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EARLY RADIO BROADCASTING: 
PUBLICITY STUNTS AND UNUSUAL BROADCAST FEATS

        By John Schneider, W9FGH

 

www.theradiohistorian.org
Copyright 2017 -
John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC

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(Click on photos to enlarge)


Wendell Hall wedding

Wendell Hall and Marion Martin are married in a live broadcast over WEAF, 1924.


Dobbs_1931
The "Shell Ship of Joy" broadcasts from the deck of the SS Malolo - July, 1931

Joe Baker at Malolo transmitter 
NBC engineer Joe Baker mans the shortwave transmitter used to broadcast the "Ship of Joy" program from the SS Malolo.


Submarine broadcast
NBC's George Hicks broadcasts live from a Navy submarine, 1930.


Transmitter in submarine
This NBC shortwave transmitter in another Navy submarine broadcast George Hicks' voice to WEAF in New York, and then on to the NBC network.


Submarine broadcast
More photos of James Wallington and George Hicks, from the 1930 NBC submarine broadcast
.

Jane Kaye singing over KSFO, 1939
Jane Kaye sings "There's a Goldmine in the Sky" over KSFO in 1939, accompanied by the Nighthawks band flying overhead in an airplane.


Jan Savitt's band broadcasts from an airliner over KYW
Jan Savitt leads the "Top Hatters" while flying 5,000 feet over Philadelphia in a two-way broadcast on KYW - April 29, 1937.


WHBL'S railroad car studio
Portable station WHBL broadcast a live program from the Pioneer Limited as it traveled from Chicago to Minneapolis, 1927.


Radio bridge game
Shortwave bridge game played via General Electric's shortwave station W2XAF in Schenectady, NY, April, 1935. C.H. Lang (L), manager of publicity and broadcasting, and John D. Lockton (R), GE's assistant treasurer, play against a team in Barranquilla, Colombia.


Coolidge inaugural
The March, 1925, inauguration of Calvin Coolidge was broadcast over a national chain of stations, reaching 25 million people.


Scopes Monkey Trial
Chicago's WGN broadcast the Scopes Monkey Trial live from Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. 


Lindbergh baby kidnapping broadcast
NBC broadcasts news of thekidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son from Hopewell, NJ, 1932.  L-R:  E.C. Wilbur, engineer; Ed Thorgerson, announcer; W.R. Brown, engineer.



 

 

INTRODUCTION

In the beginning years of radio broadcasting, the thrill of hearing live sounds – any sounds – through the air from distant locations was enough to keep audiences enthralled.  But as the novelty wore off and the typical third-rate radio concerts of sopranos with piano accompaniment became commonplace, radio stations and the early networks looked for novel and sometimes flamboyant programs and stunts that they could broadcast to their listeners.  Thus began a continual series of “radio firsts” that became frequent occurrences during broadcasting’s first two decades.  Not unlike modern attempts to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, early stations sought new ways to make “radio history” by transmitting something that had never been heard before.  This ranged from broadcasts of important and monumental events, to arcane and quirky stunts that served no purpose but to entertain and fascinate. 

 GETTING "HITCHED" VIA RADIO

 One of radio’s first popular stunts was the “radio wedding”.  The earliest recorded marriage by radio actually took place in 1920, when a bride in Detroit married a seaman on the Navy cruiser Birmingham, in the middle of the Pacific.  The wedding vows were exchanged via telephone from Detroit to Chicago, and then over a Navy radio station to the ship.  KDKA broadcast one of the first radio weddings to a general audience in November, 1922.  By 1924 radio weddings transmitted by local stations had become a common occurrence, but the big event took place on June 4, 1924 - the marriage of Wendell Hall, “the Red-Headed Music Maker”, to newspaperwoman Miss Marion Martin.   Hall was a well-known singing recording artist, and early radio star, and also the host of “The Eveready Hour”, which originated at WEAF in New York, and was rebroadcast over an early pre-NBC network hookup consisting of WCAP, WJAR and WGN.  The wedding took place in the WEAF studios, and was heard by an estimated 4 million listener “witnesses”.  Although the wedding was a publicity stunt for the station, the marriage was a success, as the couple stayed married the rest of their years.

 There were all kinds of radio stunts heard in the first few years of broadcasting.  Guest broadcasts by animals were commonplace, such as KHJ’s interviews with a chimpanzee and a cockatoo in 1923.  In 1924, KDKA wanted to demonstrate the sensitivity of its latest Westinghouse microphone; and so on April 5 it broadcast the sound of a human heartbeat and the first radio kiss.   Also in 1924, WTAM held an open-air dance for the public under its broadcast antenna in Cleveland.  Guests danced to the music of the Ev Jones Dance Orchestra, as heard through headphones attached to individual crystal radio receivers.   In 1925, WGR in Buffalo brought its microphone to Niagara Falls to make a live broadcast of the sound of the waterfall.  In 1926, WJAS in Pittsburgh transmitted a telephone conversation with a girl flagpole sitter atop the Fort Pitt hotel in Pittsburgh.  That same year, KLO in Ogden, Utah, broadcast the live birth of the first baby of the New Year from Dee Hospital.

 RADIO ON THE HIGH SEAS

 The first commercial radio program to be broadcast from a ship on the high seas took place from July 11 to 23, 1931, when NBC broadcast its daily West Coast program, the “Shell Ship of Joy”, from a specially-constructed studio on the Matson linear Malolo, en route from San Francisco to Honolulu.  The entire cast of the program, led by the host, “Captain” Hugh Barrett Dobbs, performed on the deck of the ocean liner for each morning’s broadcast.  The programs were sent by shortwave to KPO in San Francisco, where they were relayed on to the rest of the network.

 Broadcasts from underneath the sea were also heard.  On December 7, 1930, NBC’s George Hicks broadcast from a Navy submarine underwater in Long Island Sound.  In the live broadcast, he described the vessel as he traversed it from bow to stern, interviewing the captain and crew along the way.  The audio of the broadcast was sent through a cable suspended from another sub on the surface, where announcer James Wallington in turn relayed the program by shortwave to NBC studios in New York.   The next year, the stunt was repeated on the West Coast, heard over KJBS in San Francisco during the Navy Day celebrations from San Francisco Bay.  In 1924 and 1925, station WIP sent an announcer in a diver's suit off the end of the Steel Peer in Atlantic City for live broadcasts.  And in 1932, William Beebe broadcast live from a bathysphere as he was lowered 2,200 feet below the surface near Bermuda.

 RADIO IN THE SKY

 Broadcasting from the skies was another early stunt tried by several stations.  The first reported case of a broadcast made from an airplane took place in Detroit on October 9, 1922. During the National Airplane Races, a flying boat, the "Wilber Wright", flew above the event and broadcast a running commentary.  The plane carried a 50-watt transmitter, but it broadcast directly to the crowd on 590 kHz, and was not relayed by any broadcast station.

 At first, aircraft motor noise and the poor quality of early microphones caused lighter-than-air craft to become the preferred vehicle.  In 1923, KSD in St. Louis broadcast a two-way conversation with a dirigible in flight.   Then a three-way conversation was heard in 1926 over WTAM in Cleveland - between an airborne dirigible, the roof of the Hotel Allerton, and the Goodyear plant in Akron.  In 1925, WGY in Schenectady used an airplane to broadcast a race between a speed boat and the New York Central's Twentieth Century train between Albany and New York.   Also that year, WCCO chief engineer Hugh McCartney broadcast a solar eclipse from a Minnesota State Guard plane, high over Minneapolis. 

 Stratosphere balloon ascents were big news in the early thirties, and so high altitude broadcasts were the subject of a number of broadcasts.   In 1932, Professor Auguste Piccard broadcast an after-the-fact description by shortwave of his ten-mile ascent over Switzerland in a stratosphere balloon. Then in 1933, WTAM broadcast an ascent by a Navy balloon, and in 1934 the Army broadcast part of the way during a balloon ascent, although they had to throw their radio equipment overboard to lighten the load after they reached 61,000 feet.   The following year, NBC broadcast another ascent that made it up to 72,000 feet.

 Broadcasting musicians who were connected by radio from different locations was also tried. In 1936, KUOA in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, broadcast a quartet singing from their studios, accompanied by musicians in Fayetteville, some 30 miles distant.  Then in 1939, KSFO in San Francisco broadcast an aerial musical stunt as a part of the Golden Gate Exposition.  An airplane flying over the expo grounds carried musicians of the Nighthawks band, who played “There’s a Goldmine in the Sky” into a radio microphone from the heavens while singer Jane Kaye sang the lyrics from the ground.

 RADIO RIDES THE RAILS

 Radio’s flirtation with the railroads began in October, 1922, when station KSD in St. Louis broadcast a musical program to passengers of a moving train.  In 1927, WHBL reversed the process by equipping a railroad car with a transmitter and studio, and broadcasting a live program from the Pioneer Limited as it raced from Chicago to Minneapolis.  And finally in 1932, the railroads went live on the CBS network, as the program “The Eveready Radio Gaieties” broadcast from a converted dining car on a B&O train as it travelled at speeds of up to 70 MPH from Washington to New York.   Receivers were set up in two different Maryland cities to pick up the shortwave signals from the train and send them on to New York via phone lines for broadcast over the network.

 GOING THE DISTANCE

 Early listeners were always fascinated by hearing radio signals from far-away places, and the broadcasters were always happy to accommodate them.  In 1923, KHJ in Los Angeles picked up and rebroadcast a program received over the air from KGU in Honolulu.   In 1925, WGY in Schenectady broadcast a bridge game between players in its studio and another team 6,000 miles away in Buenos Aires.  WGY also aired a long-distance stunt in 1928 when it broadcast a three-way conversation between its studio, Australia and Java.

 And then there were broadcasts that originated underground.  In 1937, WHIS in West Virginia broadcast live from the bottom of a coal mine. In 1944, KOA in Denver went 4,100 feet below the Continental Divide and eight miles underground when it broadcast from the trans-continental water diversion tunnel.

 One of the most ambitious long-distance broadcasts took place starting in 1933, when CBS aired a weekly series of programs from the South Pole during Admiral Byrd’s expedition to Little America.  To facilitate the program, CBS installed a 1,000 watt shortwave station, KFZ, at the South Pole, broadcasting from a prefabricated building that served as both a radio studio and living quarters for the staff.  The KFZ programs were picked up by a high powered Argentine shortwave station and re-transmitted to the network in New York. They featured weather reports from Little America, expedition reports and an interview with Byrd.  The programs usually closed with conversations between family and friends in New York and the explorers Little America.  Amateur radio and shortwave enthusiasts sought out the KFZ signals with enthusiasm, and there were many reports of its reception in the U.S. on the early shortwave bands. 

 BROADCASTS OF IMPORTANT NEWS EVENTS

 Not all of these early broadcasts were publicity stunts.  Radio also took advantage of its unique “on the scene” abilities to broadcast many of the important news events of the day.  Starting with KDKA’s 1920 broadcast of the Harding-Cox presidential election returns, radio demonstrated its superiority over newspapers as a news medium, thanks to its immediacy and ability to place its listeners directly at the scene of great events.

 One of radio’s first event programs was the broadcast of the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier boxing match from Jersey City, NJ, on July 21, 1921.  The broadcast went out over WJY, a special station set up by RCA for a single day to broadcast the boxing match.  The temporary transmitter was set up in the Lackawanna railroad yards, with an antenna suspended over the railroad tracks.  At ringside, Major Andrew J. White described the fight into a telephone connected to the railroad yards, where Owen White repeated them to the audience of an estimated 300,000 persons.  The fight ended with Dempsey knocking out Carpentier in the fourth round, which was fortunate because the transmitter overheated shortly afterwards and was knocked off the air.

The first broadcast of a sitting U.S. president was heard over WEAR in Baltimore in 1923, as Warren G. Harding dedicated the Francis Scott Key Monument at Fort McHenry.  And Woodrow Wilson broadcast a speech later that year, shortly after his retirement from the White House.  When Harding died unexpectedly during a trip to the West Coast, his funeral was heard live over a multi-station hookup, and then speeches by his successor, Calvin Coolidge, were heard regularly over temporary regional station hookups.  After his reelection for a second term, his inauguration in March of 1925 was broadcast over a national chain of stations, reaching an estimated audience of 25 million.  This all took place before the establishment of the formal radio networks, which led to Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Fireside Chats” les than a decade later. 

 One of the most important broadcasts of a news event, as seen in its historical context, was the broadcast all eight days of the Scopes Monkey Trial from Dayton, Tennessee over WGN in Chicago in 1925.  The station obtained permission to rearrange the courtroom layout to facilitate its microphones, and it leased long-distance telephone lines at a cost of $1,000 a day so that listeners around the Midwest could hear the daily arguments between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.  Unfortunately, recording technology was still in its infancy in 1925, and so no recordings of the historic broadcast were ever made. 

 Radio was in the middle of the action on April 21, 1930, when CBS broadcast an eyewitness account from inside the walls of the Ohio State Penitentiary as a disastrous fire took the lives of 318 people.  Then in 1932, radio reporters descended on Hopewell, NJ, to transmit the daily occurrences surrounding the “crime of the century”, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.  After the kidnapping suspect, Bruno Hauptmann, was captured in 1935, networks and local stations alike broadcast daily reports from his trial from Flemington, NJ, and then of his subsequent execution in 1936. 

 Radio was again on the front lines on May 6, 1938, when WLS announcer Herb Morrison described the crash of the German dirigible Hindenburg at Lakehurst, NJ.   Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen had been assigned by WLS to make an experimental recording of the routine arrival of the airship.  In an extreme case of being in the right place at the right time, a little-known radio announcer was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as he described the horrific fiery crash into his microphone.  The acetate recording disks were flown back to Chicago and broadcast later that night.  The next day, portions were broadcast over the NBC network – reportedly the first time the network broke its “no recordings” policy.  The famous recording of that event still raises the hair on the back of peoples’ necks to this day.

 GUSHING WITH PRAISE FOR RADIO

 Finally, to tell one more story about radio’s early broadcasts of unusual events, we offer you the live broadcast of the opening of a new oil well by KWKH in Shreveport in 1935.  The Lawton Well No. 1, an exploratory well in Rodessa, Louisiana, was about to be completed, and the KWKH wanted to broadcast the event.  But the nearest telephone was found to be located in a party line in a sharecropper’s cabin, more than three miles away from the wellhead.  The station talked with the cabin owner, who agreed to let them his phone line, and the other party line users all agreed to stay off their phones during the broadcast.  And so, KWKH engineers laid several miles of bare iron wire through pine trees, over fences and across cotton fields in order to get their signal back from the event.  Announcers Jack Keasler and Jack Geizer then stationed themselves at the well site and waited all day for the work to be completed.  When the well finally started flowing, it proved to be an enormous gusher, and KWKH broadcast a live description with the sounds of a gushing well of an event that would prove to be an economic boon to the region for several years.

 


 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
  • The First Quarter Century of American Broadcasting by E.P.J. Shurick, 1946
  • “Radio News” magazine, December 1922: “The First Airplane Broadcasting Station”
  • “Radio” magazine, May 1922:  “Married by Radio”
  • “Popular Radio” magazine, August 1924:  “How it Feels to be Married by Radio”
  • “Brooklyn Daily Eagle”, Dec. 8, 1930, pg. 19:  “Aboard U. S. Submarine”
  • "Radio Digest",  July 1925:  "Broadcasts from Ocean Bed Via Land Line"
  • “Radio News” magazine, July, 1934:  “Listening to Byrd on Shortwave Radio”
  • “Broadcast Weekly” magazine, June 28, 1931:  “Shell Happytime to Present  Unique Broadcast Series”
  • "Battle of the Century": The WJY Story by Thomas H. White   http://earlyradiohistory.us/WJY.htm
  • “Arcane Radio Trivia” website, Sept. 18, 2009:  “First Submarine Broadcast”
  • “RCA Broadcast News”, April 1932:  “Broadcast from Speeding Train”
  • “Radio Aspects of the Lindbergh Kidnapping” by Jack French, 2008
  • “Popular Mechanics” magazine, September, 1924:  “Radio Wedding”
  • “Chicago Tribune”, March 22, 1964:  “WGN in Monkey Trial”
  •  Wikipedia:  Herbert Morrison; Wendell Hall
  • “Broadcasting” magazine, Sept. 15, 1935:  “Gusher broadcast”

 


 NOTE:  This article appeared in the Spectrum Monitor Magazine, June, 2017


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John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
Copyright, 2017