Face still covered in soot from laboring in a South Wales coalmine, Richard Farr listens to the world title fight between Joe Louis and Tommy Farr, Richard’s brother, hoping for a family win. By 1937, Louis had beaten 24 opponents in 12 years. Tommy was his 25th. (Portrait of an Era)
The two ladies above are listening to the FIRST factory-built radio made for entertainment: a 1921 Westinghouse. Did you know that radios initially required headphones?
A year prior, in 1920, Dr. Frank Conrad, while experimenting in a Pittsburgh barn, discovered that wireless enthusiasts enjoyed listening to the phonograph records that he put on the air, and the rest…is history! Except that we need the actual history to understand.
If he put music on “the air,” did that mean radio stations weren’t already playing music? Well, let’s ask Wikipedia. Conrad began work at Westinghouse Electrical & Manufacturing at 16 in 1900. At 23, he moved up to their test department, where he invented the circular-type watt-hour meter, over 30 million of which were in use by 1937. He would eventually be awarded over 200 patents throughout his life. But it was in 1916 that he installed a radio station in a two-story garage. It used a spark-transmitter, which could only be used to transmit Morse code. So no music.
When the US entered WWI in 1917, all civilian radio stations were silenced. But Conrad, working for Westinghouse, spent his time developing radio technology, using vacuum-tube transmitters, and inventing a wind-driven generator. Two years later, when the radio ban was lifted in October, he resumed his experimental station and was able to entertain other local amateurs by playing phonograph records.
As interest grew, he adopted a schedule of music. In 1920, Pittsburgh’s own Joseph Horne Dept Store began selling radios, aka “wireless receiving stations” to listen to “air concerts.” It didn’t take long for Westinghouse to construct its own broadcast station and sell receivers for this free entertainment.
The first radio station, KDKA, opened on November 2, 1920. Initially a tent on a roof, it soon became the indoor studio you see below (the tent kept insisting on blowing away). Draperies covered the ceiling and walls to prevent reverberation. A disk hanging below the upper end of the slanting bar was called “the enunciator” (which we now call a microphone). Early listeners used crystal detectors in tubeless receiving sets, but the development of the vacuum tube expanded the radio audience significantly.
Soon entertainers were asked to provide music for radio stations.
Young people especially were excited by the new technology, and competitors soon crept in. This Crosley model was advertised at $3.75.
“Oh, boy! There’s London! Last night I had Honolulu, and the night before that Porto [sic] Rico. Here’s where I get Rome. This Crosley sure does bring ’em in. There’s nothing like a Crosley.”
In 1928, Dr. Conrad received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Not until age 66 did he retire from Westinghouse, having spent his entire life in radio. He received many awards for his work, including the 1930 Edison Medal “for his contributions to radio broadcasting and short wave radio transmission,” and the 1936 Lamme Medal “for pioneering and basic developments in the fields of electric metering and protective services.” The next time you flick your radio on, pause for a moment and think of Dr. Conrad, shown below.
Austin KNOW radio announcer Jimmy Nummy appears to be barraged by microphones here. One is even propped against his noggin. In 1927, KNOW became Austin’s first commercial radio station, but had signed off by 1989. Did you know that broadcast call letters in the USA begin with either “K” or “W”, with “K” usually west of the Mississippi River and “W” usually east of it? Does that apply to your city? Maybe not, if you live in Louisiana or Minnesota, who go rogue and don’t always follow the dividing line. Here’s a KNOW ad from 70 years ago.
While Nummy’s name may not live in infamy, one itsy bitsy reference is made to him in the memoirs of Ray Campi (aka “The King of Rockabilly”). It’s such a fun read, I thought I’d share it.
It was a great thrill to witness my first recording session in 1950 and to meet ‘Cactus’ Pryor who was to become a family friend to this day. I had already heard one of his records on the radio called Jackass Caravan which was a funny parody of Frankie Laine’s Mule Train, also a hit by Tennessee Ernie, a record my dad bought at Woolworth’s. “That sure was a funny record Cactus has out,” I remarked to my friends. “I hope someday I can make a record.”
…One of my first completed audio discs was a song I wrote called Disc Jockey Cactus. I took this demo record to Mrs. Macy Henry of Macy’s Records in Houston along with a few other original tunes, hoping for my first record release. The lady patiently listened to my painful playing and high-pitched singing and wisely rejected me as Macy’s Records’ new singing sensation. “Come back in about ten years after your voice has developed and I’ll give you another listen. You might have something there in that disc jockey song,” she said encouragingly…
On that interesting afternoon in the KTBC studio, records were being recorded for 4 Star…I heard the band rehearse and get ‘takes’ of Flying Saucer Mama, and Rag Mop. Jesse’s rendition of the latter tune was a ‘cover’ version of Johnny Lee Wills’ hit on Bullet Records. I recall that all the musicians went into another room to listen to the original hit and came out practicing the lyric “do-di-lee-da-da-loo-di” over and over. The music and singing were all cut together with the band singing off-mike where they were standing. I seem to recall that Jesse did Flying Saucer Mama that day and last up was Cactus with his tune which was Hog Calling Champ Of Arkansas. He requested a double bass on this one and a call was made to Hub Sutter who had finished his radio show at nearby KVET. His bass player, Joe Ramon, who had been a member of Jesse’s band previously, entered the studio cradling his instrument. This tune was somewhat complicated as it contained a key change in the middle when Turkey In The Straw had to be played during the hog calling sequence. A staff announcer named Jim Nummy and Hub Sutter had an interchange with Cactus. (www.bear-family.de)
So there you go! It’s not exactly 15 minutes of fame, and it’s not exactly exciting. But it’s better than calling him “Ol’ What’s-His-Name!” And if you’d like to take a listen to “Hog Calling Champion of Arkansas,” click here.
It’ll be stuck in your head all day!