The first radio station in the United States, Pittsburgh’s KDKA, began broadcasting in 1920. The idea of competing networks scheduling program slates to win listeners from one another was almost a decade away. By 1922, only thirty stations operated in the United States, but radio was already becoming the new-appliance phenomenon that later television, the videocassette recorder, and the personal computer would become: By 1923, 556 stations broadcast an assortment of programs. The production of receiver sets shows the same explosion of growth: From only a few receivers being produced in 1921, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA, incorporated on October 17, 1919) and others such as Atwater Kent and Westinghouse Electric Corporation manufactured one hundred thousand sets in 1922 and five hundred thousand in 1923. For the first time in 1923, both Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Montgomery Ward offered radios in their catalogs.
Tom Lewis’s book on the genesis of radio further points out that the end of the 1920’s saw another surge in the popularity of the medium, sparked by the public’s desire to follow the heroics of Charles A. Lindbergh. When William S. Paley combined two small networks into the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and named himself president, he established conditions that would affect not only the development of American radio drama but also the basic nature of the medium.
Paley sought to compete with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and its president David Sarnoff by widening the types of programs broadcast. NBC had until then been featuring programs that often played to the highest tastes of listeners. Paley eschewed classical concerts and educational fare and instead found a receptive audience that enjoyed jazz, vaudeville comics, and soap opera. It was NBC that eventually broadcast the most popular radio series ever, Amos ’n’ Andy (beginning in 1926 as Sam ’n’ Henry on Chicago’s WGN, the show first aired on NBC under its familiar title on August 19, 1929), and the national sensation of that comedy spurred further sales of radios.
Worthington Miner wrote about the early days of the medium and how the expenses of creating a national industry were absorbed by the broadcasters, the manufacturers, and the sponsors. The listeners, however, had to pay too:[T]he price to the public was the stamp of a salesman’s mind on the dramatic content and intent of every program put on the air. . . . [A] vigorous theater...
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