Jessell | Electronic Media At 100: Honoring The Architects
Today is the 100th anniversary of KDKA in Pittsburgh, whose inaugural radio broadcast of Nov. 2, 1920, proved to be the catalyst for transforming radio from hobby to mass medium almost overnight.
The four-hour broadcast was also the Big Bang of electronic mass media, leading to television, cable, satellite TV, satellite radio, streaming and social media.
In Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and the National Museum of Broadcasting will celebrate the KDKA broadcast with two nights of reenactments and interviews from the actual site of the broadcast on the old Westinghouse works. You can tune to the live stream starting tonight at 7 p.m. ET at duq.edu/KDKA. NAB President Gordon Smith is among the scheduled guests.
With a bow to the centennial, I would like to recognize a few of the many thousands of individuals who, I believe, have been the most important in propelling the electronic media from KDKA to today.
You’ll not find any show biz talent here — no DJs, announcers, news men or women, actors, singers, musicians, dancers, writers, directors or producers.
While most people think of electronic mass media as a litany of favorite programs and their stars, it is really the inventors, engineers, investors, entrepreneurs and business executives who have made electronic media in all of its incarnations the unparalleled cultural force it is.
Americans may think they are in love with the talent, but, in fact, they are really in love with the media themselves.
With that in mind, I present my heroes of electronic media media in a brief history of that media.
The Rise Of Broadcasting
In the quarter century prior to KDKA, an industry of point-to-point wireless communications flourished upon the basic research into the electromagnetic spectrum of Heinrich Hertz and the genius of inventor-entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi.
The killer app was ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communications. Wireless took some of the danger out of sailing beyond the horizon. (Not all, of course: It couldn’t save the 1,500 that went down with the Titanic in 1912.)
It wasn’t just investors and corporations that fueled the early wireless industry. State-owned communications and weather services and their militaries were great early patrons. When the armies of the world went to war in 1914, they packed portable wireless sets with them.
Two inventor-entrepreneurs — Reginald Fessenden and Lee de Forest — continue to vie among historians for the honor of being the first to broadcast audio over wireless in the first decade of the last century.
In any event, each made tremendous technological contributions to the medium, although neither was able to fully capitalize on them. De Forest’s great gift was the vacuum tube, which was used in radio reception and amplification and powered much of electronics until the 1960s, when transistors and other semi-conductors began to take over.
The other great American radio inventor of the pre-KDKA era was Edwin Armstrong, who enhanced the de Forest tubes and came up with improved receiving circuits. He later invented FM radio.
Many had conceived of radio as a mass medium and put stations on the air with news and music, most notably WJZ Detroit in August 1920.
But in launching KDKA, Westinghouse Electric executive Harry P. Davis would be the first of them to put the might of a major corporation behind the idea.
With engineering partner Frank Conrad, Davis had a plan for making money — they would sell low-cost, relatively easy-to-use receivers — and through the corporate marketing arm they would make sure everybody knew about it.
“We endeavored to render a real public service, with regularity, presenting well-planned, high-grade, interesting and timely advertised programs,” Davis later wrote.
And they succeeded. After Westinghouse got in the act, everybody wanted to be in radio — either at the transmitting or receiving end.
Before leaving the era of true wireless pioneers, note that their work also formed the foundation for two-way radio communications, which took a parallel path to radio and its big leap forward in the 1980s with the implementation of cellular phones.
Like Davis, David Sarnoff recognized the profit-making power of radio. And as a rising star at the newly formed RCA in the early 1920s, he followed the Westinghouse lead, putting stations on the air to stimulate demand for RCA-branded receivers. (RCA was founded in 1919 as a patent trust by General Electric, Westinghouse, AT&T and the United Fruit Co.)
Selling receivers was what first attracted the big industrial concerns to broadcasting, but it was not what would drive the business for the next 100 years. That would be advertising.
Early commercial radio stations sometimes promoted records in exchange for allowing their broadcast. But this innocent form of payola soon gave way to selling of advertising or what was then known as toll broadcasting.
As in just about all aspects of this history, it’s hard to pin down who was first with advertising. But AT&T’s WEAF New York (now Entercom’s WFAN) was probably the first to get into it in a big way in August 1922, less than two years after KDKA.
It aired a 10-minute infomercial for an apartment complex. I have not been able to identify the person who sold the time, but one report says the station got $100 for it.
Sarnoff made his big contribution to broadcasting in 1926 when AT&T suddenly decided it wanted out of broadcasting. RCA bought its stations in New York and Washington and launched a network, NBC, the National Broadcasting Co. It would give RCA the ability to spread out the cost of talent and eventually establish a national advertising footprint. The model, also applied to TV, has proved durable.
Even before radio had reach its adolescence, radio with pictures — television — was in the works. Standing on the shoulders of many others, Philo T. Farnsworth and his angel investors demonstrated the first complete all-electronic TV system in 1927.
But determined to be first to market, Sarnoff hired engineer Vladimir Zworykin to develop a rival system while challenging Farnsworth’s patents. Sarnoff eventually lost the patent battle (he was forced to license the Farnworth’s patents), but won the war, showing a fully realized system at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
World War II stymied television for much of the 1940s, but, with RCA as the principal driver, TV swept through the entire country in 1950s as radio had done in the 1920s. By the early 1960s, TV had blown past not only radio, but publishing in terms of power and influence.
Sarnoff’s great rival was his near contemporary William S. Paley, who founded CBS (the Columbia Broadcasting System) in 1927. For the next 40 years, Sarnoff and Paley went head-to-head in the battle for broadcasting supremacy.
Paley always had the more popular programming, but Sarnoff had the technological edge. RCA’s color TV system became the standard, not CBS’s. RCA drove the introduction of color, profiting from being a major producer of the color sets.
ABC (the American Broadcasting Co.) had joined NBC and CBS in 1943 and eventually became a competitive third network in radio and TV. By the 1960s, it was conventional wisdom that broadcasting could not support a fourth network. And that held true for a couple decades. But Australia-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch was not a conventional businessman.
With a single show (The Late Show with Joan Rivers), Murdoch’s Fox Broadcasting took to the air on Oct. 9, 1986. That show soon fizzled, but Murdoch and his network chief Barry Diller persisted and found solid ground with shows that were just a little edgier than what could be found on the Big 3.
In one of the boldest programming moves in broadcasting history, he cemented Fox’s future by outbidding CBS for half of the NFL’s Sunday games in 1993 and by aggressively and successfully upgrading its affiliate lineup with some strategic station-group buys.
Murdoch would repeat his success in cable by taking on the well-entrenched CNN and launching Fox News Channel in 1996.
The Rise Of Cable
A quarter century of uncoordinated technological developments converged in 1920 to produce KDKA and broadcasting. The rise of cable and the internet as mass media would follow a similar pattern.
As the country began sprouting TV stations in the late 1940s, entrepreneurs discovered the ancillary business of community antenna or cable TV. By stringing wires, they bought TV signals to homes that, because of terrain or distance, couldn’t get good reception directly off the air. For the service, home owners paid a monthly fee.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association recognizes John Walson of Mahanoy City, Pa., as the first cable operator. The company he founded still serves Northeast Pennsylvania and Northern New Jersey as Service Electric.
By the 1960s, the business had begun making inroads into urban areas, but it was still far from a threat to broadcasting.
Among the urban cable pioneer was Charles Dolan, who saw cable as more than a conveyor of broadcast signals. With Time Inc. as his partner, he secured the TV rights to local sports for his New York cable system in the early 1970s.
Encouraged, he came up with the idea of a premium channel of sports and uncut, unedited movies for subscribers willing to pay a little extra each month. Home Box Office debuted with a hockey game on John Walson’s cable system in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Nov. 8, 1972.
Legal, regulatory and technological barriers stunted HBO’s growth, but Gerald Levin, who succeeded Dolan as CEO of HBO after he sold most of his interest to Time, presided over the move that would finally break the broadcasters’ oligopoly on network television and lay the groundwork for the modern cable industry.
Levin oversaw the low-cost national distribution of HBO via satellite, cashing in on the vision of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke — he conceived geostationary communications satellites in 1945 — and the rocketry and other satellite technologies developed during the Cold War space race of the 1960s.
To inaugurate the distribution system on Sept. 30, 1975, Levin scheduled the much anticipated third and final fight between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Within three years, HBO counted 750 cable affiliates around the country and 2 million subscribers.
The combination of satellite distribution and the steady expansion in the number of channels that cable systems could deliver produced a channel vacuum that entrepreneurs and programmers rushed to fill.
What’s more, consumer demand for the programming drove subscriptions and the revenue needed to wire the entire country.
Of the early cable network programming entrepreneurs and executives, several stand out: Bob Rosencrans and Kay Koplovitz (MSG Network/USA Network, 1977); Bill Rasmussen (ESPN, 1978); Brian Lamb (C-SPAN, 1979); Bob Johnson (BET, 1980); Ted Turner (superstation WTBS, 1976; CNN, 1980) and Warner-Amex executive Bob Pittman (MTV, 1981).
During the 1980s, Turner would become the brash public face of cable, challenging the broadcasting establishment even as he tried to become part of it. His bid for to acquire CBS in 1985 failed. However, CNN forever changed national TV news, eventually attracting rivals MSNBC, CNBC and Murdoch’s Fox News.
If Turner was the quintessential cable programmer of the time, John Malone was the quintessential cable operator. Landing at little-known Tele-Communications Inc. in 1973, he directed a buying spree, consolidating what had been a highly fragmented industry. TCI became the largest cable outfit in the country before being sold to AT&T in 1998 for $48 billion.
While at the helm of TCI, Malone not only brought scale to the business, he brought leadership. At an industry conference in 1992, he announced that he would use digital transmission and compression to greatly expand cable service to include more niche channels as well as pay-per-view and other interactive offerings.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Malone said at that press conference. “lt will be a gradual process, but the seeds have now been sown.”
Despite Malone’s caution and skeptics like Ted Turner, Malone and other digital cable pioneers had no trouble filling their expanded cable capacity.
To make good on his promises, Malone turned to General Instrument and the digital video technology that had been developed there by South Korean engineer Woo Paik. (He was also responsible for the digital elements of the ATSC 1.0 broadcast standard that TV station implemented in the 2000s so they could air HDTV and extra program channels.)
Malone was also instrumental in setting up the Cable Labs, whose cable modem standard propelled cable deeply into the business of providing broadband access to the internet. Today, it appears that the broadband business may soon eclipse cable’s video business.
Cable’s embrace of digital transmission came none too soon as it was about to face for the first time a serious multichannel competitor — and it would be digital from the start.
Stanley S. Hubbard, of the pioneering Hubbard family, spent much of the 1980s touting direct-to-home satellite broadcasting as the future of TV and urging his fellow broadcasters to join him in the venture.KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh had its inaugural broadcast 100 years ago today, catalyzing radio’s shift from hobby to mass medium and ushering in the other electronic media that followed. Driving the evolution forward were inventors,… Click To Tweet
Forsaken by the other broadcasters, Hubbard went ahead with a plan with Hughes Communications, under which his United States Satellite Broadcasting and Hughes would share a Hughes-built satellite and offer complementary cable programming to subs with small dish antennas. The partners inaugurated their 175-channel service on June 17, 1994.
In 1998, Hubbard sold out to DirecTV, which went on the become the nation’s largest multichannel outlet in the nation, surpassing all the earth-bound cable companies. It is now owned by AT&T.
The Rise Of The Internet
A couple of computer scientists, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, more or less invented the internet in the 1970s by writing the standards that allowed computers to talk to each other in a network of networks. While Malone and Turner were making their marks in cable in the 1980s, the internet grew, but mostly within the confines of the computer science world.
Then, along came another computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, who in 1989 released the protocols that would become the World Wide Web — websites and webpages of interactive text and graphics all interconnected across the internet.
To navigate among the web pages, one needed a so-called web browser. Mosaic, cooked up by the University of Illinois-Urbana, was the first, in 1993, but it was quickly overtaken in 1994 by Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen and their Netscape browser.
As Netscape’s stock price soared in the mid-1990s, it popularized the web and helped to spawn immense interest in it not only from the public, but also from traditional media, retailers and entrepreneurs, all sensing the web was the Next Big Thing and desperate to exploit it.
Netscape lost its technological edge and disappeared in 1998 into America Online, which was then making its play to dominate the web with dial-up internet access service.
Other browsers rose to take Netscape’s place, notably Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, the open-source Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Google Chrome.
To find what you were looking for, search engines appeared directing you to relevant pages. The one that did it best was Google, founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996.
The final years of the 20th century were boom years for the web. Quick fortunes came to those who could establish a toehold in a corner of the web and rush out an IPO.
In January 2000, Time Warner, then headed by Gerald Levin, merged with American Online, a merger of old and new media that seemed for a moment to define the future. The Super Bowl that year was filled with dotcom ads.
But the boom did not last. Just months after the Time Warner-AOL announcement came the bust, leaving investors with handfuls of near worthless stock in dotcoms spending far more than they were bringing in. Driven by web speculation, the Nasdaq plunged.
If you weren’t among those investors, the bust was not necessarily a bad thing. It swept out the weak, leaving behind the strong like Amazon, eBay and Google.
The web devastated newspapers. To remain relevant, publishers posted their expensive-to-produce content to the web only to discover that advertisers would not follow them there and that the content could be easily commoditized by others with hyperlinks.
The big blow was developed by Craigslist, a free classified ad service founded in Craig Newmark in 1996. By the mid-2000s, it was wiping out the papers’ highly lucrative classified business. They couldn’t compete with free.
As the web developed in the 1990s, so did the ability to stream audio and video over the internet. By the mid-2000s, digital compression was good enough and cable broadband links to the home were fast enough to support commercially viable audio and TV distribution over the web.
Three former PayPal employees — Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim — launched YouTube in 2005 and a year and a half later sold it to Google for $1.7 billion in stock.
Credit Reed Hastings and Marc Rudolph with moving TV streaming into the big time. They founded Netflix in 1997 to rent and sell DVDs by mail. Ten years later, with the streaming technology fully ripened, Netflix began streaming some of its many titles for free and discovered a tremendous demand.
Hastings soon shifted the company’s focus to streaming, charging a monthly fee for on-demand access its tremendous library of movies and TV shows. By 2013, it began producing its own content with the series House of Cards. Today, the company counts itself among the largest entertainment producers and distributors in the nation.
Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, always on the lookout for a new market to capture, stepped up its own SVOD (subscription-video-on-demand) business in 2008, making access to its array of library and original TV parts of its annual Prime free-shipping membership. Like Netflix, it ploughed its earnings into original production.
Today, all the big multimedia entertainment companies are into SVOD streaming in a big way. Disney has Hulu and Disney+, ViacomCBS has CBS All Access (soon to be renamed Paramount Plus), Comcast/NBCUniversal has Peacock and AT&T/WarnerMedia has HBO Max. Fox is going with the ad-supported Tubi.
With apologies to the show biz types, the bold-faced names in this longer-than-expected history are my picks for the most important folks of the first 100 years of the electronic mass media. You may not agree with them all or you may believe I’ve left some worthy people out. No doubt I have.
Last July, I posted my intention to write a column like this on Facebook where I have a lot of media-savvy friends. I ask that they make their suggestions on who should be on the list beyond those I chose, noting that I wanted to exclude the on-mic or on-screen talent.
Check out their suggestions below.
And happy 100th to KDKA, broadcasting and all the electronic media.
Alexander M. Poniatoff
Arthur C. Nielsen
Joan Ganz Cooney
John Logie Baird