American Radio and Research Corporation's experimental radio station 1XE (referred to as "I-XE" in this article) in Medford Hillside, Massachusetts later evolved into broadcasting station WGI, in early 1922. KWWG is now KDEI-1250 in Port Arthur, Texas.
Brownsville (Texas) Herald, August 3, 1930, page 10:
Herald Announcer Tells Stories of Evolution of the Radio
BY ROBERT NORTHROP TO JACK RUTLEDGE
(NOTE:--Robert Northrop is the new announcer over Radio Station KWWG, The Brownsville Herald station in Brownsville. He arrived here early last week and has already made numerous friends. He has had 10 years experience in broadcasting, and is still a young man.--J. R.)
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The studio side of radio is interesting and amusing, and viewing the evolution of the industry from this angle, may be entertaining to the layman.
Since early 1920 when radio was in its infancy--and what an infant it was--I have been connected with the broadcasting and announcing end of the game.
Like every other child, radio howled and made unintelligible sounds at first. It was to be expected. Both broadcasting and receiving sets were in the experimental stage and consequently inefficient.
My first broadcasting experience was late in the summer of 1920 in Medford Hillside, Mass. This was before the time the government issued licenses for broadcasting stations, but we were known as station I-XE. There were few stations besides ours at that time mainly station [W]GI of the American Radio and Research corporation. I-XE was 100 watt station and I suppose we had fewer than 150 listeners. These were mainly amateurs with home-made sets.
The First Mike
Our first microphone was set in an old-fashioned phonograph horn, the mike being laid on a cushion to keep it from vibrating. The announcer would step up to the mike, take it in his hand, stick his head into the horn and shout at the top of his voice.
Very little money was being invested in the youthful industry at the beginning except by the smaller and more venturesome companies, and as a result the studios were makeshift affairs. Most of them were bare, dreary things. Most of them didn't even have a piano. Acoustics was just a word, and even experts didn't have their studios properly treated.
Our first program, as I remember it, was composed of playing phonograph records and reading jokes out of magazines in between pieces.
Radio audiences in those days were not particular.
The man with the receiving set was highly elated if he managed to understand a few words and catch a few bars of music. Now we have to get Will Rogers to make funny talks, and get John McCormick to sing or the persons listening-in will twist the knob and try some other station.
The Early Bugs
The early radio-bugs, as they were called should receive praise for their persistence. It is due to them that the industry is what it now is. A few here and there were interested in the fascinating game of picking sounds out of the air, and made their own sets, some of them really excellent things. Others, of course, were not so hot.
Broadcasting stations were purely experimental--they just sent out meat to let the amateurs test their teeth with.
No one knew how long radio would last. Some thought that the industry would die a natural death. Others said that the thing was imperfect and that the country would not take to it. As I said, those most vitally interested were called bugs. These days, when everyone has a one, the term has been ignored.
After I-XE and WGI, a station was opened in Pittsburgh, station KDKA, with 1000 watts. This was considered powerful at the time, and KDKA was considered one of the powerful pioneers. After this, KYW of Chicago and WJZ of New York went on the air, and after this it seemed as if stations sprung up overnight all over the country.
Shouting at the Mike
Even then, studio work was amateurish and announcing technique was unknown. Broadcasters still shouted at the top of their voices and receiving sets howled and screeched--but not as badly as before.
Money was poured into the game by those who were farsighted enough to see the importance of the industry. The possibilities were seeming vague--but fortunately some saw them.
Radio progressed by leaps and bounds and it wasn't long before sets were on the market for laymen to operate without any technical knowledge.
Anyone could buy a set, have it installed and listen in by twisting dials and knobs. Radio was on its feet.
There is no use going into the industry as it is now.
During my career as a radio announcer, over a period of 10 years, many amazing things have happened.
Well do I remember an occurrence in the east that made radio history.
A Bad Break
It happened in 1922.
A terrific blizzard struck that section of the country, demoralizing communications. Telephone and telegraph wires were down, and many sections were isolated from the rest of the state. No one knew how others were faring.
The radio station, however, in this city of which I am telling, went into operation. Dispatches were read, messages broadcast, and programs were given. One man was in charge. The studio was still an inefficient thing, but the announcer stayed on his job, reading letters, telling jokes, playing phonograph records.
Outside the wind howled, rain fell in sheets, lightning streaked across the skies, thunder roared. Train service was disrupted.
It was one of the worst storms in history of that section, it is said.
The announcer stayed on the air steadily for more than 30 hours and you can imagine how tired and absolutely worn out he was before word was sent him that wires had been repaired and that communications had been re-established with other points.
He signed off, giving the usual line of "station so-and-so signing off" with the time, and telling about how long he had been talking.
As he finished his routine sentence, he reached for the switch to turn it off, at the same time, in an utterly disgusted tone of voice, saying "Go to h--l."
And he missed the switch! The phrase went out over the air, and for weeks the station received letters and notes about it.
Another time, a year or so later and when the radio was more influential and had more listeners, a prominent city official in Chicago telephoned the studio and asked the manager it he wanted a famous speaker to make a talk. Of course the announcer was only too glad to have real talent broadcast over the mike, and agreed to allow the man to make a speech.
A date was set, and when the night arrived, the speaker entered the studio flanked by six heavy thugs as a body guard.
He was introduced, stepped to the microphone and began:
"The only true Americans in the United States are those of the Ku Klux Klan."
This, of course, was dynamite, and the announcer knew it.
Guarded by thugs, the speaker could not be stopped. The announcer made a movement with his hands, and the operator understood and pulled the switch, leaving the speaker talking into a dead mike.
He finished his talk, and departed. Even though the switch had been pulled, the opening sentence had been sent over the air, and then thousands of telegrams, letters, and telephone calls were received by the station, during the course of the next two weeks.
A Tough Job
One of the toughest broadcasting jobs I ever did was once in Chicago when Eddie Borroff and I were caught with two hours to fill with nothing to fill them with. Eddie Borroff is now director of the NBC studio in Chicago.
We had a famous orchestra scheduled to go on the air for a two-hour program, but due to a blizzard they failed to arrive.
Something had to be done, so Eddie and I sang, played on the piano, did what we could with request numbers, told jokes, and in short, made a nuisance of ourselves for two solid hours.
However, the program seem to "take" and we received hundreds of requests for numbers. Whether we knew them or not we would make a stab at the songs and if we were familiar with the tune but not the words, we would sing what we knew and hum the rest.
This was the origin of the now famous Midnight Frolics over the Chicago station.
In 1927, when radio was more powerful than it had been and was still growing rapidly, an instance was giving showing how powerful it really was. The power of the press is recognized, but the power of the radio is not--so far.
The instance of which I am talking occurred during a terrible storm--it seems my reminiscences have to do with storms--and the Red Cross needed money badly, to take care of the sufferers.
The radio was appealed to, and within a remarkably short time $153,000 had been raised for the St. Louis storm sufferers.
I said awhile ago that my toughest broadcasting experience was when I was caught with two hours to fill. I believe that my hardest job was in 1926 when the Swedish and Danish boxing team invaded this country and toured, putting on bouts in New York, Boston, and Grand Rapids.
I was connected with the Grand Rapids station at that time, and it was up to me to broadcast the blow-by-blow returns of the scraps.
The fights were all well regulated affairs, and started promptly at 8 o'clock. As soon as one bout was ended, and almost before the referee finished counting over an unconscious form, the next fighters on the program would be climbing into the ring.
In fact, the fights moved so fast, I could not even take a drink of water. You can imagine how I felt at 12 o'clock that night, when the final fight stopped. Four solid hours without a rest or a drink of water.
The Tall Dark Guy
But that wasn't the hardest part of it. The Danish and Swedish fighters had the world's toughest names, and some of them so long and tongue-twisting that I would start pronouncing it--or trying to--and before I finished the fighter would be counted out.
I solved that difficulty around 10 o'clock, though, and from then on it was "the tall dark guy" and "the short blonde brute" and descriptive terms like that.
I have been asked how persons act before the microphone when talking for the first time.
As a rule, there is little nervousness these days. People are becoming mike-wise. If one reads a speech, and most of them do, there is usually no nervousness or faltering at all. On the other hand, when one extemporizes, and without previous experience, there will be stammering and gulping and a little gasping before the speaker sits down with a sigh of relief.
Several years ago, and in some instances now, radio audiences complained over announcers talking too much. To one behind the scenes this is easily understood, and I will tell you why.
For example, a program has been outlined, and at exactly 8:15 Miss Bernadine Squee is scheduled to sing a solo with Miss Bernice Squawk at the piano. Miss Squee is the idolized daughter of the mayor, and is very temperamental. At the last minute she decides she doesn't like the color scheme in the interior of the radio studio and won't sing. She sulks. Time is passing, and her solo is to be sung immediately. The announcer has to talk pretty thick while the station diplomat persuades Miss Squee to sing. About the time Miss Squee decides to yodel, Miss Squawk finds that it is 8:30 and that she has a date.
There you have it. These programs were often held up for reasons similar to this, and the broadcaster was forced to extemporize.
Also, not so long ago it was considered incorrect to play phonograph records over the air.
Not Good Form
Radio announcers considered that playing records was not quite right to the listeners, and tried to have original programs on the air continually. In the smaller towns, this is almost an impossibility, and even in the cities it is too expensive. It was finally decided that phonograph records were more interesting and enjoyable than most amateur programs.
Another thing that announcers are confronted with is the selection of programs in various sections of the country. A northern audience for example, will like a certain type of program, and a southern audience will prefer another class entirely. The national broadcasting chains are faced with this problem more than local stations, of course.
It is a far cry from 1920 to 1930. As I said at first our first audience was composed of approximately 150 listeners. The latest statistics compiled by federal enumerators show that the present total is close to 40,000,000.
And the stations themselves have changed almost beyond recognition. KDKA, starting off with what was considered a powerful plant of 1000 watts, now is broadcasting with 400,000 watts. That is, a 400,000 watt station is being constructed.
WGY is already on the air experimenting with 260,000 watts.
And the end is not in sight yet.
There is no prognosticating what will happen next in the radio game. It is still young, and growing rapidly. Improvements are being made one after another. Probably the next major invention will be television, but this is still in the offing.
KWWG in Brownsville is one of the best stations I have seen in the smaller cities, and in the future it will be even better. Several improvements are being made, and the power will be increased materially. We also hope to improve our programs.