The History of WMAQ Radio

Chapter 1

The history of WMAQ, Chicago’s first radio station, so clearly parallels the History of Radio Broadcasting that it reads like a chronicle of many trials, tribulations, failures and successes that beset the first broadcasters, who were unknowingly laying the foundation for a great new industry: radio.

It is a far cry from the Early Twenties to Present Day Broadcasting. No industry has ever moved so quickly, so efficiently, to the high state of perfection that Broadcasting enjoys today. It is difficult for most of us, who have lived and worked through this change, to fully comprehend the historical and sociological significance of our progress. Yet all this happened within a span of less than twenty years, two amazing decades.

It is hard to say exactly when broadcasting first began, Before the First World War there were a few thousand radio amateurs, most of them noys and young men, who tinkered occasionally with "spark" sets and established purely local telegraphic communication.

During the War, however, the radio art underwent the first of its many radical changes. The army became interested in radio as a means of field communication and experimentation began on a more important scale. The vacuum tube was developed and used with some fair success, and this opened the path for many new circuits never possible before. Many of the radio amateurs received further training from the Government and, in addition to serving their country both here and abroad, they gained a great deal of practical experience in radio communication.

After the War was over there were well over twenty thousand men in this country with a technical working knowledge of radio. Some of these found immediate employment as ship or land commercial operators. But a much greater number returned to their former employment, and looked upon radio, specifically amateur radio, as just an interesting hobby. The ban on amateur activity was lifted in the summer of 1919, and new "ham" stations using new equipment began to appear, various scattered from 50 to 250 meters. They were still primarily interested in radio telegraphy, because telephony was too new and much two expensive for experimentation. Vacuum tubes could neither be bought or manufactured, except by the Government, due to frozen patent rights held by competing companies.

But in spite of these adverse conditions, manay amateurs went ahead with radio telephonic experimentation. The priceless "E" tubes, "OG" tubes and others were occasionally obtained by some amateurs---usually "from a friend in the Coast Guard", or other slightly illegal sources. The many difficulties blocking the paths of the early radio amateurs in their experimentation did little to shake their enthusiasm.

By the time the winter had arrived in 1919, there were many amateurs on the air "actually talking". And from that time Morse code was destined to take a back seat in radio, to be used principally for communication.

Not satisfied with merely talking to other local amateurs (and, incidentially not being "tied down" by any federal regulations) the hams son conceived the idea of broadcasting entertainment. And so, using their home-made "rigs" and makeshift equipment, they began transmitting programs to their friends---and to the public.

This condition was particularly so in the Chicago area, where a great many amateurs resided within a comparitively small radius. One of the largest of these stations was owned by Austin A. Edward, and influential "ham" who not only had the best equipment available but also constructed a small studio in his home. Other well known stations in this same vicinity were operated by Thorne Donnelly, Arthur Leonard, Jr. and even our own Larry Dutton (NBC, Chicago).

All through the sping of 1920 interest in amateur radio broadcasting continued on the gradual increase. "Hams" gladly built and sold small crystal receiving sets for their neighbors and friends, but there were relatively few people who knew---or even cared---about the possibilities of radio.

Then a remarkable thing happened. And radio underwent another radical change.

A Pittsburgh engineer, Frank Conrad, had spent most of the spring developing and perfecting a radio-telephone transmitter in the Westinghouse Laboratories at East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was assigned an experimental call by the government, and began transmitting speech and test programs late in the spring. Only a few amateurs with receiving sets heard his programs. Then others began to listen. Soon Dr. Conrad had an enthusiastic following of listeners, and he began a more-or-less regular experimental schedule.

Late in the spring of 1920, Pittsburgh department stores advertised and quickly sold “receiving apparatus for listening to Doctor Conrad’s radio programs”. The general public was finally becoming conscious of radio broadcasting. Every program, no matter how irregular, was assured of a large audience. And the Westinghouse Electric Company began to take an interest in the possibility of broadcasting.

With the 1920 fall election approaching, the Westinghouse Electric Company conceived the idea of broadcasting the election returns. Accordingly, a large studio was built and equipped with the latest carbon microphones, and the original transmitter was overhauled, further adjusearer the studio. A new call was assigned to the station: KDKA, indicating that the transmitter was no longer considered experimental equipment. There was a line installed between the new studio and the offices of the Pittsburgh Post, and the election results were broadcast throughout the evening. The broadcasting idea was an instant success, and drew nationwide attention to KDKA. A new industry was rapidly in the making.

KDKA continued to operate on regular schedules of a few hours a day, and almost immediately the way was cleared for other radio stations, in other locations, to erect and operate broadcasting equipment. Radio patents held by the General Electric Company, the Western Electric Company, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the newly formed Radio Corporation of America were pooled together, and arrangements were completed for the construction of radio tubes, radio equipment, and complete broadcast transmitters for sale to private individuals as well as to the government.

The Westinghouse Company itself was not slow to realize the immense possibilities of broadcasting, and got to work developing and constructing transmission equipment. In September, 1921, there was a grand total of four stations in the United States, and a fifth was put on the air in October. But it was not until November of that year that Chicago welcomed its first radio station.


Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
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