99 Over-The-Air Years And Counting
Tomorrow (Nov. 2) marks 99 years since the first broadcast of radio station KDKA. While the debate over which commercial station was first on the air may never be resolved, many attribute broadcasting’s beginnings to when the Pittsburgh station began regular programs in late 1920.
KDKA’s owner Westinghouse Electric soon began the mass production of radio receivers for sale to the general public, helping to create an audience and a market for radio entertainment that had not existed before. Seven more broadcasting stations went on the air in 1921; over 500 more signed on in 1922 and broadcasting’s boom was on.
KDKA’s inaugural broadcast reported the election returns of the Harding-Cox presidential contest.
The iconic photo, staged a couple of days later, shows (l-r) Westinghouse’s R. S. McClelland, William Thomas, Leo Rosenberg and John Frazier. They and the transmitter were housed in a small shack atop the K Building at Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh Works. The broadcast is said to have begun at 6 p.m. and continued into the following day after Cox conceded the race.
KDKA’s own roots stem from the work of Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad. His broadcasts from the amateur station in his backyard garage helped to convince company executives that the future of radio was in mass communication rather than point-to-point.
Interestingly, Conrad’s first garage broadcast took place on Oct. 17, 1919, the very same day that the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was formed.
Plans are underway in Pittsburgh to commemorate the centennial of the broadcasting industry in 2020. KDKA, Duquesne University and the National Museum of Broadcasting are collaborating on the effort.
Re-creations of KDKA’s original broadcasting shack and Conrad’s garage station are planned along with exhibits spanning 10 decades of broadcasting history. On Nov. 2, 2020, a re-creation of the original 1920 KDKA broadcast is planned. In a nod to history it is hoped that local and national media will present some election returns from the KDKA Shack the following day (Nov. 3) for the 2020 presidential election.
Rick Harris is with the nascent National Museum of Broadcasting in Pittsburgh. NMB dismantled Frank Conrad’s garage when the property was sold to make way for a fast food restaurant. The group is raising funds for next year’s centennial and ultimately to reconstruct Conrad’s garage as the centerpiece of a permanent communications museum. Rick can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 241-4508. NMB’s website www.nmbpgh.org contains additional background information.