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The First Broadcast

Though not everyone agrees on what the first radio station in the US was, most people agree that Westinghouse helped fund the first commercial radio broadcast on KDKA Pittsburgh back in 1920. KDKA grew out of the hobby of Frank Conrad, an assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse. Conrad was a modest man with a modest education; he didn't have a high school diploma or even a degree from a prestigious university. In fact, he didn't have a degree at all except for an honorary doctorate he received later in life from the University of Pittsburgh. What he did have though, was a genius for radio.

In 1916, Conrad started transmitting music on his amateur radio, 8XK. Soon after, he received requests for more music from people who picked up his broadcast on their crystal radios. His popularity grew; it wasn't long before he had the interest of a local music store and was borrowing records from them in exchange for an advertisement. That was probably the first radio advertisement on the air, and it was probably the beginning of what we think of today as commercial radio.

When Westinghouse picked up on the popularity of Conrad's idea, they decided to create KDKA, and they used the station as a way to get more radios into people's homes. KDKA's first broadcast on November 2, 1920, was of the Harding-Cox Presidential election returns.

The more KDKA broadcast, the more people wanted to buy radios, which made for even more broadcasts. On August 5, 1921 they broadcast the first professional baseball game. This successful cycle soon paved the way for thousands of radios to find their way into American homes.

By 1924, the simple idea that Frank Conrad had begun in his garage in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania had grown to a huge industry. Just four years after the commercially licensed KDKAs first broadcast, RCA sales of their "Radio Music Box" totaled nearly $84 million. This was an astounding amount of money back then, and it points to just how much people loved having the ability to send and receive (broadcast) information instantly across a wide area.

Try to imagine a world without radio. You would lose the single most affordable, user-friendly and democratic mode of communication available. With radio, people across the country can practically hear one another's thoughts. They can share information, or just share in the knowledge that they're not alone with the questions on their minds. Sure the Internet can do some of that too, but it's not as easy or affordable as radio. We owe much of our thanks for this remarkable medium to a humble man who simply pursued a hobby with passion - Frank Conrad.

Though the garage from which Conrad first broadcast music was taken down in 2001, you can see a picture of it at the National Museum of Broadcasting Web Site

As always, please contact us with any comments or article suggestions you might have.

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