As the 2020 US presidential elections dawn upon us, millions of people worldwide will doubtlessly be tuning in to media outlets all across the globe to watch the latest results of the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Very few people are aware that they will be participating in a tradition that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Election Day 2020 marks exactly one century since the first US presidential election was covered live by a broadcast media outlet.
During the early years of radio (1900s-1910s), radio transmissions tended to be limited and experimental as the infant radiotelegraphy technology started to grow and small, mostly amateur-type stations began to pop up worldwide. Also, World War One (1914-1918) hampered the growth of radio as countries such as the USA banned civilians from owning radio sets or operating radio stations. Washington didn’t lift the ban until after the Armistice was signed in November of 1918.
After the ban was lifted in the USA, AM radio stations began experimenting with longer and more powerful transmissions that tended to be heard well beyond their 100 mile or so broadcasting limit, especially during the nighttime hours. Some could be heard well across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Their broadcasts began to expand from being experimental in nature to broadcasting music and entertainment programs that lasted hours rather than minutes.
Of course, radio stations also began taking steps into news reporting. America’s first news radio station, 2XG in New York City’s Highbridge section, resumed broadcasting daily news bulletins in 1919 after being off the air for three years due to the war restrictions. KZY in Oakland, CA also began dabbling in nightly news broadcasts in November of that year.
Another often-overlooked pioneering radio station came from across the border in Canada. Montreal’s new experimental Marconi AM radio station, XWA (later CFCF-AM), made its debut broadcast in May of 1920. XWA’s broadcasts were both the first scheduled radio broadcasts and the first commercial radio broadcasts in North America. Many regard XWA as being older than most American radio stations….and possibly the oldest radio station in the world. It would not cease operations until 2010.
Now that the war in Europe was over and radio stations and their small handful of enthusiasts were popping up across America, they needed a major event to cover to demonstrate the potential of radio technology to the world. What better choice than the 1920 Presidential elections in the USA?
Westinghouse, KDKA, and the First Official US Presidential Broadcast Coverage
The honors of being the first media broadcaster to cover a US presidential election live have officially gone to Pittsburgh, PA AM radio station 8ZZ – later KDKA – when they aired live coverage of the Warren Harding-James Cox presidential race.
Apparently the executives of Westinghouse were inspired by the first radio broadcast of US presidential election results some four years earlier by New York City radio station 2XG, which broadcast the results in conjunction with NYC newspaper New York American prior to the government ban.
8ZZ was established by the Westinghouse Corporation earlier that year as a private station to allow the company to cash in on the infant radiotelegraph industry….and quietly, to give the Westinghouse factories a way to communicate with each other while avoiding paying corporate telegraph and telephone usage fees. Westinghouse commissioned its chief engineer Frank Conrad, a ham radio operator, to set up 8ZZ’s transmitter. He did this in the summer of that year in his home garage.
By the time of the elections, 8ZZ had received a limited commercial license from the US government, was assigned the call letters KDKA (but wouldn’t rechristen themselves as such until a month or so later), and moved its headquarters from Conrad’s garage and into a shack at the Pittsburgh headquarters of Westinghouse. It was from here where Westinghouse employees received the latest election results by telephone from the Pittsburgh Post and the Pittsburgh Sun on the night of November 2, 1920. The election returns were interspersed with live banjo music as staff contacted the newspapers for the latest updates.
It has been estimated that only 1,000 or so people heard the broadcast, but it marked the beginning of KDKA as one of America’s great AM radio giants and a milestone in commercial radio broadcasting. To this day, KDKA can still be heard across the USA and Canada every night on the AM radio band.
However, it has emerged over the years that KDKA was not the only radio station broadcasting presidential election results that night.
Detroit’s 8MK – which later became WWJ AM – also broadcast results from the presidential elections that night. This was in addition to 8MK’s honors of becoming the first licensed commercial radio station in the USA as well as broadcasting the first radio news broadcast (their “Detroit News Radiophone” service) in the state of Michigan and the first live broadcast of Michigan’s state primary elections on the night of Aug. 31st as well as the first broadcast of the scores of a baseball game on Sept. 1st of that year.
In Cincinnati, OH, radio station 8XB (soon to be rechristened WMH) cooperated with Westinghouse and 8ZZ and rebroadcast their live returns. Results were interspersed with Victor phonograph music.
Buffalo, NY newspaper The Buffalo Evening News also managed broadcast live presidential election results via Charles C. Clinck, Jr, a local ham radio operator.
In addition, a radio station in St. Louis, MO also reported the elections, but the identity of the station or who broadcast the results is not known. It’s also unclear which station went on the air first or how many people tuned in for any of the above two stations.
In large part due to their election coverage and what they rightly sensed was a new milestone for radio, Westinghouse would establish new radio stations in Boston, New York City, and Chicago.
At the time of the elections, the number of Americans who owned or had access to a radio was still relatively small, so the immediate impact of these broadcasts was very limited. All being said, the elections were a demonstration of the power of radio and over the course of time, they would set the precedent for future radio news coverage and future elections…right up to the present day.
A few local newspapers in and around Pittsburgh reported 8ZZ’s election coverage, but gave it marginal attention. However, after KDKA’s popularity started growing (and after their recreation of their 1920 election coverage for a live audience some ten years later), Westinghouse would later boast that their coverage that year “was a national sensation, acclaimed by newspapers all over the country” in large part to promote their radio equipment. They would also claim to have the “world’s first scheduled radio broadcast” after the election coverage.
Over the next few years, the popularity of the radio exploded nationwide and the number of Americans who owned radio sets began to grow at an astronomical rate. Furthermore, the number of radio stations jumped from just a handful in 1920 to 500 across all 50 states in 1922 with a little under 2 million Americans owning radios. However, in the early 1920s, most radio sets – or at least the affordable ones – were still handmade crystal sets that required a headphone or small speaker to listen. It could be relatively difficult for a family to gather around a radio and listen to a program.
By the end of 1921 the airwaves in the USA had turned into a free-for-all with amateur and experimental operating alongside emerging commercial radio stations on the AM and LW bands. In December of 1921, the Commerce Department issued a law that required radio stations to operate on a 360 meter (833 kHz) wavelength for “entertainment” and 485 meters (619 kHz) for “market and weather reports”. A number of American radio stations split into two stations in order to fit both criteria and would often end transmissions on one station for the day in order to broadcast on the other. News broadcasts tended to fit in both categories.
The 1924 US Presidential Elections and Radio Coverage
Radio had come a long way from the night of Election Day 1920 when the 1924 US presidential election was held. This presidential campaign marked the first radio broadcast of a political convention and the first (known) political party advertisements to be aired on radio. Political delegates – local, state, and national – bombarded radio stations across the country with requests for airtime and occasionally, the chance to slug it out with their rivals over the airwaves. The Republicans purchased and operated their own radio station specifically to broadcast the GOP message at nearly all hours of the day during the election season. Newly-purchased and more advanced radio sets such as the RCA Radiola allowed the entire family to kick back and tune in to the slugfests and campaign news every evening. All in all, it was the year the modern presidential election was born.
That year’s Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland, OH and was covered by (among other stations?) New York City’s WEAF (the future WNBC) and WJZ (the future WABC). Both stations were owned by AT&T and RCA respectively. Since AT&T owned the majority of the wires used for broadcasting, their stations were the most listened-to for the RNC. RCA, on the other hand, was the country’s largest radio manufacturer and the convention was used heavily in their advertising campaigns that summer.
The Democratic National Convention was held in New York City after the RNC’s completion and proved to be a challenge for radio broadcasters as there was much time to fill between candidates (at a time when radio broadcasts were themselves pressed for time), lots of gaps in coverage, and a massive brawl at one point during the convention. Which, in itself, was a first for radio!
This competition between AT&T and RCA can be seen as a prelude to the “network wars” of the modern era. A war which would start getting underway two years later when RCA would create the NBC radio network and CBS was born a short time later. And unlike the elections of four years ago, radio stations across the country – at least 46 in total – were “networked” by wire and shortwave and thousands nationwide were tuning in every evening.
The GOP’s radio strategy paid off and the winner of the election was Calvin Coolidge. On Inauguration Day, Coolidge would make yet another radio milestone by becoming the first president to make his inaugural address over the radio.
As you sit on your couch and watch the live election returns on cable news on the evening of Election Day, just think back to 100 years ago when, if you were one of the lucky few radio owners, you would only be able to tune in with a little crystal radio set and listen over a headphone to a fading, crackly voice announcing the latest election returns. We have certainly come a long way since then!
The early pioneers of radio saw the value of the medium very early on and did not waste time in bringing US politics to the airwaves after the World War I-era ban was lifted. They planted the seeds for the cable news we’re watching now. Or we can listen to the results through the radio medium they created a century ago and which lives on in different forms today.
While the initial impact of the 1920 presidential elections on the airwaves was limited, it marked the beginning of modern-day political news coverage as we know it and transformed the landscape of US politics forever.
- http://www.pateplumaradio.com/genbroad/elec1924.html (In-depth article about the 1920-1924 “radio elections”.)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KDKA_%28AM%29#The_1920s (Section at Wikipedia on KDKA in the 1920s.)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WMH_(1921-1923) (WMH at Wikipedia.)
- https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=1243 (The 1920 milestones of radio station 8MK, or WWJ in Detroit.)
(Portions of this post were originally posted at the now-defunct Contemporary Night Owl blog on 14 March 2017.)