100 years ago, the first commercial radio broadcast announced the results of the 1920 election – politics would never be the same

8 mins read

Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

Only 100 individuals had been listening, however the first broadcast from a licensed radio station occurred at 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, 1920. It was Pittsburgh’s KDKA, and the station was broadcasting the results of that 12 months’s presidential election.

When the man accountable, Frank Conrad, flipped the swap for the first time, he couldn’t have envisioned simply how profoundly broadcast media would rework political life.

For centuries, individuals had learn politicians’ phrases. But radio made it potential to take heed to them in actual time. Politicians’ personalities all of a sudden began to matter extra. The approach their voices sounded made extra of a distinction. And their capability to interact and entertain grew to become essential parts of their candidacies.

Television, adopted by social media, would construct off this drastic shift in a approach that perpetually remodeled American politics.

And the winner is…

In the Eighteen Nineties, radio indicators had been transmitted over lengthy distances for the first time, work for which engineer Guglielmo Marconi acquired the Nobel Prize in 1909. By the 1910s, novice radio operators had been transmitting their very own voices and music, however few individuals had radios, and no income was generated.

In 1920, staff of inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse come across an concept to spice up radio gross sales by offering programming that giant numbers of individuals might tune in to.

The man who made it occur was Frank Conrad. A Pittsburgh native whose formal schooling had led to the seventh grade, Conrad would go on to carry over 200 patents.

Realizing that radio might cowl the presidential race, he scheduled a broadcast for Election Day 1920.

That evening, from what would turn out to be the nation’s first commercial radio station, Conrad broadcast the outcome of the 1920 U.S. presidential election that pitted Democrat James Cox towards Republican Warren Harding. Conrad acquired the election returns by phone, and those that listened in by radio knew the final result – a Harding landslide – earlier than anybody might learn it in a newspaper the subsequent day.


A two-door garage near Pittsburgh was home to the first broadcast radio station.
KDKA operated out of Frank Conrad’s storage. Bettmann via Getty Images

Channeling a unique variety of politics

In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “The medium is the message,” that means that the variety of channel by which a message is transmitted issues greater than its content material.

Impressions of politicians – together with their approaches to campaigning – modified with the introduction of radio.

For centuries, the principal medium for mass political information was the printed phrase. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas participated in a collection of nine debates for a U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1858, in-person attendees numbered in the 1000’s, however hundreds of thousands adopted the debates by in depth newspaper accounts nationwide. The candidates had been anticipated to make arguments, and every of the debates lasted three hours.

By the Nineteen Thirties, politicians might handle residents immediately by radio. The Great Depression prompted FDR’s fireside chats, and through World War II Winston Churchill spoke on to the individuals by way of the BBC. FDR’s press secretary lauded radio, saying “It cannot misrepresent or misquote.” But McLuhan later described it as a “hot” medium, as a result of broadcast speeches might incite passions in a approach that additionally made potential the rise of totalitarians corresponding to Mussolini and Hitler.


Marshall McLuhan famously noticed that ‘the medium is the message.’ Francois BIBAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Television takes over

With time, politicians began dabbling in utilizing leisure to get the consideration of voters. In the radio period, stars like Judy Garland belted out songs on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Once tv arrived, political technique shifted much more in the route of spectacle. RCA had experimented with tv broadcasts in the Nineteen Thirties, however in 1945 there have been fewer than 10,000 TV sets in the U.S. By the Nineteen Fifties, the main broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – had been up and operating.

In the 1952 election, the Eisenhower marketing campaign began working with advert companies and actors corresponding to Robert Montgomery to craft the candidate’s TV personality. More than ever earlier than, a finely honed picture grew to become the key to political energy.

By 1960 there have been 46 million TVs in use throughout the U.S., setting the stage for 66 million people to view the first televised presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Kennedy was fairly telegenic, however Richard Nixon confirmed as much as their first debate wanting pale, sporting a swimsuit that contrasted poorly with the set, and sporting a 5 o’clock shadow. Most who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had gained, however a big majority of television viewers gave the nod to Kennedy.

Are politicians merely creatures of mass media?

Today, social media have helped to additional rework political discourse from reasoned argument to attention-grabbing photographs and memes. Politicians, who now compete with a whole bunch of different media channels and retailers, have to seize voters’ consideration, and so they more and more flip to ridicule and even outrage to take action.

Some would possibly regard trendy politics as fulfilling a McLuhan prophecy: “The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be so much more powerful than he will ever be.”

Increasing reliance on broadcast and social media makes it harder to concentrate on the deserves of arguments. But visible drama is one thing practically everybody can relate to immediately.

Could Donald Trump have been elected president in 1860? Could Abraham Lincoln be elected president at the moment?

We’ll never know. But if we take McLuhan at his phrase, we should severely contemplate the risk that each males are the creatures of the mass media of their day.

Democratic societies neglect the results of new varieties of media on the high quality of political discourse at their very own peril.

Government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – as Lincoln put it – can thrive solely when voters are knowledgeable by a really strong change of concepts.

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation beneath a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Charlene is a Bay Area journalist who hails from the small community of Fresno. Drawing from her experience writing for her college paper, Charlene continues to advocate for free press and local journalism. She also volunteers in all the beach cleanups she can because she loves the water.