Welcome to 2020, the year of KDKA Radio

Jim Graci
January 06, 2020 - 3:45 pm

Welcome to 2020, the year of KDKA Radio. 

We entered our 100th year of broadcasting on November 2, 2019, where 99 years earlier, four men huddled in a makeshift shack on the roof of the Westinghouse Electric Building in East Pittsburgh, transmitted the results of the 1920 presidential election. 

KDKA Radio Historical Marker

We are a society that relies on instantaneous access to information.  What makes this 100th anniversary of radio so poignant is that instantaneous information, delivered right to your home, started right here.  Our colleague Mike Pintek, who passed away in September 2017, profoundly stated that KDKA Radio is the “original social media,” an apt description of the industry’s incredible initial influence.

As we progress through our 100th year, one question remains:  Why is radio still so influential?  The simple answer is it comes back to you, the listener.  Hundreds of millions of people nationwide spend at least an hour a day listening to radio (92% of the US population).  In addition, they are listening to “radio” on multiple devises, the smartphone, the laptop, the tablet, smart speaker, that radio on the kitchen counter or the dashboard of your car.

KDKA Radio Collage

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of KDKA Radio, and the 100th anniversary of radio, we plan to show case significant contributions to our history and how the future is being molded for the next hundred years.  Today, we look at are our original starting five, the five important figures who were instrumental in starting it all:

Dr. Frank Conrad – Dr. Conrad was experimenting with wireless communication going back to 1916.  His transmission sight, licensed as 8XK was a project he worked on out of his garage in East Pittsburgh.  A Westinghouse engineer, Conrad invited those with crystal sets to listen to 8XK to determine an interest.  He would advertise the specific days and times that he would air music on 8XK and asked those who could receive it to send him a post card to confirm their reception.   The irony of the first broadcast was that Conrad was not there.  He stayed at his garage and had 8XK standing by as a backup in case there were problems with the first broadcast, on Westinghouse station 8ZZ, which was the actual precursor to KDKA Radio.

Harry P. David – During World War One, when amateur crystal radio operators were off air for security reasons, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, under the engineering guidance of Dr. Conrad, developed transmitters and receivers for military use. Following the war, Westinghouse stepped forward to establish itself as a provider of radio communication.  It was H.P. Davis, a Westinghouse Vice President, who led the Westinghouse surge. An application, signed by Davis, issued to Westinghouse a limited commercial station license, identifying the call letters as KDKA.  The licenses original intent was to establish a communication network between Westinghouse facilities in Springfield, MA, Cleveland, Brooklyn and Newark, NJ. Davis, seeing the tremendous opportunity to sell amateur wireless sets, decided that Westinghouse should provide regular programming as an incentive to purchase those sets and set the goal for starting continuous programming on November 2, 1920.

Leo Rosenberg – The actual first voice on 8ZZ (KDKA), Rosenberg was selected to host the election results.  He was a member of the Westinghouse publicity department.  Rosenberg voiced a re-creation of the first broadcast during the 1930s, in which they erroneously mentioned the call letters KDKA.  The station’s identity at the time was 8ZZ.

Harold Arlin – Arlin was the first full time announcer in radio history.  Arlin had been a rate foreman for Westinghouse, and was hired for the position in January, 1921.  Arlin became the first person to announce a major league baseball game (Pirates vs. Phillies) and the first announcer for a college football game (Pitt-West Virginia).  Arlin was nicknamed the “Voice of America” and since KDKA Radio transmissions were heard in Europe, the London Times called him “the best known American voice in Europe.”

John Frazier – Those who work behind-the-scenes in most industries are the unsung heroes of the operation.  In the case of radio, even in its infancy, without the help of the behind-the-scenes contributors, the broadcast would not have occurred on that stormy night in November.  John Frazier was one of those unsung heroes.  He was the one who produced and transcribed the election results that were coming to the broadcast from the Pittsburgh Post newsroom, where election results were tabulated.

KDKA 100 Years Podcast

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