Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

It was the evening of Tues­day, November 2, 1920. In Pittsburgh’s cold, rainswept streets, patient crowds stood waiting for the Harding-Cox presidential election returns to be posted on newspaper bulletin boards. Meanwhile, across town in a makeshift shack atop one of the Westinghouse Company’s factory buildings in the city’s Turtle Creek section, Leo H. Rosenberg began speaking into a boxlike instrument called a microphone. “Will anyone hearing this broadcast communicate with us, as we are anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received.”

Heard by the area’s fewer than one thousand fortunate crystal set owners, this historic broadcast by the nation’s first licensed radio station – Pittsburgh’s KDKA – was immediately hailed around the world as a major event in ra­dio’s embryonic career. Today, KDKA’s airing of the Harding­-Cox election returns is gener­ally recognized as the event that marked the real beginning of commercial broadcasting in America.

Excited by the potential appeal of radio demonstrated by the KDKA broadcast and RCA’s thrilling broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight from Jersey City the following year, nearly 500 department stores, newspapers, electronics dealers, churches and individ­uals had joined the rush to establish radio stations in cities across the country by 1922. That year, from the back room of Wilson Durham’s Market Street electrical shop in Phila­delphia, yet another pioneer radio station – WCAU – began broadcasting its feeble 250-watt signal into the night air. From such inauspicious begin­nings, WCAU quickly grew into a broadcasting giant that pioneered radio programming and production technology, introduced many important future radio personalities to the microphone, and served as the launching pad for radio­-struck Philadelphia cigar man­ufacturer William S. Paley’s creation of CBS, America’s second national broadcasting network.

KDKA played a major role in radio’s emergence from the babel of amateur wireless operators – exchanging techni­cal chatter in their coded lan­guage of dots and dashes – into a powerful new medium that informed, enter­tained and spoke to the American public in a common language understood by all. The story of KDKA is, in many ways, a capsule history of
radio itself.

KDKA might never have broadcast were it not for a five dollar bet on a twelve dollar watch and the enthusiasm of Westinghouse’s chief engineer, Dr. Frank Courad, for his new hobby, amateur radio. Courad first became interested in radio in 1912 when he built a small receiver to hear the time sig­nals from the National Observ­atory in Arlington, Virginia, so he could settle a five dollar bet on the accuracy of his watch. Winning the bet, Courad re­mained intrigued by his new hobby and constructed a trans­mitter behind his home in Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County. The first official record of Courad’s amateur station, 8XK – which was to become KDKA – appeared in the August 1, 1916, Radio Service Bulletin issued by the federal government’s original radio licensing agency.

Although security precautions at the outbreak of World War I temporarily brought the cancellation of 8XK and the nation’s other amateur (“ham”) radio licenses, Courad continued to develop and test radio equipment for the War Department, both from his Wilkinsburg home and from a second station in the Westinghouse East Pittsburgh plant, which would later transmit the 1920 election broadcast.

At war’s end, “ham” radio operators were back on the air and, whetted by exciting stories of radio’s wartime uses, enthusiasm was greater than ever. However, radio messages themselves, chiefly technical talk about equipment being used and results obtained, were considerably less exciting. Bored by this monotonous chatter, on October 17, 1919, Courad placed his microphone near the phonograph and substituted music for talk. The song Old Black Joe delighted and amazed operators across the country. Courad was suddenly deluged with requests to play special songs at specified times to convince skeptics that music really could be transmitted through time and space. Overwhelmed by the demand, within a few days Courad was forced to announce that instead of filling each individual request, he would broadcast records for two hours every Wednesday and Saturday evening.

With this announcement marking his inauguration of a new kind of radio service, Frank Courad also gave new meaning to a venerable old word. From this time on, broadcasting – a term once relating to farmers who broadcast their seeds over newly plowed fields – would be associated with the broad dissemination of music, entertainment and ideas over the airwaves and into the homes of widely scattered listeners.

Following Courad’s first broadcasts, other major radio events followed rapidly at the little experimental station that paved the way for KDKA. Just as Courad’s broadcasts were about to exhaust his own record collection, the Hamilton Music Store in Wilkinsburg offered him a continuous supply of records ii he would announce that they were available for purchase at Hamilton’s. Courad gratefully agreed, making Hamilton’s quite possibly the world’s first radio advertiser. As the store quickly learned, the records broadcast by Conrad sold much better than others.

To these regular bi-weekly broadcasts Courad occasionally added live vocal and instrumental talent, with his young sons Crawford and Francis acting as radio’s original masters of ceremonies. By the fall of 1920, these broadcasts were attracting widespread interest, including that of the Joseph Horne Company, an influential Pittsburgh department store which inserted a brief notice in its Pittsburgh Sun advertisement for September 29, 1920. Headlined “Air Concert ‘Picked up’ by Radio Here,” the advertisement detailed Courad’s little concert of victrola music played into the air over a wireless telephone and picked up at the store’s wireless receiving station installed for the education and amusement of curious patrons. Concluding this now famous advertisement, the Horne Company also nonchalantly mentioned, “Amateur Wireless Sets, made by the maker of the set which is in operation in our store, are on sale here. $10.00 up.”

To Westinghouse vice president H.P. Davis, by then an ardent follower of Courad’s radio venture, the Horne Company advertisement brought sudden inspiration. If it was any indication of the popular appeal of Courad’s broadcasts, Davis reasoned the real heart of the radio industry awaited in the manufacturing of home radio receivers and in supplying radio programs to entice would-be listeners into wanting to own these receivers. Convincing his fellow company officials of this exciting business opportunity, Westinghouse approved the establishment of a station, and submitted the license application on October 16, 1920. To demonstrate the speed and drama of radio, with great care Davis and his colleagues selected the Harding-Cox presidential election as the occasion for their new station’s maiden broadcast.

Getting that historic broadcast on the air was an uncomfortably close call. KDKXs license was issued October 27, 1920 – only one week before airtime – and its now famous call letters were assigned from a roster kept to provide identification for ship-to-shore radio stations, then the only regular radio services formally licensed by the federal government. Construction of the station itself was begun only one month before the broadcast.

Listeners impressed by the Harding-Cox Broadcast would have marveled at this first KDKA “station,” consisting of a tiny makeshift shack atop Westinghouse’s Pittsburgh factory and a single “studio,” which accommodated the transmitting equipment, a turntable for records and the first broadcast staff.

On November 2, 1920, it was an extremely nervous staff, indeed. Operator Wil­liam Thomas, chief engineer D.G. Little, R.S. McClelland and John Frazier (who han­dled the telephone lines to the Pittsburgh Post newsroom), and announcer Leo H. Rosenberg crowded into that tiny KDKA studio. Strangely enough, Frank Courad, so instrumental in the station’s creation, was not present when KDKA actu­ally went on the air. Fearing problems with the new KDKA equipment, Conrad stood by at his own experimental sta­tion 8XK in Wilkinsburg, ready to carry on in the event of trouble at East Pittsburgh.

KDKA’s historic broadcast began at 6 o’clock on election night and continued until noon the following day, de­spite Cox’s early concession to Harding. At Pittsburgh’s Edgewood Club, where Westing­house employees and prominent local citizens gath­ered to hear the broadcast over loudspeakers, the audience cheered and telephoned the station, demanding “more news and less music.” Letters from excited listeners recount­ing their experiences in receiv­ing the broadcast poured in from everywhere. Acclaimed by newspapers across the country, the broadcast was a national sensation. Frank Courad, H.P. Davis, Westing­house and KDKA’s listeners had definitely proven that radio had a bright future. The question loomed: Where to go from there?

“A broadcasting station is a rather useless enterprise un­less there is someone to listen to it,” Davis later said in a speech at the Harvard Busi­ness School. “Here was an innovation and even though advertised, few then … could listen to us.” KDKA faced an even larger challenge: staying on the air. As Davis knew, the answer lay in more radios and even more programs.

Hoping to make radio ac­cessible to the widest possible audience, Westinghouse set its engineers to work in designing home radios that were simple enough for non-technical fans to operate and inexpensive enough to be affordable by every household. Ready by June 1921, the Westinghouse Aeriola Junior became the first popularly priced home radio receiver. Priced at twenty-five dollars, this tiny 6″ x 6″ x 7″ crystal set, capable of receiving signals up to fifteen miles away, played a major role in creating a broader audience of home radio owners eager to receive any programs that KDKA and future stations would provide.

As Westinghouse and KDKA helped transform radio from a hobby to an industry, programming remained broad­casting’s last key area to pio­neer. Following the success of the Harding-Cox broadcast, KDKA immediately began to develop a programming sched­ule and a set of guidelines that were to serve as models for the industry as well. Among these self-imposed guidelines, KDKA promised “to work hand-in-hand with the press, to provide programs of interest and benefit to the greatest number, to avoid monotony, to assign distinctive features regular times for the conven­ience of listeners, and to oper­ate a daily service of regularly scheduled programs.”

In the realm of program­ming for a new station in a new industry, KDK.Ns every idea and every decision was necessarily an innovation. On January 2,1921, KDKA intro­duced the first of its many programming “firsts,” a regu­larly scheduled broadcast of services from Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church. The world’s first regularly scheduled regular church service and broadcasting’s first remote pick-up, the program also introduced the church’s rector, Dr. Edwin Jan Van Etten as the first radio preacher. “All was going well,” said Van Etten in remembering that first broadcast, “but on glancing at the choir I discovered strange faces and noted unusual an­tics. It was not until later that I learned these were Westing­house engineers – one a Jewish lad, the other an Irish­-Catholic – garbed in surplices to make them look inconspicu­ous in the midst of my Protes­tant Episcopal Church. Even now … it seems to me that they symbolized the real universal­ity of radio religion.”

Following this broadcast, KDKA aired a dizzying succes­sion of other radio firsts. Speeches delivered by Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Oklahoma congresswoman Alice Robinson at the William Penn Hotel provided the occa­sion for the first radio remote pickup from a hotel on Febru­ary 18, 1921. On March 4, KDKA broadcast the first pres­idential inaugural address when an advance copy of Harding’s text was read on the air while he was speaking in Washington.

As with the birth of movies and the later coming of televi­sion, prizefighting was also an important programming fea­ture in the origins of American radio. With Pittsburgh Post sportswriter Florent Gibson delivering the blow-by-blow description as radio’s first sports announcer, on April 11, 1921, KDI

Live music quickly became another mainstay of early radio programming. From the stage of the Davis Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, the performance of vocalist Ruth Roye was aired March 10, 1921, in the first broadcast from a theater. That year also saw T.J. Vastine conduct Westinghouse employees in radio’s first band concert. By 1922, KDKA had grown ambitious enough to develop the first orchestra exclusively for radio work, the KDKA Little Symphony Or­chestra conducted by Victor Saudek.

Setting an important prece­dent for the rapport early radio and newspapers would enjoy during the 1920s, KDKA in­stalled regular remote pickup facilities at the Pittsburgh Post to establish radio’s powerful influence in shaping popular opinion. With its first political broadcasts in September 1921, KDKA made time available without charge to all Pitts­burgh mayoral candidates wishing to state their views. In establishing this equal avail­ability of air time for all candi­dates, KDKA pioneered the non-partisanship of radio that would later be officially man­dated by the Federal Commun­ications Commission’s equal time regulations.

KDKA listeners were also introduced to a parade of nota­ble orators, entertainers and radio stars-to-be who made their first broadcast over the Pittsburgh station. William Jennings Bryan mesmerized KDKA listeners on March 12, 1922, with his first radio ad­dress, broadcast from the Point Breeze Presbyterian Church. From the station’s Pittsburgh Post location, Will Rogers en­tertained KDKA’s audience with his deceptively home­spun political humor. It was before a makeshift microphone at KDKA that Eddie Cantor made his radio debut a few years before becoming one of the medium’s most famous performers. It was at KDKA, too, that renowned writer­-adventurer Lowell Thomas made his radio debut on March 30, 1925, with a remark­able hour-long extemporaneous account of “Man’s First Flight Around the World:’ Wary of the microphone at first, Thomas lost his “mike fright” at KDKA to later be­come one of the world’s best known and admired radio correspondents.

To meet the demands of its growing program schedule, KDKA hired the world’s first full-time radio announcer, Harold W. Arlin in January 1921. A young Westinghouse engineer who wandered over to KDKA to satisfy his curios­ity and inspect the new facility, Arlin never imagined the fu­ture opened up by that casual stroll. KDKA was looking for an announcer. Arlin applied and got the job. From that moment, nearly everything he did became a radio first.

Early broadcasting condi­tions at KDKA were primitive. For the station’s first six months most KDKA broad­casts originated live from base­ball parks, churches, theaters and hotels. As Arlin recalled, those remotes were invariably an adventure. ‘The micro­phone we used for football broadcasts looked like a to­mato can with a felt lining. We called it a mushophone.” After fifty years Arlin still vividly remembered the moments following a touchdown during one exciting game. “I got a little excited and yelled into the microphone so loud that it knocked the needle off the modulation meter and we were off the air for several minutes:’ Memories of an early KDKA baseball remote were cause for another chuckle. “The Yankees were playing an exhibition game in Pittsburgh and to make sure there were no flubs, a speech was written for Babe Ruth to read before the game. When I introduced him, he suddenly got scared and couldn’t say a word – mike fright was common in those days – so I grabbed his speech and read it myself …. I received several letters commenting on ‘what a wonderful voice Babe Ruth has.'”

By May 1921, with the introduction of live vocal and orchestral talent, the need for better broadcasting facilities became obvious. As an experiment, KDKA engineers pitched a tent on the Westinghouse roof next to their transmitter-penthouse. A few early KDKA fans still recall the whistle of a passing train which became a regular evening feature no matter what was being aired from the little tent. Performers faced unexpected occupational hazards as well. Singing from the tent studio one evening, a well-known tenor opened his mouth wide to sing a full, high note and swallowed an insect. His comments, which followed his gasps in an angry torrent of invective, drove the station’s vigilant operator to take KDKA off the air in a hurry.

Being blown down by an early autumn storm notwithstanding, KDKA’s tent studio functioned well and taught station engineers about the use of drapes and acoustical board in time to build its more dignified indoor successor the following October in Pittsburgh’s grand William Penn Hotel. Swaddled in burnt orange drapery to dampen the sounds ricocheting from walls and a chandelier, the studio, once described as resembling the inside of a burlap-lined casket, was essentially an oversized living room dominated by the drapery, a piano, the microphone and a small forest of potted palms. This “decor” provided the model for the hundreds of other hot house radio studios also opening that year in hotels and department stores across the country and reputedly gave rise to the term “potted palm music” to describe the entertainment increasingly emanating from them.

indoor studios were no protection from the unexpected, however. Presenting the baseball scores one day, Harold Arlin’s broadcast was suddenly disrupted by a stray dog that raced into the studio and upset the microphone, scrambling the scores, notes and announcer before adding his excited barks to the pandemonium being broadcast. Switching from remotes to the studio also had a few bugs remaining to be ironed out, as demonstrated in another memorable broadcast during which a standby announcer’s zeal to keep the station on the air when a broken wire interrupted the remote transmission of the Dempsey-Firpo fight. Picking up from the ringside announcer broken off just as he was excitedly shouting “Firpo lands a terrific blow knocking the champion … ,” KDKA’s excited standby, grabbing the first convenient bit of copy – a market report instead of news flashes – continued from the studio almost without interruption, “with hogs up two cents a pound.”

If they could still be asked, those early KDKA pioneers would undoubtedly recall many more adventures from those early years when they and their station were giving American popular broadcasting its first foothold and establishing the models that hundreds of other new stations would be striving to emulate.


For Further Reading

Barnouw, Erik. A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966-1970.

Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Fang, Irving E. Those Radio Commentators! Ames: The Iowa Stale University Press, 1977.

Gross, Ben. I Looked and Listened: Informal Recollections of Radio and TV. New York: Random House, 1954.

Henderson, Amy. On the Air, Pioneers of American Broadcasting. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

McDonald, J. Fred. Don’t Touch That Dial! Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979.

Paley, William S. As it Happened, A Memoir. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979.


Linda Kowall is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. She is currently at work on a book devoted to early filmmaker Siegmund (“Pop”) Lubin. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications.