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5. Radio

Wireless . . . today means technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for wireless Internet and electronics use. A century ago, wireless meant an awesome tool used by the military, shipping industry, communications services, and amateur "ham" operators to send messages via radio waves without wires—"wireless telegraphy." With the advent of commercial broadcasting in the 1920s, wireless became radio—the must-have device that millions purchased for their living rooms to hear news and entertainment broadcasts. Was radio "a blessing or a curse"? Would it elevate or degrade the cultural sophistication of its listeners? Would it enhance or weaken citizenship and independent thinking? Would people stop reading and conversing? How would radio influence the nation's youth, growing up with radio as a given? Sound familiar?

    Collected commentary on the value of radio PDF file
  • Collected commentary on the value of radio. Radio is "virtually useless," "just another disintegrating toy." Radio is "a Tremendous Contribution," "the only means of instantaneous communication yet devised by man." Radio "will elect the next president"; its listeners comprise "an organization that in days to come will be the most powerful in the world." However one judged radio as it grew from a "helpless youngster" into a "husky adolescence," one thing was clear—"There it is, up in the air, absolutely free, waiting for you to pull it down with the aid of electricity." The vast array of opinion on radio's value and future is apparent in this excerpted commentary of the time. To what extent does the commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about the value and future of the Internet, social networking, mobile devices, etc.? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (8 pp.)

  • Transcript of WLS Showboat, the Floating Palace of Wonder PDF file
  • The WLS Showboat—the "Floating Palace of Wonder," AUDIO CLIP (21 min.). TRANSCRIPT. The earliest entertainment shows in commercial broadcasting were not the soap operas, serial dramas, and comedy shows often characterized as "early radio"—those arrived in the 1930s. Twenties radio offered listeners the same fare they could hear in theaters—opera, orchestral performances, vaudeville routines, musical revues, etc., and could read in newspapers—news, weather, stock market closing prices, farm updates, home management advice, etc., adding such features as bedtime stories for children. WLS Chicago, created in 1924 by Sears Roebuck & Co. to increase its outreach to midwestern farmers, offered a weekly variety program, the WLS Showboat, the "Floating Palace of Wonder." Listeners would "travel" along American rivers on the Showboat and enjoy songs and humorous banter not unlike vaudeville [music hall song-and-dance acts]. This undated broadcast is archived by the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland. Listen to the audio clip while reading the transcript. What characterized 1920s radio entertainment? How did it set the stage, so to speak, for later radio and television entertainment? (Audio clip online; transcript, 10 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. To observers in the 1920s, what were the primary advantages and disadvantages of commercial radio broadcasting?
  2. Was radio "a blessing or a curse"? Why?
  3. What could radio offer individuals and society that was unique and revolutionary?
  4. How did supporters and critics of radio frame their arguments? Upon what factors did they base their judgments?
  5. To 1920s commentators, how would radio influence politics, citizenship, newspapers, military defense, popular entertainment, the nation's youth, and global communication and cultural understanding?
  6. To what extent were the 1920s commentators accurate in their predictions? Where were they off-base? Why?
  7. To what extent does the commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about the value and future of the Internet, social networking, mobile devices, video games, etc.?
  8. What were the predicted "motion pictures by radio," the combination of "sound with sight"? When did this innovation arrive on the American scene?
  9. Compare the debate on radio's value and future with similar discussions about the automobile, aviation, and movies. What do the awe and concern that are voiced about a technological innovation in an era reveal about the era?
  10. How did the WLS Showboat broadcast reflect attitudes and issues of the 1920s? What was the basis of the humor in the joke sequences? What happened when the crew threatened to strike?
  11. Note the "Old South" racial stereotypes in two of the songs. What other period stereotypes appeared in the broadcast?
  12. How does radio entertainment programming of the 1920s, as evidenced by the WLS Showboat, compare with radio entertainment in the following decades?
  13. How did 1920s radio entertainment broadcasting set the stage for later radio entertainment?
  14. What will be the next game-changing innovation in high-tech communications? Will it be more or less revolutionary than radio? than commercial radio? Explain your opinion.

Framing Questions

  • How did "machine age" innovations change American life in the Twenties?
  • How did fans and critics of the changes, including artists, express their views?
  • What longterm effects on American society did they predict from the innovations? To what extent were they accurate?
  • How does their commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about technological innovation and social change, e.g., the Internet, social networking, robotics, nanotechnology, informatics, and more?


Collected commentary on the value of radio
WLS radio broadcast: transcript
 8 pp.
10 pp.
     Listen online.
18 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Media history chronology: the 1920s (University of Minnesota)

A Century of Radio (California Historical Radio Society)

Radio in the 1920s (student project, University of Virginia, American Studies)

The History of WLS Chicago (Scott Childers)

New Year's radio broadcast, 1926: scroll down (Library of American Broadcasting, University of Maryland)

Library of American Broadcasting (University of Maryland)

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).

– Photograph entitled "The shut-in's Sunday service," Clark Music Co., March 28, 1923 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, #LC-USZ62-134575.
– "Harding to encircle world with wireless," article, The New York Times, October 22, 1921 (detail). Permission request in process. Digital image courtesy of Proquest Historical Newspapers.
– Julian de Mickey, illustration in Jack Woodford, "Radio: A Blessing or a Curse?" The Forum, March 1929. Copyright holders of Forum content unidentified; search in process.
– Illustration in John Carr, "The New Radio Sets Offer-Higher Values-Better Tone, Selectivity, and Volume-Lighted Dials-Dynamic Speakers" (detail), Popular Science, Sept. 1928. Permission request in process.
– Radio towers, location unidentified, photograph by Harris & Ewing, between 1910 and 1920 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, #LC-H25-542 [P&P].

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