“You Can Take it With You” the Portable Radio in American Life (December 2009–December 2010)
This exhibition traces the development of portable radios from the heavy “lugables” of the late 1920s to the high-quality miniature digital devices of today. Segments illustrate:
Early “portable” modes of wireless meant heavy equipment that only a horse or wagon could carry. Until regular radio broadcasting began in 1920, consumers had no need for a portable way to listen in. The first radios intended to be carried from place to place appeared by the mid-1920s. But with their required batteries, speakers and/or earphones, they were cumbersome and heavy—upwards of 40 pounds or more in many cases. You could take radio listening to the beach or on a picnic, but it took a lot of effort. And thus the portable radio was rare before 1930.
Take it Anywhere: To 1945
By the 1930s, some radios were dubbed “universals” as they could use batteries or home electricity. The modern portable—a small light radio intended for carrying about—appeared late in the decade as vacuum tube and battery technology improved and allowed smaller components. Smaller tubes also required less power to operate. But growing world tension also contributed to the desire to have radios that could work anywhere. Once war broke out (1939–45) listeners wanted to stay in touch with developments wherever they were, and the little tube-powered radios made that possible.
Four Decades of Zenith’s “Trans-Oceanic”
First introduced in 1942, the Zenith “Trans-Oceanic” receiver was for four decades among the best available portable radios. It’s changing design, transition from tubes to transistors, and from American to overseas manufacture mirrors the larger story of American portable sets. Every model combined several short-wave bands with AM broadcasting, only adding FM capability in the late 1950s. Several companies tried to compete with this leading Zenith receiver, though usually unsuccessfully.
Smaller and Smaller: Post-War Portables
Ease of portability forced designers to concentrate on making receivers as small and light as possible. Consumers saw (and made buying decisions based on) a set’s visible design and price. Few knew how the technical changes inside made such portability possible. Many portables were known as “lunchbox” radios as they were about that size. Others used flip-open covers to protect delicate controls. As radio began to face competition with television in the living room, so that watching became more important than listening, radio’s ease of portability became central to its survival.
Rockin’ Radio: 1950s and 1960s
The first transistor radios—one could easily fit into a shirt pocket—appeared in late 1954. They were marketed just as rock‘n’roll music was taking hold and the combination of take-it-anywhere radio and such performers as Bill Haley and the Comets and then Elvis Presley placed radio in the center of teenage lifestyles. Stations soon promoted their programs to mobile listeners. To suggest their capabilities, receiver makers advertised how many transistors they used in each model, often right on the case, just as radios once touted their number of tubes. In fact, because tiny size was their chief sales pitch, most early “transistors” were difficult to tune and suffered from poor sound quality. Colorful plastic and metal highlights provided a modern look.
Adding FM: 1970s and 1980s
Portable radios began to include the FM channels in the late 1960s as that service became more popular. “Transistor sisters” now went everywhere. But a more substantial change crept into radio as Japanese and other low-cost Asian manufacturers began to provide sets for the American market by the late 1950s. Many initially used tubes or circuits licensed from the U.S., and during the 1960s came to dominate the radio receiver market. By the 1970s, virtually no consumer radios were made in America as all were imported. Quality improved as did the listening experience. Novelty radios—those made to look like something else—became widely popular as well.
Competing Portability: Since 1990
Radio began to share the world of portable audio as consumers were given an expanding variety of devices, among them the Sony “Walkman” that would play music cassettes while on the move. And Sony was but one of the Japanese firms that by this point dominated the consumer electronics market. Sound quality was much improved, batteries lasted longer (some could be recharged), and headphone size was shrinking too. Over the past two decades, the digital revolution has remade radio and recordings alike. Digital technology makes for ever-smaller devices with multiple applications (broadcast radio is now merely one of many) and often surprisingly good sound quality. The ubiquitous iPod keeps users in tune with their music, though rarely with broadcasting signals. They are so tiny that they can be used anywhere—even (horrors!) in a classroom.
FM RADIO: 75 YEARS OF SERVICE (Displayed February–December 2009)
Creating a New System (to 1941)
FM developed as an answer to AM radio’s technical limitations–static interference and poor sound quality. Largely the innovation of a single man—Edwin Howard Armstrong—FM began with his series of experiments at Columbia University in the early 1930s. First publically demonstrated four years later, experimental stations soon (1938–40) demonstrated how much better static-free FM sounded. Pressure built on the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to allocate spectrum for the new radio service. The commission finally approved commercial FM operation, which began in January 1941. Broadcasters and the public showed great interest in the new medium.
War and Change (1941–45)
Wartime priorities froze FM with nearly 50 stations on 40 channels between 42 and 50 MHz, serving about 400,000 receivers. Programming often amounted to just a few hours a day due to a scarcity of equipment, replacement parts, and operators (technical people were often drafted). Broadcasters planned their post-war expansion. In Washington, a complex series of FCC hearings in 1944–45 finally resulted in a May 1945 decision to shift postwar FM broadcasting to 88 to 108 MHz (its present location) to allow expansion to 100 channels while accommodating television. Existing FM receivers were made obsolete, overnight, irritating consumers. This was controversial among FM proponents. FM broadcasting would have to begin anew, new receivers had to be designed, and television was waiting in the wings.
Dismal Years (1945–57)
In 1946–48 new FM stations began to appear on the expanded FM band while existing stations prepared to shift their operations to that same band. But television was expanding at the same time—and soon took up available funds, personnel and time, and interest in FM began to fade. By 1950, FM stations began to go off the air due to small audiences and little advertising revenue. Rural areas usually had no FM stations, and because FM signals did not travel very far, listeners outside urban areas had no FM signals available. In despair over this as well as a dragging patent lawsuit against manufacturer RCA, Armstrong took his own life in early 1954. Few homes used FM sets as there was little reason to—most FM stations “simulcast” what their AM owners were broadcasting. The big networks—NBC, CBS, and Mutual—still focused on AM. A few independent stations in larger cities played background or classical music. Advertisers had no interest. A brief experiment with FM on public transit failed. FM seemed to be on the way out.
By 1958, FM’s fortunes began to turn as more stations took to the air. Interest in high-fidelity sound, the end of television’s initial expansion, and a lack of available AM channels in major markets turned attention back to FM’s potential. Some stations broadcast stereo, with AM used for one channel and FM for the other. The FCC approved multiplex operation in 1955 (allowing stations to send music into stores and offices), and multiplex stereo broadcasting in 1961, so that both stereo channels could be sent out on one signal. Applications for new FM stations rose accordingly, as did receiver sales. Advertisers experimented with touting high-end products for FM’s slowly growing audience. FM was becoming available in automobiles, the most important place for radio listening. In larger cities FM stations often featured folk music and other program formats not available on AM stations.
A Sound Alternative (1966–80)
FM took off from the late 1960s into the 1970s, becoming the fastest-growing broadcast medium. More stations and a growing audience appealed to advertisers who purchased more air time. Despite broadcaster resistance, the FCC pushed through rules requiring FM stations to provide some programs different from those aired on their AM outlets. For the first time, FM gained its own sound as stations experimented with a wide variety of music and talk formats. Educational (soon called public) FM stations also became popular thanks to National Public Radio and other program providers. And thanks to transistor technology, many FM radio receivers were available in all price brackets, including those in cars. While less than 10 percent of cars featured FM in 1965, nearly 80 percent did by 1980.
FM’s total national audience first surpassed that for AM radio in 1979–80; by the mid-1990s, nearly 80 percent of all radio listening was to FM stations. They provided much of radio’s music and a growing amount of its talk programming as well. By the late 1980s, FM dominated local market ratings. Indeed, by that point, FM and radio were one and the same–the total number of FM outlets outnumbered AM by a growing proportion each year. FM station selling prices were up sharply, with new records set every year. Public radio—virtually all FM—was also growing rapidly, adding more than 700 outlets in this period.
Competition in the Air (since 1995)
Look around—somebody nearby is probably listening to an iPod or other MP3 player. Offices and homes are increasingly equipped with satellite radio tuners. Many more people listen to radio online. Though almost universally available by the early 21st century, FM is now just one source of quality sound for music and talk—and over the past decade, that competition has been growing. On the horizon is digital broadcasting (“HD Radio”) which will eventually supersede both AM and FM.
TELEVISION’S ROLE IN PUBLIC AFFAIRS (Displayed September 2008–February 2009)
Dawn of Television
The earliest television signals seen in Washington were crude 30-line pictures transmitted by C. Francis Jenkins from a transmitter near Silver Spring around 1930. He used a largely mechanical system of his own design. After 1935 television development focused on all-electronic systems that provided steadily better pictures—similar to today’s by 1941 when commercial operation began. After a hiatus during the war, television expanded slowly until 1948–the first network “season”–when stations began to air across the country. Coast-to-coast live television service became possible in 1951 by which time a quarter of all homes had a receiver.
Building Television News
Early network and station newscasts were brief (15 minutes was typical), used a static set, and looked something like movie theater newsreels, then still popular. Network evening news expanded to a half hour format only in September 1963. Just two months later, television held the nation together for four days of coverage after President Kennedy’s assassination. Half the nation’s homes tuned to the nightly evening newscasts. The arrival of video tape in 1956 and communication satellites in the next decade greatly extended the capability and reach of television journalists.
We Take You Now To . . .
Television journalism soon demonstrated its ability to take American viewers to far corners of the world. Technology steadily improved, driven by the transistor in the 1950s and the integrated circuit in the 1960s. As computers became more capable yet cheaper, they saw application throughout the television world. Cameras grew smaller, lighter, and eventually portable, while modes of recording became lighter and faster. By the 1970s, communication satellites greatly speeded the flow of news around the world.
Golden Age of Documentaries
Embarrassed by a rigged prime-time quiz show scandal in the late 1950s, the three television networks sought to mollify regulators and please viewers by presenting regularly-scheduled documentaries. In the 1960s, CBS Reports, NBC’s Project 20 and other series offered one-hour programs almost weekly covering a wide variety of topics. Documentaries have largely disappeared from broadcast television because of low ratings as well as competition from cable channels and public television.
Knowing who is watching television (as well as what they are watching, and when) is a matter of more than mere curiosity—it is of vital concern to advertisers. Because of receiver cost, television began as a service in wealthy homes, expanding by the early 1950s into more widespread watching as set prices dropped. Building on radio’s research methods, television ratings were dominated by the Nielsen’s meter system from the beginning. “People Meters” by the 1990s allowed advertisers to know more about who was watching. At the same time, cable, video recorders and the Internet made audience research far more complex.
Politics on the Tube
Television seems made for politics—and vice-versa. From a tentative start in the late 1940s, television’s role in both political advertising and news coverage of primaries, nominations, and general campaigns has expanded so that today it is the single most important—and often most expensive—factor in campaigns for office. Most of us participate in the political process through television. The medium provides our window on elections, from campaign ads, candidate speeches and debates, to watching voting results on sometimes very late election nights.
Television in the Public Interest
Into the late 1970s, broadcast networks and stations had the television audience virtually to themselves. The arrival of the first video cassette recorders in 1975—which allowed viewers to time-shift their watching—and the 1976 decision by HBO and Ted Turner to use domestic satellites to distribute programming—in essence, to create new national networks—began to change that cozy scene. By 1980, new satellite-distributed cable networks were appearing almost monthly, hugely diversifying what TV viewers could watch. Niche news and sports networks—and one devoted to weather—further weakened legacy network program appeal to viewers. The arrival of the public Internet after 1995 further spread the audience across countless news sources.
RADIO’S ROLE IN PUBLIC AFFAIRS (Displayed during 2007)
Radio’s Rise: the 1920s
Regular radio broadcasting began on a handful of stations in 1920–21. By late 1922 there were more than 500 stations on the air, including several here in Washington. Everything had to be created—transmitters and studio equipment, how stations would operate, and the programming they would provide. How to pay expenses was the big question and brought forth many suggestions. Advertising emerged as the accepted means of support by 1926–27, just as Congress created a Federal Radio Commission to license and regulate stations. NBC and then CBS began national networks. Receivers advanced from cumbersome battery-powered devices requiring headphones to plug-in sets with loudspeakers. Programs became units of a half-hour or hour, and soon included comedy, drama, music, and talks. There were few newscasts but many talks and speeches by politicians and other public figures. By 1929 more than a third of all households owned at least one receiver.
Creating Radio News in the 1930s
Radio continued to expand during the Depression. While 45 percent of all homes owned a radio in 1930, 80 percent did by 1939. Once people owned a receiver, listening was free. Stations and the new national networks provided an expanding choice of entertainment programs—and the first regular newscasts. Floyd Gibbons and then Lowell Thomas provided nightly news on NBC beginning in 1930. Special news events—such as elections or disasters—all were covered by radio. Stations in larger markets offered their own occasional news broadcasts. Radio’s growing role as a news medium frightened newspaper publishers, who tried to limit broadcasting’s role in 1933–35 through control of the news agencies on which most stations relied. NBC and CBS began to develop their own news departments.
Radio Goes to War
American radio journalism developed fully during World War II. From Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from London during the 1940 Blitz to the first announcement of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, radio was the first and prime means of informing the home front of the changing battle scene. Listeners turned to radio for breaking wartime news and the amount of news on the air climbed to an all-time high as networks and stations added programs and commentary.
Radio After Television
Radio continued to dominate broadcasting and listener time until 1948 when network television service to the Northeast and Middle West began. By 1951 service reached across the country. Very quickly the national radio networks declined in the face of television competition. By 1955 radio offered little more than news and feature services along with music. Commentary and most other public affairs programs soon disappeared. Only those stations in the biggest cities could retain an active news service—and in the 1960s a few stations began all-news formats. The development of National Public Radio after 1970 helped to keep radio public affairs programming alive for its growing audience.
Broadcaster curiosity—and then advertiser demands—drove research about who was tuning in, what they were listening to, and when they listened. Radio’s audience was poorly understood for the first decade or so, in part because of crude research methods. Commercial research focused on determining which programs were most popular and the first ratings appeared in 1930. Later in the decade, academics began to study radio listening as an important social phenomenon. From the late 1930s to 1950 “Hooperatings” were the Nielsens of their day and determined network programs’ success or failure.
Politics on the Air
Radio was made for politicians. While earlier presidents had used radio, Franklin Roosevelt was the first who was a natural on the air. His “fireside chats” in the 1930s helped inform and reassure a worried America during the Depression. Perhaps only former broadcaster Ronald Reagan, president a half century later, used the medium with as much effect. But radio also appealed to political and social rabble. Senator Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin were two effective radio speakers with strong views in the 1930s. Radio became progressively more important with each national election through 1948.
Radio in the Public Interest
As it became clear that radio would last and grow, the medium began to collect critics. Everybody had their own idea of how radio could best serve, as the Radio Act of 1927 required, “the public interest, convenience or necessity.” Talks, debates, even documentaries were fairly common, though rarely supported by advertisers due to their small audiences. Only under competitive pressure from television after 1950 did radio revert to playing music with only occasional newscasts. Industry consolidation after 1996 turned radio away from such localism to a menu of music, advertising or talk shows, usually conservative.