Pittsburgh is the site of the first commercial radio broadcast, which marks its centennial anniversary on Nov. 2.
To commemorate the event, the National Museum of Broadcasting partnered with Westinghouse Service Uniting Retired Employees (SURE) and Duquesne University to re-enact the first commercial radio broadcast that covered the 1920 election between Republican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox. Duquesne University will live stream the historic results from a re-constructed version of the original radio shack at the Regional Industry Development Corporation (RIDC) Park in Turtle Creek, just like it did 100 years ago.
Pittsburgh’s Radio Roots
The broadcast was the brainchild of Westinghouse Electric Company engineer and Wilkinsburg native, Frank Conrad, who’d been tasked with building and operating the first radio shack using a Westinghouse-made radio transmitter and receiver. Until 1920, radios were used mostly for military and maritime communication. But Conrad wanted to experiment with the technology and started broadcasting his own amateur show from a shack he built in his garage.
“He only had a seventh grade, sixth grade education, but a very mechanical and engineering mind,” said Rick Harris, chairman of the Conrad Project at the National Museum of Broadcasting, which is leading the effort on the re-construction.
Conrad climbed Westinghouse’s ranks as an assistant engineer tinkering in radio mechanics until World War I, when he was transferred to supervising the manufacturing of military radio transmission throughout the war. Susie Barbour of Westinghouse SURE said at the time, the company was a leading manufacturer for government airplane radios for battlefield communication.
“Conrad was working very closely with the U.S. government because of his radio experience,” Barbour said. “He was very innovative.”
Barbour, who’s played an extensive role in the research behind the project, said that after WWI, Conrad was able to return to his original hobby broadcasting from his Wilkinsburg garage on Wednesday and Sunday nights. When Conrad got tired of talking about local news and gossip, Barbour said he’d play music he’d borrowed from local record stores, coining the first on-air “commercials” for the stores where he got the records.
On Sept. 29, 1920, Horne’s Department Store published an advertisement for their radio sets, sparking a business idea for Conrad’s boss back at Westinghouse.
“That prompted Harry [Davis] to call Frank [Conrad] into his office the next day and say, ‘Look, if there are people out there selling radios to pick up your programs, we could do that on a much larger scale here with our own station,’” Barbour explained. “‘We have these idle World War I radio manufacturing facilities now that the war is over and we could produce radios for sale to the public.’”
On Oct. 27, 1920, Westinghouse became the first company to apply for a commercial radio license to which the government assigned the KDKA callsign. Within days, plans finalized to have local Pittsburgh newspapers air election results from the radio shack Conrad built on top of the Westinghouse K Building in Turtle Creek, the current location of RIDC Park. That’s where then-24-year-old Leo Rosenberg, who had been working in the Westinghouse Public Relations Department, would announce election updates as they came in.
After several failed attempts, Rosenberg was able to clearly transmit the election results he received from the Pittsburgh Post and the Pittsburgh Sun over the transmitter sitting atop the Westinghouse K Building. Between announcements, Rosenberg would play music. Barbour said 300 Westinghouse employees gathered in the Edgewood Community Library that night to listen to the report, with more listeners tuning in across the country.
100 Years Later
The Westinghouse collaboration sparked the beginning of the commercial broadcast radio industry in the United States. After the election broadcast, Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside began airing Sunday night services over KDKA. In 1921, KDKA became the first radio station to air a professional baseball game from Forbes Field in Oakland. Harold Arlin called the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies, making him the first sports broadcaster.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, more stations began to pop up around the country. Today, there are over 30,000 commercial radio stations across the United States.
While early radio broadcasting looked very different than it does today, Pittsburgh residents faced similar challenges: the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic, important elections, and the Great Depression.
“It sounds like today,” said Duquesne University President Ken Gormely, “and don't forget, Warren Harding's campaign slogan was ‘A return to normalcy.’”
Despite the restrictions placed on organizations due to COVID-19, the National Museum of Broadcasting continued its initiative with Westinghouse SURE and Duquesne University to celebrate the historic anniversary.
“This was too important and necessary for Pittsburgh to not do something special. I mean, this is something that we should all be proud of,” Gormley said. “The key is that this is an important piece of American history. It isn't just Pittsburgh history. This is American history. And we have it. And we have not let people know enough about it.”
Duquesne University will be live-streaming a re-enactment of the 1920 Election Night results on Nov. 2 from the re-constructed radio shack near Conrad’s original radio shack in RIDC Park in Turtle Creek. On Election Night, the group will cover the results of the 2020 election.
*This article has been updated to clarify when the re-enactment will be taking place.