by Kevin Burton
Most historians mark the beginning of radio as Nov. 2, 1920, when station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast returns from the US presidential election.
Republican Warren G. Harding defeated Democrat James M. Cox 404 electoral votes to 127, according to Wikipedia. Harding won the north and west, Cox won the entire south except Tennessee and Oklahoma.
“The first KDKA broadcast voice was that of Leo Rosenberg, who announced to listeners on the night of Nov. 2, 1920, ‘This is KDKA of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We shall now broadcast the election returns,’” wrote Diana Nelson Jones in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“We are receiving these returns through the cooperation and by special arrangement with the Pittsburgh Post and Sun. We’d appreciate it if anyone hearing this broadcast would communicate with us as we are very anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received.”
On this election night, I plan to tune in to KDKA for at least part of the election coverage. I want to have some small part in the anniversary celebration. Radio was a wonder and a bit of a mystery to me when I was young, in the years halfway between 1920 and today.
What coverage I don’t get from KDKA I will likely seek from BBC London.
It was maverick engineer Frank Conrad who went into a little shed atop the tallest building in Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant to broadcast the first radio news event, according to the Post-Gazette.
“The shed was equipped with an antenna, a 100-watt transmitter, a candlestick telephone ‘microphone’ buffered in a cardboard box and several chairs.”
“Conrad had tinkered and innovated for years to bring KDKA radio into being. Its commercial license had been issued just six days before the election, and only a few thousand people had receivers to hear the results.”
“But the event went viral for its day.”
How times have changed in that 100 years. I’ll be tuning in KDKA via my Alexa device. That would have been too far out a notion even for science fiction back in 1920.
Also reeking of science fiction are the presidential candidates in 2020 and even going back to 2016. No one alive and paying attention in 1920 could have foreseen the depths to which the country has sunk.
At this writing, I fear that future historians will mark Nov. 3 of this year, election night 2020, as the end of the United States as we have known it, or at least a key juncture in the slide.
More painful still, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”
But Pittsburgh, if not the country as a whole, will have something to celebrate. The Post-Gazette reports that KDKA’s 100th anniversary will be commemorated today and tomorrow in a replica of that little shed where it all started. Duquesne University and the National Museum of Broadcasting have collaborated on several events that will be live streamed on YouTube.
Duquesne President Ken Gormley will narrate a documentary about KDKA’s pioneering legacy at 6 p.m. Central Time tonight. A live celebration will follow, according to the Post-Gazette.
On election night, tomorrow, starting at 7 p.m. Central, KDKA personalities and Duquesne University officials will discuss parallels between the 1920 and 2020 elections and the importance of KDKA and its role in the original broadcast.
The historic first broadcast will be re-enacted with help from radio historians, The Post-Gazette reports.
In the months before KDKA went on the air, Conrad broadcast music from a station in his home with the call letters 8XK. He got increasing notoriety for his Saturday night “concerts.”
More details on the KDKA and the early history of radio are available at www.KDKA100.org.
Radio was a constant source of amazement to me growing up as well, particularly the AM dial. Late at night, I could get signals from stations like WOAI in San Antonio, WBBM in Chicago, and WTAM in Cleveland. Hearing games, talk shows, even commercials for local businesses, gave me a glimpse of what life might be like in these faraway places, and it seemed magical that I could do this from my childhood bedroom in Richmond, MO.
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