David Sarnoff is the father of broadcasting. Sarnoff was a Jewish immigrant who became his family’s breadwinner at age 15. He worked as a Morse Code operator, rising up the ranks to become a supervisor. Eventually, he transitioned to radio to transmit messages over long distances.
Early radio technology was for point-to-point communications, like a long-distance walkie-talkie. AT&T used it for long-distance telephone calls and companies communicated with ships. Sarnoff saw radio as a one-to-many technology, beaming entertainment and news directly into houses. The idea was a breakthrough.
GE acquired Sarnoff’s employer, American Marconi, and renamed it the Radio Corporation of America, RCA. Sarnoff proposed that RCA focus on broadcasting. They ignored him until his broadcast of a boxing match, in 1921, proved wildly popular. Interest was strong and drove the sales of radios. Other RCA executives then understood that content would drive radio sales.
There were early sporadic radio broadcasters but most were banned during WWI on national security grounds. After the war ended, in 1919, broadcast networks began to spring up all around the US. The US issued commercial broadcast licenses throughout the 1920s.
One of the first uses of radio voice broadcasts was education. Tufts College professors broadcast lectures in 1922. Other colleges followed.
Commercialization began in earnest when RCA spawned the first real network, the National Broadcasting Company, NBC. They began broadcasting in 1926, using telephone lines to connect multiple stations. William Paley created the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) the following year. In 1939, antitrust regulators forced NBC to spin off the “Blue Network,” a second network they owned. The spun-off company renamed itself the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
These three networks dominated radio and television broadcasting for about 50 years until cable television became popular.
Radio Goes Global
Radio manufacturers in the United Kingdom recognized the need for content to drive radio sales. There were radio stations but they were sporadic low-quality affairs. To encourage high-quality content they formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).
Around this time, radio broadcasts popped up in major cities in the world. Radio Paris launched in 1922. German radio went online in 1923 but was seized by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels a decade later. Goebbels created modern electronic propaganda and his core methods are still in use today. Furthermore, Germany broadcast propaganda to neighboring countries who responded by broadcasting their own anti-fascist messages to Germans.
In the US, broadcast networks were primarily advertising supported. Radio manufacturers benefitted from the availability of content paid for by businesses advertising goods and services. In contrast, radio sales drove manufacturers to fund the BBC. Advertising was seen as a nuisance and eventually dropped. The first head of the BBC, Lord Reith, declared that radio broadcasting is a public service, not a commercial product. Most countries throughout the world started with the European public service model but, to some extent, transitioned to the US commercial model. Conversely, the US government-funded and launched a television network, the Public Broadcasting Service, in 1970.
Eventually, RCA moved into television (see the television entry) and NBC, CBS, and ABC became national US television networks. A smaller network, DuMont, tried unsuccessfully to compete. It was shuttered as a network in 1956 though the surviving stations recreated a new broadcast network, Fox Broadcasting Company, in 1986.