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Radio networks produce radio's golden age

Updated on November 5, 2013

The first radio network was created in 1923 by AT&T

Old radios used to fill America's homes with dramas & comedy during the 30s, 40s & 50s.
Old radios used to fill America's homes with dramas & comedy during the 30s, 40s & 50s. | Source

Like Facebook and Twitter today, radio was the new medium in the 1920s and 30s — flexing its muscle against newspapers.

There’s your cellular network, a computer network, the satellite tracking network, the alphabet soup of TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, etc.). But do you know that the first electronic network — the first radio network — began 90 years ago?

Let’s briefly examine what was going on in 1923 with this new invention — radio. Marconi invented radio in the the 1890s and he and others perfected it. In the early 20th century radio communication began. Then in 1920, Pittsburgh’s KDKA was the first radio station in the nation to broadcast.

Within three years, the U.S. landscape was dotted with more than 500 stations. By the end of the 1920s, Americans owned over 12 million radios.

With hundreds of stations and countless hours to fill, broadcasters soon looked for a way to share their resources. They decided to link stations in different cities and broadcast the same program on several stations. It was AT&T that started the first permanent radio network on July 1, 1923. The company’s telephone circuits were used to link WEAF in New York City with WNAC (now WRKO) in Boston.

Earlier that year, AT&T conducted a three hour test when two radio stations were connected and broadcast a dual program. Over 100,000 people tuned in.

This experimental, one-time hookup was so successful that Col. Edward H. R. Green, millionaire and technology enthusiast, financed a permanent radio network between the New York City and Boston stations. Colonel Green was such an enthusiastic supporter of the radio industry that he offered $5,000 (over $60,000 in today’s money) to the person whose idea most advanced radio.

How & why NBC's created its signature three chimes

In the early days of NBC the network wanted a signal so engineers at affiliated stations would know when they should insert local commercials.

Throughout 1927 and 1928 NBC experimented with groups of tones — first seven, then four, finally three: G, E and C for N-B-C. Soon this was the network's audio signature. It was first broadcast in 1929. (The three tone sequence was trademarked in 1950. It was the first audible trademark.)

The network was concerned about consistency. So, in 1931, an NBC engineer created a specialized music box, called a chime machine that consistently produced the three tones.

When NBC started a TV network the chime natural moved to the new medium. But it was eventually replaced. The NBC chime was heard for the final time on the air in 1976 during a NBC TV special marking the 50th anniversary of the creation of the NBC radio network.

New radio network is named after the color of phone lines

AT&T marked the radio network’s telephone links in red, so the group of stations became known as either the WEAF chain or “the red network.”

You can thank the telephone company for inventing paid ads as a way to finance their network. The network slowly spread out from its New York City base. In three years, the Red Network had expanded to 19 cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

The success of this network interested other companies. GE, Westinghouse and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) teamed up and started a network of four stations based at WJZ in New York City. The WJZ Network was stymied by AT&T’s refusal to allow them to use their phone lines to link the fledgling network. Instead, WJZ engineers settled on less reliable shortwave transmissions to link their stations.

Then in May 1926, suddenly AT&T dropped a bombshell. The company decided to get out of radio and sold WEAF and its network to the three companies for $1 million. To manage this new enterprise, the trio formed the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and put David Sarnoff in charge. The WEAF group was renamed the NBC-Red Network and the WJZ Network became the NBC-Blue Network. NBC's debut broadcast was on November 15, 1926.

NBC operated the two radio networks for 17 years when, in 1943, the company was forced to sell off the Blue Network. It became ABC. This divestiture was a result of a Supreme Court ruling that maintained NBC’s two networks prevented competition.

Flagship station's control room is in the men's room

The other major U.S. radio network at the time was CBS, which almost didn’t make it past its first year. It was created in 1927 as the United Independent Broadcasters. In need of an influx of cash Columbia Records stepped in and provided its money and its first name. The young network had 16 stations. Its originating station was WOR, then based in Newark, New Jersey. WOR had a cramped station. It was so tiny that, for a time, the control room was conveniently located in the men's room.

In the fall of 1927, CBS broadcast its first program. The press, which had raved about NBC’s first offering, panned CBS’ initial broadcast. One reviewer said after listening to the show he was “tear stained and disillusioned, vowing to abandon radio.”

William S. Paley was named president of CBS in 1928. Despite his young age, the 26-year-old proved the network could be a gold mine if radio advertising was used effectively. Soon after taking the reins of CBS, Paley convinced his father to advertise on the radio. Soon sales doubled at his family’s cigar business. The following year, CBS boasted to its sponsors of having a network of 47 stations and a new New York City originating station, which would soon have the call letters: WCBS.

Garry Moore and Jimmy Durante on their 1940s radio show.
Garry Moore and Jimmy Durante on their 1940s radio show. | Source

1929-57: Golden Age of Radio

Radio changed the lifestyle of most Americans.

Now, instead of reading or playing games to while away the evening hours, people settled down in the living room and listened to a comedy or drama on an electronic device about the size of a picnic basket.

“Every day, shortly after sunset, America would pull her chair up to this little box and spend a delightful evening as magically fiction was made to come alive,” Don Kisner recalled on BalancePublishing.com.

Radio drama is a story with dialogue, music and sound effects. There's no visual. Radio drama depends on your imagination to fill in details. Listeners use their imagination to give each scene form and life.

America loved their nighttime dramas (and daytime soap operas). Many of the programs were developed from characters found in magazines and the comic strips.

There was: Orson Wells as The Shadow intoning, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Ooo Ha Ha Ha. The Shadow knows.” The Shadow was a detective, who was invisible because he had “the power to cloud men's minds.” Before you listened to each week’s episode, first you heard a word from your sponsor: “Blue Coal mined for your comfort.”

Every day, shortly after sunset, America would pull her chair up to this little box and spend a delightful evening as magically fiction was made to come alive

Sound effects were necessary for effective radio dramas

As radio grew so did the number of dramas on the air. Each show needed to be embellished with realistic sound that brought life to the shows. Soon records were produced for sound engineers that contained cuts of various sounds (e.g. car engines, crowds, cows and crickets).

But it’s the manual sound effects that separated the sound men from the boys.

You couldn’t capture some “expressive” sounds in a recording, like knocking on the door. A door can be knocked fast, slow, timidly, with authority or in a panic. So a little working door was made. The sound man could knock on it, open it and close it gently or slam it shut.

Some of the other ways sound were made, include:

  • using a straw and blowing into water for boiling water
  • running one’s fingernail on the edge of a small comb for crickets
  • twirling the knob of combination lock was used for both a safe’s dial being turned or a Geiger counter

Detective and sci-fi shows

There were other detectives: Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and sponsored by Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic for men. And Ed Begley as Charlie Chan, a detective who combined the wisdom of the East with the science of the West.

There was radio fans’ favorite police drama Dragnet, starring Jack Webb. He went on to perform the same role on TV in the 50s. Webb, who created and produced the series, wanted it to be authentic.

He salted the drama with police jargon he picked up frequenting police stations. Each week the announcer would explain how the story came from “actual police files” from the L.A. Police Department. “The story you are about to hear is true,” the announcer said. “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Radio drama writers also created science fiction shows pulled from the pages of pulp fiction magazines: Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. As was CBS’ sci-fi drama Flash Gordon, starring character actor Gale Gordon and the first science fiction series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Actually there were three Buck Rogers radio series. The first aired on CBS and the last two on Mutual, a network that was born in 1934.

By the 40s, Mutual Broadcasting was the largest radio network with approximately 300 stations, but with a few exceptions they were small, low-watt stations. Thus the network’s advertising produced less revenue than the other three “smaller” networks. Mutual’s other hit radio dramas included The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman.

Amos 'n' Andy stars Freeman Gosden (left) and Charles Correll in black face.
Amos 'n' Andy stars Freeman Gosden (left) and Charles Correll in black face. | Source

Laughs on radio were golden

There were also lots of comedy shows to choose from on the golden radio dial.

One was Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen. It’s interesting that ventriloquist Edgar Bergen gave his dummy top billing. To the radio listener Charlie was real.The duo became immensely popular. As was the pairing of raspy voice, veteran comedian Jimmy Durante with young, straight man Garry Moore in The Camel Comedy Caravan. Caravan was more than comedy. It also was a musical variety show. Moore went on to star in his own TV variety show in the 50s, which featured Carol Burnett in its ensemble cast.

Another comedy pair was Fibber McGee and Molly, starring vaudeville comedians Jim and Marian Jordan. The show was about a typical American couple, with much of the laugher provided by fumbling Fibber. Whatever the situation Fibber usually made a fool of himself. That was right after a commercial from Johnson's Wax.

One other duo was the beloved Amos 'n' Andy show. It was one of the first radio comedy series. It started at Chicago’s WMAQ and later was picked up the NBC Blue Network. Amos 'n' Andy’s creators and stars, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, were white actors familiar with minstrel shows.

The situation comedy was based in Harlem and featured an unusual group of African American characters, such as Kingfish and Lightning. Amos 'n' Andy’ was so popular that many movie theaters stopped their projectors during the show and piped the 15-minute radio program through the theater's sound system.

Jack Benny started in vaudeville and moved to radio in the 1930s.
Jack Benny started in vaudeville and moved to radio in the 1930s. | Source

Jack Benny also had a hit radio comedy show, first on NBC Blue, then on CBS. He was also a star of vaudeville, movies and TV.

In vaudeville, Benny delivered one liners and snappy comebacks. His persona changed when he transi- tioned into radio. He was more reserved and his character was a certified penny-pincher.

America enjoyed his show from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s. His announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day and Eddie (Rochester) Anderson were with him most of that time and joined Benny when he moved the show to TV.

Radio drama and comedy shows reached their peak during the 1940s. Following WWII, America switched to TV and radio drama faded away.

Listen to radio's "Lights Out"

All the news that’s fit to hear

In addition to entertainment, radio also brought the listener instant, on the spot reports of dramatic events. Millions followed the news on the radio or “the newspaper that comes through your walls,” as a 1922 magazine described it.

During World War II Americans at home followed the war news on the radio. Many Americans tuned to the CBS network for their war news, because the reports were crafted by CBS’s skilled broadcast journalists, headed by Edward R. Murrow.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made use of this intimate medium. Throughout his four terms in office, FDR’s radio addresses or "fireside chats" informed the nation of his policies during the Depression and provided the latest information about World War II.

Source

Looking for more... Check:

• the Digital Deli: It's filled with info, photos and audio clips. It has a lengthy links page. If you're a fan of old radio you'll spend hours sampling all that's served up at the Digital Deli.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater: Over 1,000 shows online

Old Time Radio: Here you can listen to FREE streaming audio of hundreds of various old radio shows. –TDowling

© 2013 Thomas Dowling

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    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thoroughly interesting Hub about the Golden-Age of Radio! Listening to these old but timeless shows and letting the imagination run wild is truly an amazing experience. Kids today should try it! Thanks TDowling! :o)

    • TDowling profile image
      Author

      Thomas Dowling 3 years ago from Florida

      Thanks, ajwrites57!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I'm just old enough to remember hearing some radio dramas when I was a child. Boston Blackie is one I remember. I'm not sure, though, that those broadcasts were networked, since I could only hear them at night by tuning in the faint signals of stations in distant cities. But it was exciting! Thanks for an enjoyable hub.

    • TDowling profile image
      Author

      Thomas Dowling 3 years ago from Florida

      You're welcome, RonElFran. And thanks.

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