Celebrating 100 Years of Radio

100 years of radio


When you think of radio, what's the first word you think of? For me, it's difficult to choose just one. 'Entertaining, comforting, informative and local' are just a few that instantly come to mind. Commercial radio broadcasting turns 100 this year, specifically on May 20, 2020. The first commercial station to broadcast is debatable, so let's talk about the contenders. 



On May 20, 1920, CFCF broadcast for the first time out of Montreal, Canada (CFCF stood for Canada's first, Canada's finest) and is considered to be the first programmed radio broadcast in history. 

CFCF Montreal 1920s

Others say KDKA in Pittsburgh was the first. KDKA was a licensed station that went on the air November 2, 1920 when they broadcast the presidential election results. On the same day, 8MK (WWJ) out of Detroit broadcast the exact same thing.

history of radio



In the early days of radio, anyone was allowed to broadcast over the air which meant you had amateurs and commercial stations broadcasting with no rules or regulations. The airwaves were a bit of a mess and needed to be cleaned up in order to obtain more listeners. 

1920s radio

Because of this, in 1922 the Canadian government stepped in and handed out exclusive broadcast licenses to 21 stations. In the US, 28 stations had official broadcast licenses. The regulation of radio officially happened in 1927 when the Federal Radio Commission was created which allowed a proper industry to form.

1920s radio station



Radio Stations had to find a way to make money in order to continue to operate. The first official radio ad was heard in 1922, on an AT&T owned station in New York and the commercial promoted purchasing apartments. At the time it cost $50 for 50 minutes of airtime. 

woman tuning radio



 After more than a decade of AM radio, the invention of FM radio happened in 1933. Engineer Edwin Armstrong, tested his FM broadcasts from the top of the Empire State Building in the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) offices. The difference in sound quality was huge but nobody was buying FM radios due to the depression. What was the point of buying an FM radio when you already had an AM? Because of this, it took a while for FM radio to take off.   

history of radio the radio nerd



Radio plays gained popularity during the 1930s. These radio shows were a way for people to be uplifted and entertained during the great depression. Radio had big stars and was a great place to make big money if you were lucky enough to be in the business. Programming usually consisted of live comedies, dramas, musicals, quiz shows, kids programming and soap operas. 

Radio plays 



Radio DJs (disk jockeys) became an important part of radio programming. They were responsible for playing records on the air and talking in between songs to entertain listeners. Up until radio automation in the 90s, DJs chose the records but these days the music is chosen by the Music Director and is completely automated. 


wolfman jack radio dj



If you're a Radio Nerd you know call letters are an important part of radio stations. They are three or four letter call signs assigned to licensed radio stations by the government (ex. CHUM or WNYC.) Let's talk about the difference between Canada & The United States when it comes to radio call letters. 
In Canada, call letters must start with a 'C' and the second letter must start with either 'F H I J or K' 
It's different in the US, if the station is east of the Mississippi river the call letter must start with a 'W' and if it's west of the Mississippi it needs to start with a 'K' 
An exception would be three letter call letters which were assigned in the early days of radio.
So if you see a station with a three letter call sign, you know it's an old one. 

vintage radio



The transistor radio was a huge deal for commercial radio. Now consumers could take radio with them wherever they went. The first transistor radio was created in 1947 at Bell Laboratories but it wasn't until 1954 when transistor radios became commercially available. The first commercially available transistor was the Regency TR-1, it wasn't the best sound quality but that didn't seem to matter. Over 150,000 radios were sold due to the novelty. If you're able to find one, good for you! They're super rare. 

transistor radio


TOP 40 
The Top 40 format was created by 'The Maverick of Radio' Gordon McLendon in the early 1950s at KLIF - The Mighty 1190 in Dallas, Texas. The format was a huge success and helped paved the way for many other Top 40 stations and radio charts. Top 40 radio is also known as CHR (contemporary hit radio) 

radio top 40 chart


In 1967, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 'Public Broadcasting Act' which set up a system that allowed radio and television stations whose main mission was public service to broadcast on the air. This was the beginning of PBS, NPR and CPB (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) Before this, public broadcasting was popular in many countries like Canada (CBC) South Korea (KBS) and the United Kingdom (BBC) 

NPR radio nerd



Radio automation began in the 90s as a way for station owners to cut costs by using less people to do more work. You could now use one set of announcers on multiple stations. Shows were being voice tracked (pre recorded) so you didn't have to pay staff 24 hours a day. 

radio studio



The first satellite radio broadcasts happened in Africa and the Middle East in 1999, the US in 2001, Japan in 2004 and Canada in 2005. All three of the major satellite radio companies were founded in the United States in the 90s (Sirius, XM & WorldSpace)

The cost to create satellite radio was around 3 billion dollars and in order to continue to succeed, Sirius and XM merged together in 2008. Since then, WorldSpace has gone bankrupt and terrestrial radio is still king due to the fact that it's free and local. 

sirius xm radio nerd



In terms of listenership, radio continues to be strong in 2020 and is considered an essential service. Just like during the great depression, radio is providing comfort and important local information to whoever needs it at no charge during these uncertain times. Radio is keeping lonely people company and providing a sense of happiness and joy. It's like we're all able to see just how important radio is around the world once again. Radio is still popular and has no signs of slowing down. 

listening to radio nerd




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