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What, Exactly, Was First About KDKA?

Two of our experts take on the question as we approach the centennial

Read more about early radio’s history by clicking the logo.

What, exactly, was “first” about KDKA’s broadcast on Nov. 2, 1920?

As history articles in Radio World demonstrate, there really was no single “first day” of “radio.” Various dates and organizations could lay claim to some or all of the honor depending on how one defines it. 

[Related: “They Set the Stage for the Birth of Radio”]

Radio history fans are well aware of this, but many others are not.

In celebrating the upcoming KDKA anniversary, most people are likely to say something like “Radio started in November 1920.” I wasn’t happy with this simplification, so I turned to two of RW’s favorite radio history writers, John Schneider and James O’Neal.

John is a lifelong radio history researcher and a longtime Radio World contributor. He held technology positions with Broadcast Electronics and iBiquity Digital.

James is former technology editor of TV Technology and a frequent Radio World contributor. He worked for more than 30 years on the television side of the Voice of America.

I asked John and James how they would complete the following statement: “The radio industry celebrates Nov. 2, 1920, as its birth date, because until then no one had … what?”

Below is their exchange, which I share for your enjoyment as well as my own edification.

John Schneider writes:

John Schneider in mask
John Schneider, 2020 style

In my mind, Nov. 2 doesn’t clearly signify a “first” of anything. There are a number of milestone events that marked the beginnings of broadcasting, but they each can be credited to different stations. No one pioneer can clearly claim the right to being first on all counts:

-Who made the first broadcast? Reginald Fessenden or Lee de Forest

-Who first broadcast on a regular schedule? Charles “Doc” Herrold

-Who received the first broadcasting license? WBZ

-Who established the first professional station? WWJ and KDKA

-Who has broadcast continuously for the longest time without interruption? WWJ and KNX

-Who was broadcasting to a consumer audience? Impossible to determine, seeing as the development of the non-amateur audience was a gradual process.

People have been arguing this issue without a resolution for nearly 100 years, so we aren’t going to resolve it with one story or statement.

After struggling with this question for much of my life, I have finally come to the conclusion that they were ALL pioneers, each contributing a piece of the story but with no one clearly standing head and shoulders above the rest. It’s not appropriate to give the recognition to just one while discounting all of the rest.

In my mind, Nov. 2, 1920 is important because it marks the debut of the most important and well-publicized of all of the pioneer stations, and as such it is the date the broadcast industry generally recognizes as its formal beginning.

Going beyond that will just drag you down into the age-old argument, and you will receive dozens of complaint letters, each person arguing for their personal favorite.

On the other hand, if you want to stimulate conversation and generate letters to the editor, why not ask the question of your readers: Who do you think was first?

James O’Neal

James O’Neal responded:

I would certainly agree with John on all points.

It’s indeed a fool’s paradise to think that claims to priority in just about every endeavor of any consequence can ever be adjudicated to everyone’s satisfaction. I certainly considered this and have said as much in one of my stories.

I also singled out several other close contenders (including Marconi’s MZX in Chelmsford, U.K., which, while significant, doesn’t get a lot of mention) to try to illustrate the futility of establishing a really clear-cut winner for this position in the history books.

I have pointed out that KDKA seemed to possess a number of qualifications not held by others, including operation on a license/frequency for commercial broadcasting, operating (from Nov. 2) on a regular and continuous basis, emitting programming directed to the general public, and publicly advertising to offering of programming in advance of the Nov. 2 airdate.

While I realize that this does not really answer your question, I think it’s important background to consider in framing some sort of unified phrase to describe what KDKA accomplished on Nov. 2, 1920.

Possibly the best compromise would be something like:

“Nov. 2, 1920 is recognized as a significant date in radio’s history and evolution, as most historians agree that it marks the beginning of regular and continuing entertainment and news broadcasts directed exclusively to the general public. Pittsburgh’s KDKA, which has now been operating continuously for 100 years, is recognized for launching broadcasting as we know today that evening, by airing continuing coverage of presidential election returns.”

John Schneider replies:

I disagree with James on a few points; KDKA was not licensed or assigned to a frequency for “commercial broadcasting.” They were initially given a Commercial Land station license, a classification that had existed for many years and applied to point-to-point communication. There was no frequency designated for broadcasting until 1921, when WBZ was given 360 meters (at the request of Westinghouse). Also, WWJ was broadcasting to the general public, and advertising themselves in the pages of the Detroit News, three months before KDKA.

But I think the statement that James suggests is entirely accurate and appropriate.

And James has the final word:

John is correct in stating that broadcasting (on any frequency) had yet to be authorized. Westinghouse was in possession of a license allowing operations in spectrum reserved for commercial purposes. I stress this as the Detroit News broadcasting that evening was done via an Amateur class station license that restricted it to operation on a frequency allocated strictly for that purpose, and as such, their transmissions were subject to any interference that might be created by other radio amateurs sharing it.

What do you think? Email [email protected] with “Letter to the Editor” in the subject field.