attempts thoughout the United States during the 1900's, the most successful efforts to expand early Radio into the realm of Broadcasting -- and of networks of broadcasters -- revolved around the East and West Coasts. Dr. Lee DeForest, Professor Edwin H. Armstrong, and Dr. Frank Conrad were the driving forces on the East Coast. On the West Coast, were it not for the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, history may well have seen The West Coast become the first major center of early Broadcast Radio.

radio history photo of reginald fessenden

Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian, and professor at the University of Pittsburgh succeeded in transmitting voice over radio-telephone in 1900 while performing experiments for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Using a spark transmitter to reproduce his voice, the noise produced by the transmitter itself rendered his Fessenden's voice almost unintelligible. But by December 11, 1906, he'd succeeded in transmitting a clear and audible signal from his lab in Brant Rock, MA. Ernst Alexanderson of Westinghouse Electric Co, had provided Fessenden with a new, high-speed alternator specifcally designed for Fessenden's experiment. Westinghouse's alternator, though able to produce a clear continuous wave signal, was prohibitively expensive and impractical for use either shipboard, where most of the need for radio existed at the time, or for personal or early business use.

Concurrent, successful west coast Radio development takes a leap forward but stalls due to the great san francisco earthquake of 1906

Francis J. McCarty, while almost unheard of in the history of early radio, was a teenaged, self-educated engineering prodigy in San Francisco, CA, who'd, by 1903, developed a spark-telephone which had already transmitted an audible voice transmission over two miles. By 1904, following significant improvements in his invention, he'd successfully transmitted a clear voice transmission seven miles over water.

Following another successful demonstration of his technology in 1905 -- this time for The Press -- McCarty's technology was deemed worthy of commercial interest, and The McCarty Wireless Telephone Company was formed, issuing 200,000 shares of stock at a dollar a share, McCarty retaining 105,000 and a controlling interest. Shortly after his successful public demonstration, Hale's Department Store in San Francisco installed an experimental transmitting station at the store. Within 17 years, Prentiss Cobb and Hale's Department Store would become the home to KPO Radio.

radio history photo of KPO trasmitter room Hale's Department Store

By the Spring of 1906, future of The McCarty Wireless Telephone Company couldn't have seemed brighter. This optimism was shattered the morning of April 18, 1906 as San Francisco endured the most catastrophic earthquake in America's history.

The Public's focus on the aftermath of the Great Earthquake and it's accompanying conflagration eclipsed McCarty's historic accomplishments. Interest in his revolutionary technology all but vanished. In yet another cruel irony, a month after The Great Earthquake, McCarty, heading home from his office, swerved his cart to avoid a jaywalking pedestrian, was thrown from his cart, and struck his head against a telephone pole, expiring from the trauma moments later. Francis J. McCarty died two weeks shy of his 18th Birthday.

radio history photo of deforest audion tube

His family and investors made a vain attempt to further McCarty's successes. Indeed they succeeded in transmitting what may have been the first recorded music program in 1908. But DeForest had introduced the world to the Audion Tube in 1907, and there seemed no further commercial rationale to develop McCarty's technology beyond that point. The McCarty Wireless Telephone Company collapsed shortly after.

A succession of rapidly emerging radio technologies shift the focus to the east coast: broadcast radio becomes a practical and commercial reality.

radio history photo of Guglielmo Marconi

As recounted in more detail in the accompanying spotlights of major Radio Networks, the rapid advances in radio transmission technoloy -- over both wire (telephone and telegraph) and airwaves -- began to rival and in some instances, surpass, the parallel efforts of Guglielmo Marconi. Marconi had conducted a series of trials in 1923 between experimental transmission stations at Poldhu, Cornwall, in England and in Marconi's yacht "Elettra" cruising in both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. This led to the establishment of the 'beam system' for long distance communication. His proposals to The British Empire to use the system for Imperial communication were accepted by the British Government and the first beam station -- linking England and Newfoundland, Canada --- was established in 1926.

radio history photo of Lee Deforest

Dr. Lee Deforest, an inveterate liar, charlatan, plagiarist, Self-Styled inventor, and unabashedly self-promoting entrepreneur, would not be denied. David Sarnoff's RCA Network, utilizing Deforest's technology, began transmitting commercially in December 1923 between WJZ in New York City, NY and WGY in Schenectedy, NY.

RCA was forced to employ Western Union telegraph wires, since AT&T would not lease their phone lines to a competitor. Due in part to this limitation, by 1925, RCA had managed to link only four stations (WJZ, WJY, WGY and WRC) owing to the inferior audio quality and unreliable connections of the Western Union telegraph lines.

This inevitably led to landmark litigation which ultimately forced AT&T to withdraw from programming and broadcasting. AT&T became a 'common carrier' resource -- the common carrier resource.

RCA's network was subsequently absorbed by the National Broadcasting Company as 'NBC Blue'.

Take me to Spotlight on Advertising
Take me to Spotlight on the Golden Age
Take me to Spotlight on Networks
Take me to Spotlight on Personalities
Take me to Spotlight on Technology
A brief chronology of significant radio broadcast networks: the commercial appeal of broadcast radio creates a technology that can't be denied.

radio history photo of KDKA logo

1920 -- KDKA, Pittsburgh, broadcasts early returns of the Harding election as America's first, licensed, operating radio broadcasting station.

1922 -- KOAC, Corvallis, OR obtains a license for KFDJ, the Nation's first Public Broadcasting Station.

radio history photo of WEAF Logo

1922 -- Aug 28. The first radio commercial is broadcast over WEAF, New York for The Queensboro Corporation..

radio history photo of KHJ logo

1923 -- Jan 1st. KHJ, Los Angeles broadcasts the first New Years Day Rose Bowl Game from Pasadena.

1923 -- Jan 23rd. Programming from New York's WEAF is carried 'simultaneously' over a second station in Boston (WNAC). The concept of "network" or "chain broadcasting" is born.

1923 -- Feb 2nd. Transcontinental network broadcast links WEAF, New York and KPO, San Francisco (the Hale's Department Store Broadcasting Station).

radio history photo of Eveready ratheon logo

1924 -- The first Network-sponsored broadcast -- 'The Eveready Hour' -- from WEAF, New York, to WCAP and WJAR sponsored by National Carbon Company.

radio history photo of Westinghouse Radio Stations logo

radio history photo of 1940s NBC radio logo

1926 -- Jul 7th The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) is formed from RCA, General Electric, and Westinghouse, over AT&T leased telephone lines.

radio history photo of RCA Hour schedule card
(Click to view larger Image)

1927 -- United Independent Broadcasters is reorganized as Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), with an initial network of 47 member stations.

radio history photo of KPO San Francisco building
[Yes, I realize it was a grease pencil that was really used.
Chalk it up to artistic license]

1927 -- Apr 5th. NBC establishes it's 'Orange' Network on the West Coast, comprised of seven Pacific Coast stations: KPO and KGO, San Francisco, KFI, Los Angeles, KFOA, Seattle (followed shortly after by KOMO), KGW, Portland, and KHQ, Spokane.

1927 -- The Radio Act of 1927 establishes 'public ownership of the airwaves'.

1928 -- Jan 4th. NBC's first coast to coast network broadcast consists of 47 stations spanning the continental United States.

1929 -- Jan 3rd. William Paley incorporates the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

1930 -- The Yankee Network is founded by John Sheppard, III. Its flagship station would be Boston's WNAC 680 [first at 1230 then 1260]. The network was comprised of affliates in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine.

1932 -- Yiddish newspaper, 'The Forward' purchases WEVD, New York and expands the popular reach and availability of Yiddish Radio with their famous, long-running show, 'The Forward Hour'.

radio history photo of Ed Wynn

1933 -- September. Comedian and Vaudevillian Ed Wynn creates his Amalgamated Broadcast System (ABS), which subsequently folds in November the same year (costing him over 300,000 post-Depression era dollars in the process).

radio history photo of WGN logo
radio history photo of WKYZ logo

1934 -- The Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) is formed as a cooperative network between WOR in New York, WGN in Chicago, WLW in Cinncinatti, and WXYZ in Detroit..

1935 -- Four National networks and twenty Regional networks are broadcasting programming everywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day.

The Colonial Network

1936 -- The Colonial Network , also owned by John Sheppard, III, consists of 14 affilates, sharing 7 of them in common with The Yankee Network.

1936 -- The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) goes on the air.

1939 -- NBC begins regular daily Television broadcasts throughout the U.S.

1942 -- The Voice of America is formed to provide overseas propaganda to foreign nations.

1942 -- Armed Forces Radio creates a world-wide network -- the Armed Forces Radio Network -- of radio stations aimed to support and entertain troops overseas.

1943 -- NBC's 'Red' and 'Blue' networks are split up by federal decree. ABC is formed from the purchase of The Blue Network

.radio history photo of ABC logo

1944 -- The Blue Network becomes the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

radio history photo of WNBC logo

1946 -- November. WEAF, New York becomes WNBC and WABC, New York becomes WCBS.

1953 -- WJZ New York becomes WABC under the American Broadcasting Company.

radio history photo of WDIA logo

1954 -- The National Negro Network is founded with an initial network of 40 member stations.

Link to radio history timeline


Click for full size, or choose .pdf version

Deb Lawson's Historical Internet Research Page linksSujan Hallikainen's Saving History from the Dumpster PagesOldradio's Radio/TV Station Call Letter OriginsThe John R. Hickman Digital CollectionLink to San Francisco Broadcasting HistoryLink to Donna Halper's African-Americans and Early RadioLink to Australia's Radio MagazineLink to The Museum of Broadcast TelevisionLink to The History of RadioLink to United States Early Radio History