The idea had been stirring in the brains of inventors and mad scientists throughout the end of the nineteenth century: use radio to transmit voices through the ether. Marconi’s sparks showed that radio waves could reach from England to the Americas. Reginald Fessenden (link via MeFi) harnessed the power of wireless for speech and music as early as 1906. Everyone knew that radio was revolutionary, a gold mine. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, people were beginning to ask exactly what people could do with it. Radio was a novel technology, but two precursors provided a blueprint to would-be industrialists. Samuel Morse’s telegraph set off the same capitalist frenzy that revolutionary technologies always induce. Dozens of telegraph companies sprung up throughout the country; Hiram Sibley, a businessman, politician, and technophile, bought out a number of them and put together Western Union, the company that grew to dominate the industry. Radio experimenters and visionaries might instead have looked to the the telephone for inspiration. A number of novel uses of the telephone for information dissemination had been floated. The telefonhírmondó, a phone-based news service, survived in Budapest until World War II, but was an inglorious failure in the United States. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward suggested that the telephone was the future of music distribution.
The Titanic‘s wireless distress calls were heard; the Carpathia arrived in time to save 700 passengers, and the resulting publicity and inquiries helped spur the Radio Act of 1912, the federal government’s first entrance into radio policy. It also spurred the career of David Sarnoff, the wireless operator at Wanamaker’s Department Store in New York City. Sarnoff went without sleep for three days as he conveyed news to a throng of anxious Manhattanites, many of whom had relatives on board the Titanic. The experience convinced him of the power of mass communications; when Sarnoff’s employer, the American Marconi Company, was acquired by the radio corporation of America, Sarnoff went along, eventually rising to lead the company through its invention of the national radio network and a titanic legal struggle with Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the television. The future of radio would be in broadcasting, as exemplified by Pittsburgh’s station 8XK, originally simply some broadcasting equipment in Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad’s garage. In 1920, Dr. Conrad started playing music over the airwaves, and the records he decided on started to sell like hotcakes at Pittsburgh grocery stores. Westinghouse pricked up its ears, and CBS, the great rival to Sarnhoff’s NBC and ABC, began to coalesce.
And that was that, for the vast majority of people. Amateur radio continued to appear in pockets — ham radio, pirate radio, revolutionary rural collective radio. And professional radio hadn’t become monolithic. In New York City, the nation’s largest radio market, a handful of low-wattage stations hung around for decades letting oddities like Yiddish radio and city-owned WNYC survive.
Radio had been the domain of tinkerers and dreamers, people who would do things like turn their stations off to let people experiment with their radio sets (via Long Story, Short Pier):
Most set owners were interested in seeing how far their sets could pull in signals from distant stations. KDKA’s pioneering broadcast had taken place just three years earlier, and people still tended to be more interested in the miracle of receiving a station than in its programming, which generally consisted of unpaid local talent and phonograph records. Broadcasters in most cities set aside one night a week during which they refrained from broadcasting for a few hours, allowing "DX" reception. ("DX" was an old telegraph abbreviation meaning "distant".)
It’s no coincidence that science fiction pioneer Hugo Gernsback began by working at New York’s WRNY and as a radio magazine editor. But once the business had been solved, there wasn’t much for utopians or even garden variety crackpots. The networks invented radio drama and the radio comedy, the Shadow and Fibber McGee and the rest. But powering the transmitters down and letting the audience strain to hear a whisper from England? Some things aren’t made for the professionals.