In the mid-twenties the public experienced the thrill of receiving distant radio signals on the recently established AM broadcast band. This is a review of how the drive for ever greater distances culminated in a unique series of international tests.
The story of the International Tests begins in 1923. Mr. F. N. Doubleday, president of the Doubleday and Page publishing company, visited England that year, and spent part of his time studying the British system of broadcasting. On his return to the United States he suggested, at a meeting of editors of the company's magazines, that broadcasting a series of programs from U.S. stations to Great Britain would aid the advancement of radio and strengthen international friendship. The staff of Radio Broadcast, a Doubleday and Page magazine in its second year of publication, was asked to work out the details.
A working plan was developed, which expanded the proposal into having the two countries exchange programs through the "ether". Radio Broadcast contacted the editor of Wireless World and Radio Review in London, who made arrangements for the cooperation of the British Broadcasting Company. The tests were to be run as a part of National Radio Week, November 25 to December 1, 1923.
This was far from the first attempt to bridge the Atlantic using radio. Marconi claimed success in 1901, longwave telegraphic stations had been in service for many years, a test in December, 1921 by amateurs on 200 meters (1500 khz) had gotten through to England using as few as 15 watts, and the globe-traveling capabilities of the shortwaves were beginning to be explored. However, the general public did not have the equipment needed to tune to these special wavelengths, and had never heard English transmissions. The few who did try to log England on the regular broadcasting frequencies found that, when American stations cleared the airwaves after a day's broadcast, there were no British stations to be heard, since they had ceased their transmissions a few hours earlier. So, many were excited by the thought of directly hearing, on their own receivers, signals originating in the Old World.
The First Year's Tests
The special schedule of programs was set up. The first six nights were set aside for one-way transmissions, with England taking the first night, and the two sides alternating over the next five. During the final night, December 1, two-way communication would be attempted. The time period each night for the programs was 10:00 to 10:30 PM Eastern Standard Time (3:00 to 3:30 AM for the tired staffs in Britain).
The BBC used eight stations throughout Britain for the tests, all carrying the same program, connected by landlines to a studio in London. Their wavelengths ranged from 353 to 495 meters (849 to 605 khz), with one station rated at 500 watts and the rest at one kilowatt. During the English broadcasts listeners in the United States were supposed to listen for the station with the strongest signal, and then wait until the end of the program for the station's callsign. The British had no trouble clearing their airwaves to listen for U.S. signals, as the BBC controlled all of the few stations operating on British soil.
Organizing the broadcasters in the United States was more complicated. There were over 500 U.S. stations, operating on a band from 550 to 1350 khz. For the tests to succeed the amount of interference from these stations would have to be limited. Radio Broadcast, with the help of the National Association of Broadcasters, was able to get very good cooperation from the stations asked to stay off during the tests. However, it made the mistake of not contacting Canadian, far-western, and low-powered stations, which were incorrectly believed to be too distant and weak to cause interference.
The cooperation received was not unusual, even though they were asking for sole possession of a week-long slice of one of the most popular timeslots. Few stations broadcast fulltime anyway, since many had to share their frequencies or didn't have enough talent for more than a few hours of broadcasting per day. Equally important was the institution of "silent nights". Most set owners were interested in seeing how far their sets could pull in signals from distant stations. KDKA's pioneering broadcast had taken place just three years earlier, and people still tended to be more interested in the miracle of receiving a station than in its programming, which generally consisted of unpaid local talent and phonograph records. Broadcasters in most cities set aside one night a week during which they refrained from broadcasting for a few hours, allowing "DX" reception. ("DX" was an old telegraph abbreviation meaning "distant".) So, staying off the air to allow exotic reception was, at this time, a commonly observed station responsibility.
The stations chosen to broadcast for the test worked hard to line up suitable programs for transatlantic reception. It had been hoped that President Coolidge would broadcast his greetings to the English people, but there was not enough time to make the arrangements. Hopes to have the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Baldwin address the United States met a similar fate. However, many other famous personalities made addresses during the week. Henry Ford spoke over his station in Dearborn, WWI, while Frank Conrad joined the British Vice-Consul at the station Conrad helped start, KDKA in Pittsburgh. Owen D. Young, General Electric Chairman of the Board, Major General James G. Harbord, President of RCA, and Charles Evans Hughes, the Secretary of State, also made addresses. And, from the English side of the Atlantic, Guglielmo Marconi spoke of the day when crystal sets in America would be able to pick up English programs.
On Sunday night, November 25, the tests began with the English broadcasts. All around the United States people tuned their sets, straining to hear the transatlantic signals. Radio Broadcast had special six-tube receivers at their headquarters in Garden City, Long Island, and many other publications, radio stations, and manufacturers set up listening posts. Radio Broadcast wrote about its experiences during the first week. For the first fifteen minutes nothing was heard. Then faint, unintelligible speech was heard. A cable, using a special direct line installed at Garden City, was sent to the BBC asking for a piano solo. Three minutes later the notes of a piano were heard, followed by the words "Hello, America".
During the week thousands of people tried for the signals, although few in the United States heard more than part of a musical selection or two, which left them wondering if they had ready heard Britain. Even fewer in England had been able to hear American signals. The main problem in the United States had been stations that stayed on the air during the tests.
However, another major source of interference had been from the receivers themselves. Many radios used an inexpensive system of amplification called "regeneration". In these sets the owner controlled the current fed to a single vacuum tube. In normal use the more power feed to the tube, and the brighter the red glow of the tube filament, the stronger the reception. However, past a certain point the filament got brighter still, but reception got no better, and worse, the radio actually began broadcasting a signal on the frequency to which it was tuned. This side-effect, commonly known as a "blooper", could be heard on other radios up to two miles away as an interfering high-pitched tone. (British listeners were more fortunate, as regenerative sets were illegal there.) Still, even with all the problems the tests had encountered, the public was interested in trying again.
The Second Year's Tests
Everyone got a second chance a year later, when what was now known as the "Second Annual International Radio Week Tests" took place. The 1924 programs were much more involved than those of the previous year. The transmissions still covered a week-long period, November 24 to November 30, but had been expanded to two hours each night. The number of participating stations also had been increased. In the United States about forty stations from coast-to-coast were selected to take part, in contrast to 1923, when only East Coast and Midwest broadcasters were involved. England now had fourteen stations, including one on the longwave band. And continental European broadcasters were included this time, represented by a mixture of longwave and mediumwave stations in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain. This year American stations had an hour each night, from 10:00 to 11:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, to transmit their programs. From 10:00 to midnight all 535 U.S. and 50-odd Canadian stations signed off to clear the way for European reception. The English stations broadcasted on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, while the Continental stations had Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Planning was better this year, but some problems still occurred. CYL in Mexico City, plus 7SR and 6KW in Cuba, held unexpected special programs which confused many American listeners, who thought only European stations would be transmitting during the silent hour. Also causing trouble was the occasional broadcaster who strayed into the silent period. WIP in Philadelphia was one, which on Saturday found itself approaching 11:00 with twenty minutes of the opera "Aida" unfinished. Station employees tossed a coin, and thus chose to finish the program, rather than cutting it short. Opera lovers celebrated while listeners for DX complained. The tests were much more successful in the United States than they had been the previous year. A few thousand were able to verify reception of European signals, although the number listening may have been in the tens of thousands. European listeners did not do as well, even though the American stations were using higher powers than previously. Although twelve U.S. broadcasters had been heard during the 1923 tests, only four (KDKA Pittsburgh, WGY Schenectady, WBZ Springfield, and WOO Philadelphia) made it this time. Because of the increase in the number of persons listening, the interference from bloopers, especially in the cities, had been worse than ever.
A New York Times article reviewing the achievements of the tests noted that many felt "superpowers" of 50 to 100 kilowatts would have to be used before "New York auditors can hear London as easily as Manhattan hears Chicago today". It also reported that the next year's tests would be pushed back to January of 1926, in the hope that conditions would be better.
The Third Year's Tests
The Third International Radio Week tests took place amidst much nationwide publicity and support. The National Radio Trade Association raised a fund of several thousand dollars to aid publicity, and Powell Crosley, famous radio manufacturer, was re-elected chairman of the International Radio Week Committee. Radio Broadcast set up shortwave station 2GY to aid communication, and vowed to do its best to see that a full list of programs appeared in the newspapers. It was noted that the schedules would include a few false entries, to "mislead the misleaders". Anyone claiming reception of an unbroadcast number would be given free membership in the "Ananias Club".
Although the tests held the approval of the vast majority of broadcasters, there were some areas of discontent, especially in the far west. KFI, in Los Angeles, agreed under strong public pressure to respect the silent periods, but released a statement charging "...the test week is designed primarily, we believe, to make the public dissatisfied with any set which does not receive European stations". Others noted that moving the tests to January seemed to be a strategy primarily designed to boost Christmas radio sells.
Hopes were high that reception would be much improved over that of the previous two efforts. A hopeful sign was that during New Year's some U.S. stations had been able to pick up and rebroadcast English programs. The chances of Europeans hearing U.S. stations, on a broadcast band now extending from 550 to 1500 khz, was also thought to be improved, since many stations had increased transmitter powers, including WGY Schenectady and WJZ New York (now WABC) which had part-time 50 kilowatt transmitters. More European and South American stations had been added, including ones from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Peru, and Argentina.
The schedule for the week was slightly different from that of the previous year. International Radio Week ran from January 24 to January 30, 1926, but only the first five nights featured transatlantic tests. On each of these nights selected U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Cuban broadcasters sent out programs for an hour starting at 10:00 PM. Then the silent period started on the western side of the Atlantic, and the Europeans had an hour to transmit. Sunday, the first night, and Tuesday were reserved for British stations, while on Monday and Wednesday Continental broadcasters transmitted. On Thursday, the last transatlantic night, all the Europeans were allowed to broadcast. South American stations ran their special programs on all five nights.
For Friday a new feature was added. The 11:00 to 12:00 silent hour was divided into 15 minute segments. For the first fifteen minutes stations in the Eastern time zone broadcasted. Then, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zone stations followed, each with their own fifteen minute segment. The week closed on Saturday with a similar arrangement, except this time the broadcasters were grouped into Canadian, northern U.S., southern U.S., and Cuban and Mexican categories. These new features were interesting, but the real enthusiasm of the average radio fan was still in catching European signals.
With the exception of a few far-western stations, including KNX and KFI in Los Angeles and inadvertently KPSN in Pasadena, CA, there was almost complete cooperation from North American stations during the silent periods. Even the rum runners, who had been asked not to interfere, apparently stayed off the air.
But, for all the improvements and high hopes, the tests did not fare well. Distribution of information was poor, even though, as noted earlier, efficient communication had been one of the goals. A fierce storm was raging in the Atlantic during the tests, and on the first two nights transmissions by East Coast stations were curtailed by the need to standby for distress signals. (At this time nearby broadcasters were required to sign off during emergencies, to avoid interfering with rescue operations). CZE in Mexico City held an English and Spanish language program before and after the silent hour on the first night, which many mistakenly thought originated in Spain.
Although programs from OAX in Peru and from the two Argentinean broadcasters had gotten out well, there were fewer reports of European reception than in the 1924 tests. L. A. Nixon, the secretary of the International Radio Week Committee, reported from Garden City that, of the five thousand reception reports received, only two thousand could be verified. Many listeners had apparently been fooled by hoax stations operating in New Orleans, New York City, and Omaha.
So, even though more people than ever were listening for the tests, loggings of the Europeans had declined. In fact, the former helped cause the latter. The bloopers of the regeneratives, which had interfered so much on previous occasions, were now a critical problem. Two-thirds of the five million sets in use were regeneratives, and the howls and squeals of their combined voices, especially around the cities, was a din that one compared to "feeding time at the zoo". In many areas you did not have to know what frequencies were the most promising---all you had to do was find the greatest concentration of regenerative whistles. It was felt that many people with better receivers would have logged Europe, had it not been for the radiating sets.
It is interesting to compare the two magazines which gave the most publicity to the 1926 tests, Radio Broadcast and Radio Digest-Illustrated. As noted earlier, Radio Broadcast had originated the tests. It was a monthly publication, costing 50 cents per issue, and printed on high quality glossy paper. Its covers of 1925 and 1926 featured a symbolic picture of radio, with only the color changing with each issue. The magazine featured technical articles on receiver design and maintenance, in addition to subjects of more general interest.
Radio Digest was quite a different publication. A weekly costing 15 cents, it was published on newsprint and its cover usually featured a radio personality. The magazine dealt with radio celebrities, weekly program schedules for 160 stations around the United States, and innumerable contests to keep up the circulation. This lowbrow approach to radio actually proved to be more successful than Radio Broadcast's highbrow approach, for Radio Broadcast ceased publication in 1930 and was merged into Radio Digest. Radio Digest would struggle on for three more years, change its name to Radio Fanfare, and then expire.
Radio Digest seemed even more disappointed than most listeners in the lack of success during the 1926 tests. Their contest, offering $100 in gold for the best reception reports, received only 16,784 letters and telegrams. (This can be compared to the 225,000 telegrams KFNF in Shenandoah, Iowa received during the thirty hour program it held in March to celebrate its second anniversary). The magazine had strong opinions--not unusual--about problems which had plagued the tests. It attacked the broadcasters which had, even accidentally, intruded into the silent hours. Radio Broadcast also had special words for the stations which had purposely broadcast through the silent hours, saying the stations were more interested in commercial profit than in the rights of the general public.
Radio Digest also cited the inefficient planning and poor communication of the International Week Committee, noting "It is hoped that the next foreign test be arranged in a more business-like fashion". In contrast, Radio Broadcast was proud that "In spite of these handicaps, the foreign arrangements for the tests went forward with great completeness".
Then there was the matter of the bloopers. Radio Broadcast, in a section titled "Printable Remarks About Bloopers" noted it had never printed a design for a radiating set, and had frequently refused to advertise regenerative sets. But, it pessimistically reported, "...the fight is apparently a losing one, and our own weapons not strong enough to combat a menace of this size". Radio Digest disagreed. It declared war on the interference, forming the "I WILL NOT BLOOP CLUB". Membership was gained by signing a pledge not to bloop, and a certificate "suitable for billfold or framing" was issued to each member. The tremendous mail response which followed helped the magazine forget about the disappointing International Week contest.
End of the Tests
Radio Digest ended its review with "The bloopers, aurora borealis, SOS signals, selfish-minded stations, etc., are NOT invited to participate during silent periods next time", while Radio Broadcast wished "better luck next time!". However, there was no "next time". In May of 1926 the Second Annual Convention of Radio Manufacturers met in Atlantic City. Here it was announced that the association would not support any more transatlantic tests, because they were too expensive. The International Radio Week Committee was reported to be asking for public support in changing the Association's decision, but it was not ultimately successful. In August, David Sarnoff, Vice President of RCA, visited Europe, with hopes of setting up regular broadcasts of European programs in the United States. He was quoted as saying "The day is done when people in the United States will listen to Europe for the novelty of doing so. The listeners are no longer interested in how they get their programs, but in what they get".
Sarnoff was right. With the coming of better programming from commercial broadcasters, the lure of long distance reception could not compete with the entertainment that local stations now offered. Radio was growing up. Even the squeals of the regenerating sets were disappearing, as they were replaced by non-radiating superheterodyne receivers. Still, something magical was lost. Never again would so many people, on both sides of the Atlantic, join together to explore the mystery of using their radios to capture distant signals from around the hemisphere and across the ocean.
Note On Sources: Most of the material for this article came from the 1923 through 1926 issues of the New York Times, Radio Broadcast, and Radio Digest-Illustrated. Additional sources were Radio World and Radio Times.