This month marks the 95th anniversary of radio’s first wireless broadcast. On Oct. 17, 1919 — 24 years after Guglielmo Marconi discovered that radio signals could be sent and received — Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company’s laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pa., filled the airwaves with recordings of then-popular music. Anyone within a 200-mile radius with access to anything resembling a radio could enjoy Conrad’s broadcast, emanating from a wire-filled garage in nearby Wilkinsburg, Pa.
As it turned out, so many were listening that the collection of pop, jazz, opera and orchestral records became the basis of the first regular radio program, which Conrad broadcast twice a week over the next year. That’s how long it took for Westinghouse to take notice and decide to enter the radio business itself: in November 1920, in time to report the results of the Presidential election, Westinghouse’s KDKA became the first licensed radio station. Westinghouse went on to become one of the largest operators of radio and television properties, so large that it purchased CBS in 1995.
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To celebrate radio’s first real broadcast, a marker commemorating Conrad’s achievement will go up on Oct. 17, not far from the original location of that garage. This gives the present-day broadcast business two weeks to come up with something, anything, to keep today’s listeners just as excited as Conrad’s were about the medium, for the next 95 years.
That won’t be easy, with AM stations no closer to getting FM translators, FMs no closer to getting a chip in smartphones, HD nowhere near to carving out a clear identity with listeners, and other services calling themselves “radio” — without the benefit of an actual radio to send signals to (such as Pandora) — not only establishing themselves as viable audio entertainment options among younger consumers, but poised to do serious battle in the one place terrestrial radio has always ruled: the automobile.
The best thing AM/FM radio could do just might be to take a lesson from Conrad’s pioneer spirit of ’19. While he and later KDKA weren’t concerned about competition, demographics or ratings, they did grapple with the same challenge facing radio today: developing compelling, innovative and entertaining content. They met that challenge doing something we haven’t seen much at radio lately: trying something new.
If they could figure it out, so can today’s stations.