A happy birthday, of sorts, to radio

As regular readers of my blog (if there is such a thing) probably know, I’m a bit of a radio junkie – spending many hours every day listening to Old Time Radio dramas, public radio, AM radio and podcasts. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 20 August is a pretty big deal to me because it was on this day, back in 1920, that the first radio station began regular broadcasting. Back then, 8MK (now WWJ) began operation in Detroit, Michigan and in doing so it became (by my definition) the first real radio station — regularly and ultimately continuously broadcasting news, religious and sports programing.


The idea of using radio waves to transmit information was first proposed by Serbian-American inventor and geek god, Nikola Tesla, in 1892. He applied for the first radio patents in 1897. Tesla’s main rival, Thomas Edison, backed Guglielmo Marconi, who in 1901 conducted the first successful transatlantic experimental radio communications. As a result, Tesla’s patent was reversed, thus depriving him of royalty payments. On Christmas Eve of 1906, Reginald Fessenden reportedly (accessible documentation is questionable) broadcast the first radio program, consisting of some violin playing and passages from the Bible and thus invented AM radio. Shortly after, in 1907, Marconi went on to establish the first transatlantic radio service between Clifden, Ireland and Glace Bay, Canada.


By 1920, radio had been used for many occasional broadcasts, communications and by ham operators for more than a decade before a teenaged radio aficionado and pioneer, Michael DeLisle Lyons, founded the first permanent radio station with radio broadcasts. He was assigned the call sign 8MK by the United States Department of Commerce Bureau of Navigation and began broadcasting from the Detroit News building. Later the same year, Michael, his brother Frank, and Ed Clark created the first police radio.


Later, in 1933, FM radio was patented. The recording industry, then only about 40 years old, experienced its first serious anxiety about its own death. It did suffer from the rise of free, broadcast music but it ultimately weathered music videos, cassette recordings and CDs before its own hubris led to its collapse. During the Golden Age of Radio, there were a wide variety of programs on radio. What made it truly special was the rise of radio dramas, comedies, variety shows, &c.


In 1946, listener-funded Pacifica Radio launched in Berkeley, California, thus creating public radio and ultimately leading to APM, NPR, PRI and the like. Personally speaking, public radio is pretty much the only reason to listen to the radio anymore unless you thrive on the pabulum offered by endless advertisements and Nickelodeon-alumni-pop.


After years of losing its dramatic programing audience to TV, Old Time Radio died with the broadcast of the final new episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense on 30 September, 1962. Radio, nonetheless, continued to thrive as a vehicle for various musical genres.


I first discovered commercial radio in 1983, when I was 8. I had a ruler with Smokey the Bear on it. On the back, I  wrote down every station I could receive on the FM dial. The left side of the dial proved the most interesting, with its college stations and their classical and alternative formats. I did also occasionally enjoy the Top 40 and Classic Rock stations further to the right. For me and, I assume, most other people living in that age, radio was where I was experienced to new music.


In the late 1990s and 2000s, file-sharing, internet radio, satellite radio and podcasts saw a large portion of radio audience move on. The original radio station lives on — 8MK ultimately became WWJ and moved to 950 AM in 1941. Over the years its focus has shifted to variety programing, Middle of the Road (MOR), Beautiful Music (BM) and now news. It currently operates as Newsradio 950. Even though I may’ve never listened to the station, I salute the importance of its establishment. Happy birthday!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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