One of the most historic -- but unfortunately also one of the most controversial -- milestones in U.S. radio history was David Sarnoff's "Radio Music Box" memo. It is historic because it was an early exploration of the possibilities of a radio broadcasting service intended for a broad consumer market. But it is controversial because -- exacerbated by Sarnoff's reputation for exaggeration and willingness to distort the truth if it meant more glory for himself -- we are not completely certain about its exact wording, or even the date on which it was written. (An overview of some of the controversies surrounding this memo appears in two articles by Louise M. Benjamin: "In Search of the Sarnoff 'Radio Music Box' Memo", which appeared in the Summer, 1993 issue of "Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media" and "In Search of the Sarnoff 'Radio Music Box' Memo: Nally's Reply", from volume IX, issue 1 (2002) of the "Journal of Radio Studies".)

In 1938, Gleason Archer wrote "History of Radio to 1926", and, while preparing this book, had a close working relationship with RCA and Sarnoff. The purported text of the "Radio Music Box" memo -- which appears to have a gap in the middle -- was supplied by RCA, but, oddly, Archer reported that he never saw the actual memo, although he was shown a reply by Edward J. Nally dated November 8, 1916. There are a couple of additional complications. In some other sources, Sarnoff maintained that the memo was actually written on September 30, 1915. Also, in January, 1920, Sarnoff submitted to Nally a detailed overview of the radio industry, which included a section that is nearly word-for-word identical to the reported "Radio Music Box" text. Sarnoff maintained that the 1920 memo merely incorporated the earlier memo's words, however, there is a real question whether the fully formed "Radio Music Box" text existed before 1920. A more detailed review of Sarnoff's papers, reported in Louise Bejamin's second article, did find a short memo to Nally on November 8, 1916 which referred to a "music box scheme", but nothing written in 1915 or 1916 approaching the detail of the "Radio Music Box" section of the 1920 memo.

In general, Sarnoff's memos didn't reveal the sources for his ideas -- he wasn't one to needlessly give anyone else publicity, and tended to let people think all the ideas he presented were original to himself. But, there is good evidence that in 1916 his thoughts were inspired by the daily broadcasts which had begun in the fall of 1916 over Lee DeForest's experimental "Highbridge" station, 2XG, which was also located in New York City. (Sarnoff lived and working in New York City most of his life. In 1914, in his eighth year of employment at American Marconi, Sarnoff was appointed to the mid-level position of Contract Manager. On January 1, 1917 he was promoted to Commercial Manager, heading the company's new Commercial Department. Later, American Marconi's assets were purchased by General Electric, becoming, effective December 1, 1919, the core of a new General Electric subsidiary, the Radio Corporation of America. Sarnoff continued as Commercial Manager within this new company.) Carl Dreher, who had worked with Sarnoff during this period, in 1977 published a Sarnoff biography, "An American Success". In this book, Dreher writes: "What has received little attention, however, was that Sarnoff was impelled to pin the idea down in his memo by the existence of an actual broadcasting station on his doorstep. In November 1916 DeForest had already been broadcasting several months from Highbridge, New York -- not a town, but a locality on the Harlem River in the Bronx--to an audience mostly of radio amateurs but also including ship operators at sea or docked in New York Harbor." Also, in 1998, Alex Magoun, curator of the Sarnoff Corporation website, reported additional information which suggested that DeForest broadcasts over 2XG were a major influence for the Sarnoff's November, 1916 thoughts, as noted on the
Adventures in Cybersound: David Sarnoff page.

In retrospect, given the speed with which consumer radio receiver sales spread across the U.S. beginning in 1922, Sarnoff's reference in the memo to about 7% of U.S. families buying radio receivers turned out to be extremely conservative. Also, this plan called for financing the broadcast service by receiver sales and company publicity, which turned out to be totally impractical. (According to Eugene Lyons' biography of Sarnoff, after RCA entered the broadcasting business, "...a committee was set up by [RCA president] General Harbord to study the economic phases of broadcasting. Among the questions it was instructed to answer was this: 'Is there any way that the Radio Corporation can secure financial contributions and support for broadcasting without going into the advertising business?' The answer was unambiguous: 'There is no way!' Sarnoff sadly capitulated".) But these are just details. Even if it wasn't written until 1920, and especially if it actually dated to 1916, this memo is a stellar example of the brilliance Sarnoff often displayed in recognizing good ideas and industry trends, which would eventually lead him to becoming the third president of RCA, in 1930, at the age of 38.

The "Radio Music Box" wording below comes from Archer's 1938 "History of Radio to 1926". (Much of the middle section of this text had already appeared in a Saturday Evening Post article on August 7, 1926):

 

"Radio Music Box" Memo, David Sarnoff, November, 1916/January, 1920(?):

    "I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a 'household utility' in the same sense as the piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless.
    "While this has been tried in the past by wires, it has been a failure because wires do not lend themselves to this scheme. With radio, however, it would seem to be entirely feasible. For example--a radio telephone transmitter having a range of say 25 to 50 miles can be installed at a fixed point where instrumental or vocal music or both are produced. The problem of transmitting music has already been solved in principle and therefore all the receivers attuned to the transmitting wave length should be capable of receiving such music. The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple 'Radio Music Box' and arranged for several different wave lengths, which should be changeable with the throwing of a single switch or pressing of a single button.
    "The 'Radio Music Box' can be supplied with amplifying tubes and a loudspeaking telephone, all of which can be neatly mounted in one box. The box can be placed on a table in the parlor or living room, the switch set accordingly and the transmitted music received. There should be no difficulty in receiving music perfectly when transmitted within a radius of 25 to 50 miles. Within such a radius there reside hundreds of thousands of families; and as all can simultaneously receive from a single transmitter, there would be no question of obtaining sufficiently loud signals to make the performance enjoyable. The power of the transmitter can be made 5 k.w., if necessary, to cover even a short radius of 25 to 50 miles; thereby giving extra loud signals in the home if desired. The use of head telephones would be obviated by this method. The development of a small loop antenna to go with each 'Radio Music Box' would likewise solve the antennae problem.
    "The same principle can be extended to numerous other fields as, for example, receiving lectures at home which be made perfectly audible; also events of national importance can be simultaneously announced and received. Baseball scores can be transmitted in the air by the use of one set installed at the Polo Grounds. The same would be true of other cities. This proposition would be especially interesting to farmers and others living in outlying districts removed from cities. By the purchase of a 'Radio Music Box' they could enjoy concerts, lectures, music, recitals, etc., which may be going on in the nearest city within their radius. While I have indicated a few of the most probable fields of usefulness for such a device, yet there are numerous other fields to which the principle can be extended....


    "The manufacture of the 'Radio Music Box' including antenna, in large quantities, would make possible their sale at a moderate figure of perhaps $75.00 per outfit. The main revenue to be derived will be from the sale of 'Radio Music Boxes' which if manufactured in quantities of one hundred thousand or so could yield a handsome profit when sold at the price mentioned above. Secondary sources of revenue would be from the sale of transmitters and from increased advertising and circulation of the Wireless Age. The Company would have to undertake the arrangements, I am sure, for music recitals, lectures, etc., which arrangements can be satisfactorily worked out. It is not possible to estimate the total amount of business obtainable with this plan until it has been developed and actually tried out but there are about 15,000,000 families in the United States alone and if only one million or 7% of the total families thought well of the idea it would, at the figure mentioned, mean a gross business of about $75,000,000 which should yield considerable revenue.
    "Aside from the profit to be derived from this proposition the possibilities for advertising for the Company are tremendous; for its name would ultimately be brought into the household and wireless would receive national and universal attention."