Respectfully submitted, here is a brief history of radio, taken from lectures by my radio production professor, Steve Peterson, and the fifth edition of The Radio Station by Michael C. Keith.
The Thinkers, the Inventors, and the Manufacturers
Although it seems like it's been around forever, radio is a relatively new invention. The ideas of many people, some as early as the nineteenth century, contributed to it's eventual creation. However, Guglielmo Marconi (quite a name, isn't it?) is credited with first devising a way to transmit sound without the use of wires. He is considered by many to be the father of radio.
David Sarnoff, an employee of Marconi's, took Marconi's wireless technology and made use of it. He suggested in a memo that the "radio music box" could be mass-produced and sold to the public. It was his idea to broadcast music, news, and information into households everywhere. His proposal was allegedly snubbed at first. But persistence paid off and by 1919, radios were available for general purchase.
By 1922, the popularity of radio was gaining momentum. At first, manufacturers and department stores had the only transmitters. KDKA (Pittsburgh, PA) was the first radio station. WWJ (Detroit, MI) was soon to follow. Radio was entirely non-commercial at that time and depended on public grants and donations. The public not always being as generous as necessary, stations began to look for a new way to generate income. WEAF (New York, NY) is credited with airing the first commercial spot. The first paid announcement in history was purchased by Hawthorne Court, a real-estate company based in Queens. It lasted ten minutes! This should make all of us feel better about the length of commercial breaks on modern-day stations.
Birth of the Networks
In the twenties, radio stations began linking up and forming broadcasting chains. KDKA began offering a schedule of daily broadcasts in 1922 and other stations followed. By linking up, one station could simulcast its programming to many different areas. Chain broadcasting, and subsequently, the major broadcast network was born.
The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), headed by then CEO Sarnoff, established the first major broadcast network in 1926. They named it the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Yes, NBC was before television. NBC had two dozen stations, several of which it acquired from AT&T after the government encouraged AT&T to sell off its broadcast holdings. WEAF was the flagship station of NBC. In an effort to diversify, NBC divided their networks into two groups; the Red and the Blue networks. The former were the bulk of NBC's stations and the latter was comprised of their few smaller stations.
Two years after NBC started out, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) launched its network with sixteen stations under the leadership of William S. Paley. Paley would serve as CEO of CBS from 1928 until well into the 1980s. CBS was, and still is, credited with having very strong news programming.
In 1934, a third network (surprisingly not ABC...they come in later), emerged. Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) had affiliates in only four major cities and did not own any of their stations. Its primary focus was syndication of programming. It had 160 affiliates in its heyday, but left the air in April 1999 due to financial difficulties.
Eventually, NBC was forced by the FCC to break up its holdings. In the early 1940s, broadcasting rules were implemented which prevented one company from owning and operating two distinct networks. RCA decided to retain the larger Red network and sell off the smaller Blue network. Edward J. Noble purchased NBC's Blue network and thus established the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
Radio Prospers Despite Rough Times
In the five years after its inception, radio saw amazing growth. More and more stations were broadcasting and there wasn't enough room for them all on the AM band. Interference frustrated listeners as more than one station would often broadcast on the same frequency. Finally, Congress intervened and made some more rules. In 1926, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was formed. The FRC began issuing licenses and assigning frequencies to stations. They established the standard broadcast band (500-1500 kc). These efforts helped dissipate confusion and saved the fledgling medium.
During the Depression, radio shows provided light-hearted humor to the downtrodden listener. The most popular and longest-running show of all time, Amos 'n' Andy, debuted the same year the stock market crashed. Many people listened in an effort to escape the dismal reality of everyday life. It was entertainment provided for free; so long as one owned a receiver. The medium gained such a large audience that in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began broadcasting a series of speeches that were known as "fireside chats". That same year, Roosevelt created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in an effort to regulate the growing medium and all other electronic communication.
Once World War II began, the FCC prohibited the building of new broadcast outlets because all such materials were needed in the war effort. Existing stations enjoyed continued success as Americans tuned in all across the country to hear the latest news from the front. Propaganda began to pour forth over the airwaves as broadcasters banded together to unify the country against the enemy. By the end of the war, 95 percent of homes had at least one radio receiver.
Television Appears, Radio Suffers
Once the war ended, the FCC lifted its freeze on further development of broadcast outlets. This gave television an opportunity to grow. Now, people could not only hear programs, they had a visual to go with the actors and the scenarios. They had a face to put on their newscasters. In the 1950s, television dethroned radio as the number one entertainment medium. That meant not only did radio lose listeners, it lost sponsors. Something had to be change or radio would go the way of the cotton gin, silent films, and Devo.
Initially, programmers thought that the way to save radio was to broadcast exactly was television was broadcasting. After all, if it was working for them... The idea was that people would tune in on their transistor radios (developed by Bell Laboratory in 1948) instead of the televisions when they were away from home. But it wasn't working. Stations began to play recorded music after having to drop their network affiliations due to decreased program schedules. What looked like a last ditch effort would change the face of radio forever.
Radio As We Now Know It
In the mid-1950s, rock and roll was born. Artists like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley began pumping out hits. New York/Chicago DJ Alan Freed began promoting rock and roll shows, bringing it into the mainstream. The Top 40 radio format was born. Teens discovered the whole new radio, which really was just what Sarnoff envisioned in the first place.
Keep in mind, so far I have discussed only AM radio. Although FM radio was created by Edward Armstrong back in 1938, it was not taken advantage of until much later. The signal on FM was much cleaner, but there weren't any receivers out there to pick up the signal. Manufacturers wouldn't make them until there was a demand for them. There wouldn't be a demand for them until there were stations broadcasting on FM. There wouldn't be stations broadcasting until there was an audience for it. Thus, the vicious circle went. The FCC freeze on broadcast medium development in the 1940s didn't help matters. By the time the 1960s arrived, although many AM station operators owned FM licenses, they merely simulcast their AM broadcasts on their FM frequency.
Two things would propel the stalled evolution of FM. In 1961, the FCC authorized FM to broadcast in stereo. Many record companies at were making stereo disks at that time. Stereo sound needed to be tested and FM seemed a good place to try it. Then, in 1965 the FCC created a law requiring FM stations to break simulcast with their AM counterparts for at least half the broadcast day. FM had to create its own sound.
The first format to take hold on FM was Beautiful Music, a precursor to today's easy listening. Automation allowed FM stations to keep employees down to a minimum and would often assign the FM operation to an engineer. But the more-music, less-talk format proved successful and FM stations began making money. FM stations began broadcasting album cuts that did not get air play on the Top 40 AM stations, further chipping away at the AM audience.
Eventually, FM eclipsed AM in the early 1980s. The then-struggling AM stations had to provide something different from FM, since their non-stereo sound could not outdo FM in quality. AM radio turned back to the medium's beginnings and became primarily talk radio, giving birth to the careers of Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Dr. Laura. Despite its best efforts, AM still remains in the shadow of FM today.
Node your homework! It works!