Don’t touch that dial: The Golden Age of Radio

Around the turn of the last century, a new technology would connect people across the world using radio waves to send signals from a transmitter to a receiver – wireless communication. Experimented with in the early 1900s and further developed during World War I, wireless radio transmission became a reliable and essential tool for communication.

After the war, commercial broadcasting arose and radios became ubiquitous in the homes of nearly 85 percent of Americans. Broadcasting networks like NBC, CBS and the Armed Forces Radio Network ran a wide variety of news and entertainment programming, including live music concerts, political stories and election results, weather reports, sports broadcasts and variety, mystery and dramatic series. In March 1922, Variety carried the front page headline: “Radio Sweeping Country: 1,000,000 Sets in Use.”

The Golden Age of Radio was a period between the introduction of commercial broadcasting in the 1920s to the time when televisions took over in American homes as the dominant form of entertainment in the 1950s. During that period, popular radio shows included comedy shows Amos n’ Andy and Abbot and Costello, the western adventure series The Lone Ranger, comic book favorites like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy, quiz shows, soap operas and dramatic programs that featured both classical and popular dramas of the day.

Because recording technology hadn’t yet reached a high enough quality, most broadcasts were performed live twice each evening, once for each coast. Since commercials were considered intrusive at the time, many companies sponsored programs, so shows would have a company name in the title, such as The A&P Gypsies or The Bell Telephone Hour.

In the early days of radio, the technology was still very new, and the radios themselves were large pieces of furniture, cabinets with vacuum tubes for receiving signals and a dial for adjusting the station. The radio was a central fixture in the American home. Families and friends would gather around the radio to listen to their favorite shows, similar to the way people today sit in front of a television. But radio required the listener to use their imagination to create images of characters and settings, to pay close attention to the world being created through sound.

The biggest achievement for radio was not as a technological advancement but rather as a social one. Radio created communities of like-minded people out of thin air, people who listened to the same program even if they had nothing else in common. Radio brought people together to share stories, news and ideas. And radio inspired people to be creative, to be part of the stories they were listening to by using their imaginations.

In the years following World War II, the economy grew and suddenly there was a television in every home. In the 1950s, radio was surpassed by a technology that could be watched as well as listened to. The dynamic of entertainment shifted, but how Americans received news and information remains forever shaped by the Golden Age of Radio.