Know Your History 37 – The History of Radio Broadcasting

We have a need for home entertainment. A true need for it.

Nowadays we don’t even think much about it. There are so many ways for us to keep busy while relaxing at home. We can kick back with a book and spend a quiet afternoon reading. We can play a video game on a console system such as a Wii, Xbox, or Playstation. We can play all sorts of games on our computers or waste the day away surfing around online. We can watch videos on YouTube, movies on DVD, or episodes of our favourite shows on TV. All without ever leaving the confines of our homes.

We can be constantly entertained. And we can bring our entertainment with us. Many of us have portable computers that we carry in our pocket all the time. We have so-called “smart” or “super” phones that allow us to listen to music, to watch videos, and to interact with social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

But where did home entertainment, as we know it, truly start?

I think you’ll be surprised at the answer.

Hi, my name is Chase March and welcome to Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. I’m not about to say that hip-hop started the home entertainment phenomenon. But this is a radio show and as such I want to take this episode to examine something that we all take for granted, radio.

It’s hard to imagine a time before radio. It’s something that has been instrumental in my life. I grew up with the radio playing almost all day long. My mother kept the dial locked to a country station. I soon discovered that there were other genres of music.

I listened to AM 680, which is now an all-news station, but when I was a kid, it played music from a wide variety of acts and genres. It soon had competition with a station that billed itself as “contemporary hit radio” on AM 640.

The radio was good when I was a kid. My mom had her station and I had mine. My grandpa even had a favourite station that played oldies. It seemed liked there was something on the radio for all. And that’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, things changed at some point over the years and the radio doesn’t seem to offer as diverse a programming as it used to. Not on the commercial airwaves anyway.

The programming that we offer here on 93.3 CFMU is quite diverse. It truly is a community radio station that reflects the voices of that community. I could go on an on about that but I’m afraid I’d start sounding like it’s pledge week and if you’ve come to this program because you’ve been listening for the last three years, you expect to be entertained with some music and talk about the history behind it.

This is Season 4 of Know Your History, a monthly documentary radio show that focuses on hip-hop music and culture. It’s part of a larger program called DOPEfm that has been on the air for nine years now. We bring you the best in underground hip-hop music and talk each and every week, Saturday Overnights.

We have big things planned for the 2013 season. Big things. We continue our affiliation with The Word is as well. Please go there for daily hip-hop news and a dope weekly podcast, hosted by yours truly.

For the next half hour, we are going to look at the grandfather of all home entertainment mediums. The first broadcasts that sent programming right into our homes, like magic. I’m talking about radio.

The pioneers of radio entertainment are a lot like the pioneers of hip-hop. They started something absolutely incredible and changed the world as we know it. Yet, they were not recognized for their contributions or compensated fairly.

The same thing happened in the world of visual art. Vincent Van Gogh is heralded as one of the all-time greats. Yet in his time, he lived in abject poverty.

Sometimes the art or genius gets buried in time and it really is a shame.

I think it’s important to know names such as Kool Herc and Grandmaster Caz. These are just two of the pioneers of hip-hop and I have mentioned them several times over the past three years I’ve been on the radio.

But truth be told, I never thought much about the pioneers of radio. The technological aspect doesn’t interest me much. I know that it was a culture back in the day. Enthusiasts would build equipment to send and receive signals. It had some great implications for communication, especially to send and receive signals from a boat where wired technology such as telephones simply couldn’t reach.

At this point, using radio as a medium to deliver entertainment was still pretty much unheard of. But not for long.

Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden hosted the first radio broadcast. He was a Canadian inventor and he outfitted ships with his radio technology to send them an entire program. He announced the program, played a recording of Handel’s “Largo,” and then played a Chirstmas carol on his violin.

Fessenden was the first person to transmit human voices over the airwaves and he was the first person to play music on it as well. Perhaps, this makes him the first DJ.

This historic broadcast didn’t even have a name at the time. The term broadcast, in fact, wasn’t even used for a few more years in this context.

And while Fessenden is acknowledged as the inventor of radio by modern scholars, he was never recognized for it in his own time. Instead, other people won the patents for what would become radio as we know it now and they in turn would achieve the wealth that unfairly eluded this pioneer of radio.

We’re used to radio programming being available at all times. You can turn on your radio at any time day or night and receive a signal. This wasn’t always the case.

In fact, radio might not even have took off as a commercial endeavour if it were not for one tragedy at sea.

April 14th, 1912. The unsinkable Titanic is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. The crew members that operated the radio sent and received all sorts of personal messages from the wealthy clientele on board. They sent over 250 such messages prior to the ship hitting the iceberg.

They were then able to send out a distress call over the radio. They sent over 30 messages before having to abandon ship. Tragically, a lot of lives were lost that day. It’s conceivable that this tragedy could have been even worse if a rescue operation hadn’t been started as quickly as it was. And all of this was thanks to the radio.

The power of radio is something that cannot be taken lightly. Used simply as a communication tool, much like a phone, it allowed us to stay in contact over large distances without the need for wires. It was the original wireless before cellphones and the Internet.

If you’re just tuning in, this is Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. Today we are taking a special look at the medium of radio, focusing on the pioneers of radio broadcasting.

This show can be heard each and every Saturday night on 93.3 CFMU on your radio dial in the Hamilton, Ontario area. You can also stream it worldwide on

I remember my favourite radio programs from back in the day. The Mastermind Street Jam on Energy 108 was required listening. It was on Saturday afternoons and I’d stop whatever I was doing to run home and listen to it. I’d even tape the shows onto audio cassette so I could relive the program over and over again.

Unfortunately, that show and even that station are now defunct. Mastermind can still be heard on the radio but not in a specialized hip-hop mix show format. If you want that kind of programming now, you need to look at campus radio stations such as this one. Stations that operate by a diverse team of volunteers to bring you programming they are dedicated and passionate about.

I think of all of the radio shows I have loved over time. I think of how I ended up in radio myself and how it just seems so natural. Hip-hop shows on terrestrial radio or on podcasts are just a great way to get music. I discovered all sorts of great music by listening to the radio. I learned about things I wouldn’t otherwise have.

Radio shows are just something we take for granted. It’s hard to imagine not having regular programs to listen to. I rely on the morning show to give me traffic and weather updates. On the drive home, I get educated and entertained by talk radio. Thursday nights, I catch In Tha Kut for a dope hip-hop show. And I listen to podcasts of radio shows I don’t tune in live to every week.

In fact, I couldn’t live without my radio

That was LL Cool J “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and the perfect song to play for the 37th episode of Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. This kicks off the fourth season of the show. Today’s topic is long overdue as well. It’s time we looked more closely at the history of radio broadcasts.

I consume a lot of radio programs. And it seems like this is just the way it always has been. It’s hard to believe that radio as I know it didn’t get its start until 100 years ago. 1912 to be exact. That was when Charles Herrold started broadcasting a regularly scheduled radio program.

Charles Herrold. That is a name we should all know. He is one of the founding fathers of broadcasting and if not for him, I wouldn’t be here on the airwaves for you right now.

He was the first person to use the term broadcasting to describe what he was doing in radio. Prior to this, the word was only used by farmers and it meant to scatter seeds out in all directions from a single source, to broadcast them.

Charles Herrold not only invented and built devices to send and receive radio signals, he taught other people how to do it as well. In fact, he’d been doing just that for three years prior to starting the world’s first radio show. He’d opened his own school in 1909 in San Jose, The Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering.

He started playing records into microphones as an easy way to test the radio signals his students were experimenting with. He then took this a step further by producing the first scheduled radio program. It was called The Little Hams Program. Ham refered to the hobbyists who built and operated short-wave radios.

Of course all of this was happening in the second decade of the 20th century. And just like the start of hip-hop culture, you had to be there to experience it. There aren’t any recordings of those early broadcasts for me to play for you. You had to be there. And unfortunately, this founding father of radio is no longer with us to tell his story.

But the good news is that there are quite a few radio scholars who are. Otherwise, his name might have been lost in history. One of the best places to find out more about Charles Herrold is the PBS documentary entitled “Broadcasting’s Forgotten Father. It celebrates the life of Charles “Doc” Herrold and shows his influence in the creation of radio as we know it today.

I want to play a clip from that documentary for you in a moment. First, let me just set the scene. Herrold began broadcasting his radio show in 1912. His assistant, Ray Newby said, “It was a religion for ‘Prof’ Herrold to have his equipment ready every Wednesday night at nine o’clock. He would have his records ready, all laid out, and what he wanted to say. And the public or listeners, it became a habit for them to wait for it.”

I wish I had more audio to share with you today, but the earliest radio broadcast couldn’t be recorded for posterity. So here’s a clip from the documentary “Broadcasting’s Forgotten Father” that was produced in 1995.

“Herrold tells his students that the Wednesday night programs are “broadcasting for the people of San Jose.” He also tells them that everyone else transmitting voice at the time is only “Narrowcasting.” He is on every week at the same time, and he knows that he is entertaining a public audience. And, as an early form of advertising, the broadcasts help attract students to his college.”

How cool is that? No one was doing what Charles Herrold was doing. He was at least eight years ahead of his time since the first commercial radio stations didn’t get started until 1920. He was on the air every week at the same time delivering a radio program for close to five years. And he started doing it in 1912.

He even had a regular audience. Of course, they were all radio hobybyists themselves as commerical radio receivers weren’t available at this time. But that didn’t stop his audience from calling in and requesting songs.

His radio program included music, talk, news, and even giveaways. It was everything that we’ve come to expect radio to be and pretty much what we hear every day on our radio waves now, 101 years after he established what radio could be.

Here’s another clip from the documentary television show PBS produced . . .

“One reason that the Wednesday night broadcasts attract so much attention is because of Herrold’s young wife Sybil. She became a disc jockey if you may. They didn’t use that term in those days. And I guess she liked it because I remember I interviewed her years later, and she was very very pleased because she got a lot of responses in the community. People called her up, she got a lot of fan letters, people talked to her on the street that they heard the programs.”

One of the first radio deejays was a woman. How cool is that?

I tell ya, I’m having a lot of fun putting this show together for you today. I’m learning all sorts of things about the medium I’ve been working in for close to five years now. This is Know Your History and I’m your host Chase March and we still have a lot to explore about the birth of radio broadcasting.

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