Conversations around the fire. The ‘Castle Fight of the Century.’ A live report from the attack on Pearl Harbor. These are just a few examples of historic radio broadcasts that seemed to have the entire country tuned in.
Beginning in 1920, radio revolutionized American culture for three decades.
At a time when most people still lived outside of major cities, radio technology, which allowed sound signals to be transmitted over long distances, made the vast country feel smaller and more connected. And it spread like wildfire: radio ownership nearly doubled in the 1930s, from about 40% of U.S. families at the start of the decade to nearly 90% by 1940—more than cars or indoor plumbing, according to historian Bruce Lenthall, author of Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture.
During the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II, radio fostered a real-time national conversation. And, before television and the internet, it was the single most powerful force in shaping a mass culture of sports, entertainment, news, and advertising. It brought the wider world closer than ever before, uniting listeners of every age, race, and class—in every corner of the country—around their wireless boxes. In a 1933 essay, author and essayist E.B. White described radio as a “godlike presence” in his rural community.
From KDKA’s pioneering live broadcast of 1920 presidential election results to Edward R. Murrow’s live nighttime reports under Nazi bombing to baseball’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” here are eight of radio’s most seminal moments.
1920 Presidential Election Results
According to the US Federal Communications Commission, KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the world’s first commercial radio broadcast when it broadcast live results from the presidential election between Warren Harding and James Cox. The 18-hour transmission, from 6 p.m. on November 2 to noon on November 3, was somewhat improvised. Just six days before the election, KDKA, owned by Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse, received its broadcasting license. The returns came from a small shed atop the tallest building in Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant.
Despite only reaching an estimated 1,000 people, the broadcast revolutionized how news could be delivered—instead of through newspapers printed and distributed hours or days later. In August 1921, KDKA broadcast the first live, play-by-play broadcast of a professional baseball game (Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies) and two months later, a college football game (West Virginia University vs. University of Pittsburgh).
The New York Times reported in 1924 that KDKA’s 1920 election broadcast experiment, enabled by Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla’s technological innovations, had started something big. In a few years, the US had over 530 radio stations reaching an estimated 10 million people.
The Grand Ole Opry Spreads Country Music
Bluegrass singer-songwriter Bill Monroe performs with Jimmy Martin on guitar, Buddy Killen on bass and Don Slayman on fiddle on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1951 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bob Grannis/Getty Images
In late November 1925, on Nashville’s WSM radio station, announcer George D. “Judge” Hay introduced the program’s first performer: octogenarian fiddler Jimmy Thompson, accompanied by his niece on piano. Two years later, Hay renamed the show the “Grand Ole Opry,” implying that it would be more family-friendly than the weekly grand opera show that preceded it.
KSM advertiser Sears-Roebuck initially objected to the show’s “disgraceful low-brow music,” but fan letters flooded in. To accommodate what was becoming a live event as well as a radio broadcast, WSM built a 500-seat studio theater in 1930.
WSM increased its broadcast power to 50,000 watts in 1932, allowing country music to gain popularity across the US and Canada. From Bill Monroe to Dolly Parton, the show introduced the world to bluegrass and country music.
This is the history of the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, according to David Bruenger in Making Money, Making Music: History and Core Concepts. Its opportunism and reach gave us everything we know about the Nashville sound, publishing, record labels and celebrities.
FDR’s Fireside Chats Calm a Nervous Country
Between March 1933 and June 1944, during the Great Depression and World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered 30 speeches to millions of Americans via radio broadcast. These speeches came to be known as the “Because of President Roosevelt’s conversational speaking style, CBS station manager Harold Butcher coined the term “fireside chats.” The first one began, “I’d like to speak with the people of the United States about banking for a few minutes.”
Prior presidents relied heavily on newspapers to convey their messages. During World War II, Roosevelt used his chats to provide frequent, unfiltered updates on the conflict. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt was frustrated with the press, according to White House historian Margaret Biser. When asked if he planned to discuss recent talks with Winston Churchill on the air, Roosevelt replied, “It’s up to you fellows.” I won’t go on the radio if you guys give the country an extremely accurate picture.”
While the chats appeared to be casual and impromptu, Biser claimed that they were fact-checked and re-written several times by a team of speechwriters, and that Roosevelt spoke more slowly than most radio announcers of the time, using an average of 65 fewer words per minute.
“Radio provided a connection between Roosevelt and the people,” Celeste Nunez, a scholar of Roosevelt’s “fireside” addresses, wrote. His approachable manner enabled Americans to “easily understand why Roosevelt installed the programs he did and his administration’s actions.”
The ‘Fight of the Century’ Reaches the Largest Radio Audience in History
Two years after Max Schmeling’s knockout of the undefeated Joe Louis in a non-title bout, they met again on June 22, 1938, for a dramatic rematch at Yankee Stadium. Louis TKO’d the German in two minutes and four seconds.
On June 19, 1936, Black American boxer Joe Louis was a 10-to-1 favorite over Max Schmeling in their first fight, but the German won in a 12th-round knockout at Yankee Stadium. Louis avenged himself in the rematch two years later with a technical knockout in the first round.
It’s difficult to overestimate the cultural significance of this sporting event. The second battle, which took place against the backdrop of increasing Nazi aggression in Europe, is thought to have had the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast—an estimated 70 million listeners, according to the Library of Congress, which selected it for its National Recording Registry in 2005.
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The Attack on Pearl Harbor is Reported Live
On December 7, 1941, as the Japanese attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, an unknown KTU reporter in Honolulu explained what was going on in real time:
“I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company Building… We have witnessed this morning the distant view of a brief full battle of Pearl Harbor and the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese. One of the bombs dropped within fifty feet of KTU Tower. It is no joke. It is a real war.”
The reporter, who was transmitting his report via phone lines to NBC in New York, was providing the nation with the only live broadcast of the surprise Pearl Harbor attack. At the time of the ferocious WWII air assault, which killed over 2,400 Americans and damaged or destroyed nearly 20 naval vessels and 300 aircraft, the United States had 45 million radios. The historic news that the war had arrived on American soil disrupted the lives of millions of people across the country.
The War of the Worlds Airs; Panic Breaks Out
Orson Welles rehearsing his radio depiction of H.G. Wells’ classic, The War of the Worlds. The broadcast, which claimed that aliens from Mars had invaded New Jersey, terrified thousands of Americans.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images
Between 8:15 and 9:30 p.m. on October 30, 1938, a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi fantasy novel The War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, sent thousands of Americans into a frenzy. Many people believed that an interplanetary conflict had begun with an invasion of Martians wreaking havoc in New Jersey and New York after hearing the broadcast.
The New York Times reported the day after the broadcast that on a single block in Newark, more than 20 families fled their homes with handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee what they thought was a gas raid. The “wave of mass hysteria” described by the Times in its report was challenged in Hadley Cantril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, published in 1940 by Princeton University’s Radio Research Project. According to Cantril, at least one million of the 6 million people who heard the broadcast believed it was true.
Brad Schwartz, a Princeton Ph.D. student, studied letters written by citizens to radio stations at the time in 2015 to provide a new assessment of the episode. Schwarz discovered in his book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ and the Art of Fake News that the vast majority of people were not scared by the broadcast. “Many feared that democracy simply couldn’t survive in an age when the mass media could lie so convincingly,” Schwartz explained in a 2018 interview, “and they wrote to protect Welles from government censorship.”
The ‘World Famous Shot’ Leaves Sportscasters Sputtering
A radio broadcast of the 1951 National League pennant game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants at New York’s Polo Grounds was the first nationally televised baseball game. It happened in the third game of a three-game winner-take-all series. Bobby Thompson came up to bat with runners on second and third in the 9th inning.
Thompson’s pennant-clinching three-run homer on WMCA was one of the most memorable radio moments of the century.
“There’s a long drive… It’s gonna be, I believe…the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy! I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson hit a line drive into the lower deck of the left-field stands and the place is going crazy!”
The Library of Congress will induct Hodges’ iconic call of the Thomson home run into the National Recording Registry in 2020.
The Bombing of London 1939-1941, CBS News
Between 1939 and 1941, Edward R. Murrow’s dramatic live reports from London during WWII made the horrors of war tangible. Murrow reported from a rooftop on September 21, 1940, as Nazi Germany bombed London:
The lights are now swinging in this direction. Expect two explosions. They are. Not the guns, but the explosion. I’m sure there’ll be shrapnel in a few minutes. Coming in—ever closer. It’s still very high.
With bombs, anti-aircraft guns, and shrieking whistles, Murrow’s word pictures helped millions of people who watched the war from afar believe that America had to join the war and aid the Allies against Nazi aggression. Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, by Bob Edwards, former NPR reporter and author, brought WWII into American homes. “War was rarely heard unless one had fought in it. It was thrilling to hear the shooting and Murrow’s outstanding reporting. It established radio as a legitimate journalistic source.”
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