Certainly if you were in Wheeling, WV or Parkersburg, WV that night you could have received it. Even as far out as Zanesville, OH or Gallipolis, OH, if you had a crystal radio set, you could have picked up the very first commercial radio broadcast from Pittsburgh station KDKA on November 2, 1920. With a power output of 100 watts on a wavelength of 360 meters, the transmitter’s signals could reach homes several hundred miles away.
“Will anyone hearing this broadcast please communicate with us,” Leo Rosenburg requested, “as we are anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received.”
KDKA’s broadcast that night featured the Harding-Cox Presidential election returns, and occasional music, from 6 p.m. election night to noon the following day. From a wooden shack atop the Westinghouse Company’s East Pittsburgh plant, five men entertained their unseen audience for eighteen hours. Donald G. Little served as chief engineer, while R. S. McClelland and John Frazier handled telephone lines from the old Pittsburgh Post newsroom where the returns were received. William Thomas served as station operator and Rosenburg acted as announcer throughout that stormy night.
The power of radio was proven when people could hear the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race before they read about it in the newspaper.
KDKA grew out of the hobby of Frank Conrad, an assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse. Conrad was a modest man with a modest education. He didn’t have a degree from a prestigious university. He didn’t have a degree at all – (except an honorary Doctorate that he received later in life from the University of Pittsburgh). Conrad didn’t even have a high school diploma – but he did have a genius for radio.
In 1916, Conrad registered his amateur radio station, 8XK. The station was not an ordinary amateur station-the ‘X’ indicated a special experimental license-any more than Conrad was an ordinary amateur. Conrad, through 8XK, was in touch with other engineers who were seeking to use radio to synchronize timepieces and their accuracy, and thus he required the ability to receive the Naval Observatory radio station.
While most of the nation’s amateurs were forced to cease operations for the duration of World War I, Westinghouse was issued special licenses 2WM and 2WE and continued experimental radiotelephone work for the military throughout the war. Two stations were designed, equipped, and operated during the war. One was located near Westinghouse’s plant in East Pittsburgh, and the other at Conrad’s home.
Almost as soon as he was permitted to do so after the war, Conrad went back on the air. 8XK was relicensed as a ‘special land station’ sometime between June 15 and August 1, 1919.
On October 17, 1919, Conrad delighted hams in his network by substituting a phonograph record for their usual conversation about wireless equipment. In response to the flood of requests for particular musical selections, Conrad was forced to announce that instead of complying with individual requests, he would broadcast records for two hours each Wednesday and Saturday evening.
This twice-a-week program schedule was continued with live vocal and instrumental talent provided from time to time by Conrad’s two young sons, Crawford and Francis, who acted as announcers and played the piano. The other program material was largely phonograph records, although there were some talks as well as baseball and football scores.
Conrad’s popularity grew, and it wasn’t long before he had the interest of a local music store, and was borrowing records from them in exchange for an advertisement. That was probably the first radio advertisement on the air, and it was probably the beginning of what we think of today as commercial radio.
When Westinghouse picked up on the popularity of Conrad’s idea, they decided to create KDKA—it was licensed October 27, 1920 by the United States Commerce Department specifically for commercial broadcasting. Westinghouse, one of the leading radio manufacturers, used the station as a way to get more radios into people’s homes. Keep in mind that alternating current tubes, making possible the all-electric receiver for the home, were not introduced until 1925. The early days of crystal radio required earphones.
KDKA offered a semi-weekly broadcast from November 2, 1920, to December 1, 1920. The station’s great success led Westinghouse to increase its power output by 10-fold within one year. By the end of 1923, KDKA was heard regularly all over the United States as well as some parts of Europe, South America and the Hawaiian Islands. In four years there were 600 commercial stations around the country.
Broadcasting’s Oldest Stations: An Examination of Four Claimants, by Joseph E. Baudino and John M. Kittross
Journal Of Broadcasting, Winter, 1977, pp. 61-82