Walking into the first upstairs gallery brings the visitor to exhibits about the inception of radio broadcasting. A handful of radio stations begin to offer a planned schedule of programs—mostly music with some talks—in 1920. They were typically on the air but an hour or two in the evening—daytime programming would take several years to develop. Of course, nobody knew what a radio “program” was at first, and different types were developed during this period. Most early announcers were anonymous and few people were paid to be “on the air.”
Would-be listeners built their own crystal sets or, if they can afford it, vacuum tube receivers. Only the wealthy could afford to buy a ready-made multi-tube radio and the batteries and headphones it required—a really good receiver cost (in today’s terms) $1,000 or more. Virtually all early radios were complex to operate, with multiple dials and knobs resembling laboratory instruments rather than consumer devices. They usually required an outdoor wire antenna.
By 1922 (the same year the first on-air advertisement was carried by a New York station), radio was becoming a widespread craze across the country as hundreds of stations squeezed on the air using the then available handful of frequencies. They caused considerable excitement as they magically pulled sound out of the air, but they also caused noisy interference and listener frustration. There was almost no government regulation—only a license for the asking and no enforcement power. By mid-decade, presidential addresses or sporting events were being carried on an occasional basis over multi-station link-ups or “chains” of stations.
Two exhibits—a series of audio recordings of typical early radio programs, and a display of Radio Boys and Radio Girls young adult novels of 1922-23—help to illustrate just how popular radio was in this exciting era.