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Radio News Inception – Thank the Amateurs

radio news inception
Fessenden’s first broadcast in 1906. Titanic sinks in 1912

Radio news inception was slow. Few radio professionals considered broadcasting as useful. It took the amateurs to get this started. 

During its first generation, radio was all about point-to-point communication. Two different groups comprised the radio world. First, professional and commercial radio focused on messages, creating wireless telegraphy. These users included telecommunications and shipping companies, as well as military. Radio carried news bulletins, but not for the public; just for newspapers and financial markets. Second, the other group was the experimenters and amateur scientists. Sometimes these were trained scientists but often just ordinary folks fascinated by building and using that new thing called radio.

The amateur group (what we call hams today) would set up stations and contact each other. Amateurs at first communicated with Morse Code, but later with voice. Canadian Reginald Fessenden did the first AM radio broadcast from Massachusetts on Christmas Eve, 1906. He had invented a new technology for voice modulation. This was followed by experimental music broadcasts by Lee de Forest in New York in 1907. Other amateurs including Arthur Church and Charles Herrold did the same in Iowa and California, respectively. Soon, hundreds of amateurs in the United States and elsewhere were doing amateur radio broadcasting.

At this point, radio news was just telling stories of interest between these prolific amateur stations. Some read local newspaper stories. Anyone could listen, if you learned enough to build a radio. One of the side effects of these activities was interference. The amateur stations often interfered with the professional radio operators.

Radio News Inception – Painfully Slow

All of this came to a head when the Titanic sank in early 1912. There was a lot of radio interference during the rescue efforts, as well as some false news reporting. Later that same year, the U.S government acted to Regulate Radio Communications by separating professional, commercial and amateur radio onto different frequencies.

Innovators and policy makers do not always see the future very well. The 1912 Radio Act did not foresee actual radio broadcasting, let alone radio news inception, despite early amateur experimentation. But David Sarnoff did. He envisioned radio becoming a household utility for receiving music, lectures, sports scores. In 1916, he encouraged his employer, Marconi, to build a “radio music box” for the amateur market. This fell on deaf ears. Sarnoff later went on to head RCA.

Experimental radio broadcasting during this period took place in a variety of locations. The first regular radio news broadcasters, although mainly focused on weather and crop reports, were made by the University of Wisconsin.

Amateur radio was shut down during World War I, but sprang back to life in 1919. However, shortly after the war, amateurs were prevented from broadcasting to the public. But by then, there were thousands of trained “radio enthusiasts” ready to move to the next level. That level of was broadcasting, which would become an industry in 1920. More on that story next.

Electronic news broadcasting started before radio

As an aside, broadcasting entertainment and news without radio had started in Europe in the 1890’s. The early news and broadcasting was done over telephone lines. At one time this served many listeners in Budapest, Paris, Rome and London. The service was by subscription and was, in many ways, the forerunner of cable television.  Typically, these services were called “newspapers by telephone” and had up to 2,000 (wealthy) subscribers including hotel lobbies. Broadcasting by telephone never caught on in America, and died out once radio broadcasting started.

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