Ninety years ago this month, Westinghouse Electric Co. launched the era of electronic mass communications with a radio broadcast for election day in the U.S. presidential contest between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox – heard over Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio station.
You can still hear that broadcast – yes, audio-only – via the radio-changing, radio-challenging Internet.
Calling itself "The Pioneer Broadcasting Station of the World," KDKA was founded by Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer running an amateur home station, 8XK – that played music. Estimates are that only about 100 people heard that first KDKA broadcast, with the news that Republican Harding had defeated Cox.
Conrad advertised his radio sets – and Westinghouse saw the potential for commercialization and applied for a ‘callsign.’ In 1920, 8XK became KDKA – broadcasting from an East
This triggered a national radio receiver craze; by 1922 more than 500 radio stations were broadcasting – all for free. Manufacturers of transmitters and receivers were the only ones making money. AT&T seized the opportunity and created “phone booths of the air” charging for use of air time – and thus arose the business model of advertising as the key to broadcast profit.
In 1970, Broadcasting (now B&C) dedicated a major portion of its Nov. 2, 50th anniversary issue to radio, posing the perpetual question: “Broadcasting at 50: Can it adapt?”
Adapt it has. In the past 40 years, the evolution of media industry has seen AM reinvent itself as the medium for news and talk; FM assume the pop music moniker; and TV, like kudzu – take over and claim anything else left standing, followed by cable.
And then there’s cyberspace – a word actually coined by a group of scientists in the 1950’s as the science of “control and communications theory.” It’s derived from ancient Greek, kubernetes which means – “a steersman” who controls a ship’s course.
Take this month’s midtwerm elections in the U.S. and the torrents of commentary and content abundantly available via all media, and look back at Harding vs. Cox. Radio was indeed the pioneer. AT&T’s “phone booths of the air” proved prescient in forecasting today’s cyberspace colonization.
Ninety years from now – the year 2100, from what cloud will our great-grandchildren be accessing content and who will be the steersman?