Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio

By ANTHONY RUDEL

The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value, declared a not particularly prescient executive of the newly formed RCA in 1920. “Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” As Anthony Rudel explains, the fact that radio waves scattered about was considered a disadvantage to early developers; they hoped to use the technology to send signals directly from one point to another. Rudel’s lively history of the dawn of the radio age covers a parade of innovators and hucksters (see Dr. John Brinkley, the broadcasting pioneer who advertised his surgical technique, transplanting goat testicles into men to cure impotence, over the air) who grasped that the ability to reach many people at once was in fact radio’s greatest strength. During the 1920s, radio’s popularity exploded as sports events, variety shows, and religious sermons became programming staples — the latter made national celebrities out of controversial evangelists Aimee Semple McPherson and Father Charles Coughlin. On-the-spot coverage of the Scopes trial and the Lindbergh kidnapping revolutionized the way Americans received their news (thus alarming the newspaper industry, one of several fascinating parallels to the dawn of the Internet age), while weather updates and market reports changed the way farmers did business. One of the figures credited with guiding the growth of radio was Herbert Hoover, who, as commerce secretary under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, helped determine how active the government should be in regulating the airwaves. Ironically, radio contributed to his resounding defeat in the 1932 presidential election at the hands of an opponent, FDR, who was a master of the medium.