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Opinion: Radio’s Real Founding Father

Two University Professors Argue That Charles Herrold Invented the Radio Station

Two University Professors Argue That Charles Herrold Invented the Radio Station

The author is professor and chair of the Department of Television, Radio, Film and Theatre at San Jose State University in California.

Charles Herrold in 1904
The question, “Who was the first radio broadcaster, and where and when did broadcasting as we understand it first take place?” has been asked since 1920.

For almost 80 years, the answer appearing in the history books was, “Frank Conrad of KDKA(AM) in Pittsburgh in 1920.” And when I was a DJ on legendary top-40 powerhouse WCOL(AM) in Columbus in the 1960s, I believed it, too. But while I was spinning the hits in Ohio, a story was slowly unfolding thousands of miles away in San Jose, California – a story that would forever change the way I looked at broadcasting.

Early show

A young university professor, Gordon Greb, had uncovered evidence showing that a local wireless experimenter named Charles Herrold was really the first individual to broadcast entertainment programming to an audience, as early as 1910 – 10 years before Conrad and KDKA.

Herrold had a technical school in downtown San Jose called Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering. His students served as its DJs and newsreaders, broadcasting music and news via a phonograph and microphone.

Greb further learned that Herrold received a license in 1921 using the call letters KQW, and that KQW was bought by CBS in 1949 and moved to San Francisco to become KCBS. This was truly a find, for KCBS management was unaware of its historical significance as the first station. In my small world of radio, it was earth-shattering news.

Years later, as fellow university professors at San Jose State, Gordon told me of his 1950s discovery. I got excited, and he and I agreed to collaborate in retelling the story. Our book, “Charles Herrold, Inventor of Radio Broadcasting,” was recently published by McFarland and Co. It finally tells the complete Herrold story, 45 years after the initial discovery. What took so long?

Piece by piece

As Greb continued to compile information in the form of letters, press clippings and other documents with dates and program information, he began to see a solid confirmation that the broadcasting of entertainment programming as early as 1909 did take place.
(click thumbnail)
Herrold stands in the center of his studio during a 1912 broadcast, as students Emile Portal and Ken Sanders play records from a windup phonograph. Engineer Frank Schmidt operates the arc transmitter, at right.

He also found early technology used in the broadcasts, and most important, he found living witnesses from the Herrold broadcast days. One such individual was Herrold’s wife Sybil, who had a weekly show beginning in 1912. She called it the “Little Hams” program, for the audience members were primarily young people interested in radio.

After a year-long research effort, Professor Greb detailed the Herrold story in an article he wrote for the Winter 1958 issue of the Broadcast Education Association’s Journal of Broadcasting (JOB). It was the first time a national academic audience had heard about Charles Herrold.

Greb also organized a major promotion with KCBS in San Francisco to make the announcement public in the Bay Area of Northern California, using the station’s 50,000-watt signal to make the point that they were first.

Because of this article, important post-1960 broadcast history books included Herrold, such as Barnouw’s “Tower in Babel” and Sterling’s “Stay Tuned.” More scholarly articles followed that further discussed the “first station” theme, and compared Herrold with Lee de Forest and KDKA, among others.

The answer to the question of “Who was the first broadcaster?” gradually was becoming more complex. In fact, the discovery and promotion of the Herrold story lead to a decades-long feud between the two major contenders, KDKA and KCBS, both of which claimed in their promotional advertising to be “the first station.”

However, once the original 1958 story grew stale, nothing new appeared. By the 1980s, the academic community had lost interest. Awareness of the Herrold story outside of Northern California waned.

I joined Gordon in 1988 in an effort to revive the story. Our initial research resulted in the PBS video, “Broadcasting’s Forgotten Father: The Charles Herrold Story.” But more important, we became friends and colleagues in historical research with a common goal.

We agreed that the only way for the Herrold story to gain national credibility was through the publication of a well-researched, clearly documented book. We made trips east, to the Smithsonian History Center in Washington, the New York Public Library and Antique Wireless Association archives in Rochester. Our goal was to find other examples, if any, of pre-1920 broadcasting, similar to that of Herrold in San Jose.

Important documents surfaced describing Herrold’s broadcasting of entertainment programming to an audience pre-1912. This evidence was not in the original Herrold papers, and not available during the production of the video. After reviewing and processing this new information, several major articles and our book were written.

Burden of proof

First, there is what I call the “smoking gun” of broadcasting: an ad in the 1910 catalogue of Electro-Importing, a New York mail-order company that sold radio parts to experimenters.

It included a printed notarized endorsement from Herrold: “We have given wireless phone concerts to amateur wireless men throughout the Santa Clara Valley.” Herrold was referring to the crude process of playing records on a windup acoustical phonograph, and aiming the sound at a microphone to be played over the air. Between records, Herrold and his students would announce what they were playing.

Second, a 1912 news story in the San Jose Mercury Herald detailed a radio call — in format not unlike the present — day process. An excerpt from the story reads, “For more than two hours they conducted a concert in Mr. Herrold’s office, which was heard for many miles around … (a Herrold student) gave the names of the records he had on hand and asked those listening to signify their choice. One asked for ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ which was furnished.”

Herrold was taking requests from listeners and facilitating phone-request radio in 1912.

I ask readers to look at the context in which the question of the first broadcaster has been asked since 1920. All previous claims to being the “first station” used RCA in-house historian George Clark’s 1920 criteria. It had to (1) include entertainment programming, (2) include regularly scheduled broadcast times, (3) be pre-announced/advertised ahead of time in the press and (4) be intended for a known “citizen” audience. Clark defined “citizen” as a non-amateur, non-hobbyist listener, as opposed to someone with technical skills.

It was this distinction that caused Clark to say, and early historians to write, that all pre-KDKA, 1920 broadcasts were invalid because their audiences were largely amateurs, which is simply not true. Professor Greb and I have determined through our research that many pre-1920 “citizen” listeners heard the de Forest and Herrold broadcasts at “public” listening posts in record stores, at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition and on crude homemade crystal sets.

The Herrold experiments came to an abrupt halt when the entry of the United States into the World War caused all radio transmitters and receivers to be shut down and sealed until 1919. In 1920, when the Commerce Department began issuing commercial licenses, KDKA was first. Six months later, Herrold received his license for KQW. As mentioned, that station would go through a series of owners, ultimately ending up with CBS in 1949.

Today there is no real agreement as to a single “first station.” Most historians credit KDKA for the first “commercial” license in 1920, de Forest for his 1916 broadcast of the Hughes — Wilson presidential election and Herrold for broadcasting pre — announced entertainment to an audience on a regularly scheduled basis from 1909-1917.

We, the authors, have found evidence in the form of primary documents – some by Herrold, others by print journalists – indicating that Herrold was the first to do so.

Charles Herrold invented the radio station.

For more information on Charles Herrold , visit the author’s Web site,