The Invention of the Radio: It’s Significance to Communication and American Culture
In 1898, the scientific world was in awe when Giulio Marcoli sent radio waves over the English Channel for the first time in history. In 1920, America was in awe listening to words coming out of thin air from the first radio broadcast (Cosper, American Radio History). Immediately, the popularity of the radio exploded, and radio broadcasting would become the main form of news, entertainment and information. In six years, the number of radios produced grew from 190,000 to one million (O’Connor). Since then, the radio made way for revolutionary changes in American social, political and family life, and almost every other aspect of American culture. It made information instantaneous, and could reach significantly more people than ever before. Most of all, the invention of the radio was significant because it brought information and entertainment to anyone in the country, regardless of race, gender, social class or intelligence. For the first time, the entire nation could share experiences as they happened, at the same time. The implications of this major breakthrough changed communication and American culture drastically.
To begin, the invention of the radio allowed information to be transferred immediately to a widespread audience for the first time, which ushered a change in communication. Rather than being read in articles from a newspaper, information could be reported instantly, to a mass audience, in their own living rooms. Radio broadcasters had to adapt to this by reporting information clearly and using language that appealed to the general public. Information, news and ideas could be communicated by newscasts, announcements and even songs and soap operas.
Radio broadcasting quickly became a main source of news and information for the general public, and furthermore, it changed the way Americans got their news and how. The explosion of radio broadcasting began in the 1920’s, which immediately followed the Progressive Era, in which leaders pushed for true and accurate news (O’Connor). This era brought a shift from information that was purely opinionated, argumentative and one sided to news that was impartial, factual and straight forward. This was compatible with radio broadcasting because, normally, there wouldn’t be enough air time to accommodate this type of journalism. Information had to be communicated clearly, quickly and straight forward in order to appeal with the masses. In addition, news and current events could be shared as they were happening, giving the general public more immediate information then they had ever been offered in history. Moreover, this information was accessible to almost everyone, and could be accessed in the comfort of people’s homes.
However, news wasn’t the only thing being broadcasted through the radio. Americans could turn to radio to hear their favorite song or drama, and almost immediately, radio became the nation’s main form of entertainment. Instead of reading a book or short story, Americans listened to stories on the radio, and instead of going to a theater to see a play, people could tune into soap operas in their own homes. Before the radio’s invention, if someone wanted to hear a popular song, he/she would have to buy the sheet music and play it. The radio allowed music to be heard all over the country, live and by the original artist.
This allowed for the cultivation of American popular culture. The invention of the radio sparked an acceleration of pop culture that history had never seen. For the first time, music could be listened to by original artists by everyone who owned a radio, fashion trends could be shared instantly, advertisements could be broadcasted and current events were reported as they happened. Furthermore, it reached audiences on a wider scale than in all of history; audiences that were a part of the general public, meaning that broadcasts had to be relevant and understandable to every social class. After the radio, the common man or middle class family could be informed and able to keep up with popular music, art, information and sporting events, rather than only the rich or educated. Not only that, but it brought the nation together in that the average middle class American family from the South or West could listen to the same band as a wealthy family in the North. Thus, the invention of the radio was revolutionary to the development of American popular culture because it was the first time that trends, entertainment and ideas could be popular on a broad scale, and literally reach the masses. This popularity directly allowed the 1920’s to become the “jazz age” through its live broadcasts of big band and jazz, and overall, led to an accumulation of widespread trends and ideas which evoked common interests within Americans of every age, color and location.
To continue, the radio brought a change in American culture through American politics. The radio became a main source for news and information in America almost immediately after its distribution, and Americans could listen for updates on current events, new developments on stories as they broke, and even keep up with political campaigns and candidates during elections. After all, the first station broadcast in history in 1920 by KDKA announced the Presidential returns between Warren Harding and James Cox (Cosper, American Radio History).
This marked the beginning of a change in American culture through politics simply because it allowed average Americans in any given part of the nation to be involved in political life. The broadcasting of presidential speeches, debates and elections gave Americans direct knowledge and information that led to a sense of involvement and gave them resources they never had before. This is not to say that Americans couldn’t be involved in political life before the radio, but only to point out the main difference: the radio allowed this information to be heard more frequently and accessibly to a significantly larger and more diverse audience. Americans could be informed of and identify with social or political movements and ideas in ways that they never had before. It gave political involvement even to the uneducated and illiterate, and gave them the opportunity to keep up with current events and become informed voters.
Furthermore, politicians had to convey information and ideas clearly and with the general public in mind. Life-long radio broadcaster Mike Eisgrau explains, “As a radio and TV news writer I had only one chance at a listener-my written words went to a newscaster and were heard only once. ABC Radio had a slogan that tried to make sure listeners retained what they heard: ‘Tell them what you're going to tell them-tell them-and then tell them what you told them.’ Radio's rhetoric thus had to be clear and concise---it did not have the luxury of convolution” (Eisgrau). Radio broadcasting allowed political candidates could reach more voters in a shorter amount of time, but had to gain the favor of a more diverse audience, especially since women gained the right to vote in 1920 (O’Connor). The radio gave American political leaders the means to communicate their ideas to an entirely new population of potential voters that could be readily reached, including woman, which represented a major part of the population.
In addition, the utilization of the spoken word allowed political leaders and candidates to use different rhetorical techniques to mass audiences. Because broadcasts were mainly live, and segments were timed, speakers had to use language that was appealing to the masses and straight to the point. For the first time in history, speakers could use rhetorical techniques such as kairos and delivery through diction, inflection and tone to portray their ideas the way they wanted to, and persuade voters across the nation all at once. Instead of traveling around the country to deliver campaign speeches, or hosting a debate in one place, politicians could express their ideas and persuade voters in their own living rooms and reached larger audiences than ever before. The invention of the radio made all of this possible.
To continue, all of these factors played a huge role in American culture and social life. A common image associated with the invention of the radio is one of a family gathered around a radio, and for the majority of Americans, that picture was an accurate representation of the effect radio had on the family. Radio brought the family together, at least once a day. Additionally, radio brought individuals together. In Hello Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio, Anthony Rudel explains, “the truth is that the radio hobbyist was a social animal who enjoyed the company of those who shared his excitement. Tens of thousands of Americans…began building makeshift home receivers and exchanging sounds with other enthusiasts” (Rudel 44).
The shared experience that the radio offered brought communities together, even on a national level. Average working Americans could relate to their co-workers by discussing the earlier night’s broadcast, friends and family could experience events together at the moment they were happening, and young people could enjoy a piece of music together. Overall, it gave Americans a common ground in which to connect with on a larger and more global scale than ever before. It also brought national hope and unity during major events such the Great Depression and World War 2, and still does to this day. Mike Eisgrau explains: “It (the radio) held a shaken nation together during the Depression of the 30's-not only with soap operas and dramas with which people could identify, but with the famous "Fireside Chats" of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President who guided America through some dark financial days. And, with families gathered around that big console, it brought the blitz in London and the battles of World War 2 into the living room” (Eisgrau). Radio also made it possible for music to bring hope and national unity on a massive scale. For example, Woody Guthrie’s songs such as “This Land is Your Land” gave hope to victims of the Dust Bowl during the depression, and gave Americans a sense of national pride. Radio broadcasting gave Americans the chance to laugh and cry together as a nation, all at the same time.
In conclusion, the influence that the radio had during its first couple decades was unprecedented, but still has an effect today. Radio broadcasting plays an important role in many people’s lives today, and is even said to play a major part in current events, such as the war on terror (Dodds, Pinkerton 11). The invention of the radio contributed greatly to the history of communication and American culture in many different ways. It “created a cultural phenomenon” by re-defining many aspects of American social life, politics, entertainment, information and ideals. Furthermore, it brought people together regardless of social status, race or gender. It gave the masses an opportunity to be informed instantly, and connect with their fellow citizens on a national level.
Cosper, Alex. American Radio History: The First Hundred Years. ipl2. Web. 1 Oct. 2011.
Eisgrau, Mike. Personal interview. 2 Oct. 2011.
O'Connor, Micheal. "The "Roaring Twenties"" Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA. 6 Oct.
Pinkerton, Alasdair , and Klaus Dodds. "Radio Geopolitics: Broadcasting, Listening and the
Struggle for Acoustic Spaces." Progress in Human Geography . 33. (2008): n. page. Print.
“Radio Creates a Cultural Phenomenon.” 2011. The History Channel website. Sep 10 2011