The Father of Broadcasting
By Dan O'Donnell
February 25, 2021
America is the land of innovation, of technological revolutions that have forever altered the story of humanity—making our work easier, our leisure time more fulfilling, and our ability to connect with each other more complete. And it is in the field of communications, of connecting human beings with one another, that America has perhaps been most instrumental in revolutionizing.
This is the Forgotten History of the Father of Broadcasting.
Frank Conrad was always a meticulous man. An electrical engineer by trade, he counted on things to run perfectly and worked his hardest to ensure they always would.
That included his watch. He expected it to work perfectly and when a coworker at the Westinghouse Corporation bet him that his watch was more accurate, Frank worked to ensure that his would win by secretly replacing its parts with those of a top-of-the-line watch brand. Frank won the bet, but he was still troubled.
His watch kept perfect time, but now that it did, he realized that his local telegraph service in Pittsburgh didn't. It was 1913, and the city depended on fast, accurate messaging that it wasn't getting. So Frank got to work. Using the relatively newly developed long-range radio transmission technology, he set up a radio receiver to get the official time signals the Naval Observatory in Virginia sent out each night.
Pittsburgh had more accurate telegraphs, and Frank had a new hobby. In an odd coincidence, his neighbor also had a small radio transmitter and the two men began talking and sending signals to each other, becoming two of the world's first ham radio operators.
Frank grew more and more obsessed with his new hobby and built bigger and bigger radio stations...until the United States entered World War I and ordered every private radio transmission silenced so that they wouldn't interfere with the military. Frank, though, was unfazed, and turned his attention to building and improving radio communication equipment for the Army Signal Corps.
When the war ended in 1918 and ham radios were legal again, Frank went right back to his favorite hobby. And now there were dozens more operators with whom he could talk. But Frank was growing bored with talking to just one person at a time and, quite frankly, he was bored with talking altogether.
On a whim, he put his phonograph up to his radio's microphone and put on a record, Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe." His fellow radio operators loved it, so much in fact that after the song ended, they got on their microphones and asked him to play more songs. So he did; for two hours every Wednesday and Saturday night.
Within a few weeks, though, Frank ran out of records to play. He was a meticulous man and wanted everything to run perfectly, and that included his new hobby. He didn't want to just play the same songs over and over. His newfound audience wanted more, and so did he.
Once again, he had an idea. The son of the local Brunswick phonograph store was a big fan of Frank's radio and even helped him out with his equipment, so Frank struck a deal. The store would give him new records to play and in exchange, he would tell his listeners to go to the store and buy them.
Once he did, the world's first commercial was aired.
Other stores started to take notice. One even began making and selling its own radios for people who couldn't build their own like serious hobbyists. For ten dollars apiece (roughly $150 today), anyone could listen to Frank's music.
His show was a bona fide phenomenon in the greater Pittsburgh area, and the store sold so many radios that they began advertising them in the local newspaper.
When Frank's boss at Westinghouse, H.P. Davis, saw that ad, he saw an opportunity and wanted the company to start manufacturing its own radios. But Frank pushed him to think bigger. If he could generate such a big audience playing records in his home, what if Westinghouse built its own radio station with a tower at the top of its massive plant in Pittsburgh?
Davis was convinced and set Frank to work building it. The 1920 Presidential Election was coming up, and Westinghouse had an idea: It would debut its new station by reading the results on election night. People in Pittsburgh became the very first to hear that Warren G. Harding defeated James Cox when KDKA, the world's first commercial radio station, signed on on November 2, 1920.
A new medium was born--a way to bring news, music, and everything else to millions of people. Frank Conrad didn't know it then, but he had created an art form that over the next century would come to include film, television, and the internet.
He didn't know then how much his invention would change the world, but he knew what to call it; the name we still call it today: Broadcasting.