This guest post by Stuart Smolkin, curator of the Asheville Radio Museum, is the third post in a series on the history of communication technologies in Asheville & WNC, from telegraphs to the Internet. Revisit earlier posts about the telegraph and the early days of telephones, and stay tuned for future installments!
For a moment, close your eyes and imagine yourself living in 1920s, mostly rural, Western North Carolina. Your family and neighbors may do a good job of entertaining themselves by making music, going to church socials and the occasional square dance; however other entertainment and news sources are few. Movie theaters are scarce. The concept of television is only a glimmer to a scant handful of inventors and scientists at the start of that decade. Local, national, and international news is almost exclusively distributed by newspapers.
Then, the miracle of radio broadcasting comes to Asheville! It delivers to your ears, for the very first time, an ever-expanding array of musical performances, news, church services, educational and public affairs talk, sporting events and entertainment previously witnessed only in the theater or from the vaudeville stage. Now, it is possibly all yours, in your own home, by twisting a few dials.
The boost in public awareness of both local and national events at that time may have had a greater societal impact than even the deployment of the Internet in the 1990s.
So, how did radio come to Asheville, and what did it mean to city dwellers and farmers here in the Land of Sky?
First, a Little History
When radio first started, it was used for sending Morse code messages from point A to point B (much like sending a telegram by wires). This was done by generating sparks that produced radio waves. However, as early as 1906/07, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian professor and scientist, had demonstrated that voice and music could be “broadcast” and received by anyone with proper equipment.
Other inventors would conduct intermittent experimental audio broadcasts during the next ten years, but none had a practical way of generating a relatively powerful radio frequency signal that could be practically modified (“modulated”) to include voice and music. That would not become possible until scientists succeeded in a radical technical refinement of the three-element “triode” vacuum tube announced by Lee de Forest, an American inventor, in 1906.
By 1919, radio amateurs were experimenting with these power vacuum tubes to upgrade their pre-war spark transmitters. Then, in 1920, a radio engineer at Westinghouse, while testing equipment on weekends by transmitting music, discovered he had accidently developed an audience of amateur radio operators (“hams”) who heard and liked his broadcasts. He mentioned this to a Westinghouse executive, who quickly realized that the company could sell more radios if there was more interesting content for listeners to hear.
The executive persuaded Westinghouse to start KDKA, the first licensed commercial broadcasting station in the US. Although KDKA was located in Pittsburgh, its broadcasts could be heard under the right conditions by radios in homes hundreds of miles distant—including Asheville.
As word spread about KDKA, nationwide interest quickly started to grow (Asheville Citizen, October 12, 1922). By March 1923, 556 broadcasting stations were operating around the country (Thomas White, “Building the Broadcast Band”).
Many of these stations picked call signs representative of their backers. For example, Sears Roebuck chose WLS, meaning “world’s largest store.” The Grand Ole Opry station chose WSM for “we support millions,” the slogan of its sponsor (the National Life and Accident Insurance Company).
Asheville Discovers Radio… And Gets Its Own First Station
So, what about Asheville? The popularity of radio was spreading like wildfire. Local interest was fueled by advertising in popular national magazines and mentions in the Asheville Times and Citizen newspapers.
Magazine covers, 1920-1923. Selection via Robert Lozier, presentation to Asheville Radio Museum, 2021. (Click images to enlarge)
Could Asheville support a radio station? Was anyone willing to try?
Yes indeed! The Asheville Citizen newspaper launched Asheville’s first radio station, WFAJ, in late 1922, promoting itself as “The First Paper to Promote Radio in Tarheelia” (Asheville Citizen, September 10, 1922).
Although a low power station (likely 100 to 250 watts), its signal could be heard not only in Western North Carolina but even as far away as Ottawa, Canada—around one thousand miles away! (Asheville Citizen, September 17, 1922)
Postcard from WWNC to a listener in Connecticut (roughly 800 miles distant) who heard a 1927 WWNC test broadcast. Asheville Radio Museum. (Click images to enlarge)
While initially broadcasting only three days a week for up to two hours, listener demand was so great that, after only a few weeks of operation, WFAJ had to hire a full-time music program scheduler to recruit and promote the many talented local musicians to perform on the radio—bluegrass, gospel, classical and more (Asheville Citizen, October 22, 1922).
The Citizen took great pride in its radio station, commenting in article that “Radio broadcasts have come to stay… PROGRAMS BY RADIO TO BE PERMANENT. [The] Public Has Realized Value of Quality Concerts, Stock Reports Being Broadcasted. Broadcasting has become a public necessity . . . [like] the telephone, telegraph, electric lights and moving pictures” (Asheville Citizen, October 18, 1922).
While not mentioned explicitly in the article, it appears that local residents took pride that Asheville was now big and sophisticated enough to have its own commercial radio station. Like the “new” opera house that opened in 1890, the radio station helped residents think of Asheville as urban, cosmopolitan, and cultured.
The newspaper even started running a page regularly devoted to radio news and advertising, including daily schedules of programs being broadcast, with this eye-catching banner used at the top of the page:
The Citizen referred to its station as “Radiophone Broadcasting Station.” So… what’s a radiophone? Today, it is what we call a radio. Back then, it was called a radiophone because it could broadcast voice and music, much like a telephone could do. Early radio could send only Morse code dots and dashes, and was called “the wireless” because, unlike a telegraph, it did not require wires.
While the Citizen saw itself as a newspaper big on promoting all things local, sponsoring this station was expensive. Like many early broadcasters, they were not successful in creating a direct revenue stream. Their station was operated by the Hi-Grade Wireless Instrument Co. Asheville. This company went out of business in mid-1923, probably because they had been warned that the radios they were building were violating patents controlled by the Radio Corporation of America, which, at the time, was a virtual monopoly. The broadcasting license for the Citizen station was in fact held by Hi-Grade and was abandoned.
Asheville Battery Company Joins In
The Asheville Battery Company, which had become a distributor for Atwater Kent radios, took note of WFAJ’s initial success. About two years later, it started a low power (10 or 20 watt) station of its own. Predictably, it chose WABC as its call sign.
WABC started in a small back room and began broadcasting a popular weekly program called Gosh and his Gang (more on Mr. Gosh, aka G.O. Shepherd, later).
In a special 1927 event, the company once operated a sound truck, equipped with an Atwater Kent brand radio receiver and several loudspeakers mounted on the top of the truck. Their purpose was to “broadcast live” a heavyweight prize fight to a gathering of people at Battery Park Place in Asheville (and to promote their sale of Atwater Kent radios). No doubt the crowd was delighted!
Even with such strong local interest, WFAJ and WABC did not have deep enough pockets to sustain their operations. Both ceased after a few years. The call sign WABC was eventually reassigned to the key station of the Columbia Broadcasting Company (known to us today as the Columbia Broadcasting System—CBS).
The Chamber of Commerce Rescues Local Radio Broadcasting
Nationwide, the public demand for radio in the home was expanding at a frantic rate. In the minds of leadership of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, the failure of WFAJ and WABC should not spell the end of radio broadcasting in Asheville.
In the fall of 1926, the Chamber appointed a special Radio Committee to purchase and erect a radio transmitter and related equipment. The Committee raised the equivalent of a half million dollars in today’s money to fund construction and operation. They purchased a 1,000-Watt Western Electric transmitter which was made redundant by combining two Nashville, Tenn. broadcast businesses operating under the license of WSM (WSM had a more powerful transmitter.) The outfit was dismantled and shipped to Asheville, and antenna towers were erected on top of the Flatiron Building.
The new station became WWNC (“Wonderful Western North Carolina”). WWNC became Asheville’s first sustained radio station and is still in operation today at 570 kHz on the AM radio band.
On Sunday, February 20, 1927, the Asheville Citizen gave extensive coverage to the grand opening events planned for WWNC’s first official broadcast the next day. It was a grand, star-studded affair. Performers included singer George Hartrick, Horace Seeley, J. Foster Barnes, Arthur Wenige, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and others (Asheville Citizen, February 20, 1927). Some are pictured in the photomontage below.
Further coverage in the Citizen is seen the morning after WWNC made its initial broadcast, proclaiming “WWNC Flashes City’s Greetings Over Continent” (Asheville Citizen, February 22, 1927).
Due to Asheville’s high elevation, WWNC’s signal could be heard far away. During its first 12 months it received more than 16,000 written comments and thousands of telephone calls on its programs, as mentioned in this 1928 first anniversary resume. These letters came from 48 states, every province but one in Canada, as well as Cuba, Central America, Mexico, Panama Canal Zone and ships at sea. Creating much civic pride for Asheville, a 1929 news article mentions that “WWNC is rated one of the best stations in the US” (Asheville Citizen, October 27, 1929).
Turning an Empty Oatmeal Box into a One Person Radio
So, what kind of radio could poor rural folks first use here in Western North Carolina? The early ones, called crystal radios, were inexpensive and easy to build using plans published by the U. S. Bureau of Standards in its Circular 120, published in April, 1922.
All it took was an empty oatmeal box, a handful of wire, earphones and a few other parts from the local hardware store connected to a long antenna wire strung outside. You can read more about it in this Tennessee State Museum article “When One Dollar and Two Empty Oatmeal Boxes Got You a Radio.”
When radio began to take hold in the United States, Quaker Oats gave out more than a million crystal radio sets meant to be affixed to the top of old Quaker containers (Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford, Cerealizing America, page 76).
Letting the Whole Family Listen
Families with the financial means could also purchase radios that used the recently perfected invention called the “vacuum tube.” While only one person could listen to a crystal radio’s earphones, a vacuum tube radio could amplify the signal, making it strong enough to drive a loudspeaker so that the entire family could listen. And, speakers were improving in quality, meaning that Asheville’s growing number of more sophisticated residents could now listen with greater clarity and fidelity to broadcasts of organ music, orchestral music and beautiful local choirs.
These vacuum tube radios, when first offered, cost as much as a thousand dollars or more (in today’s money). However, like big screen TVs in our times, they became much more affordable due to the start of mass production and increased competition.
Some early ones—so called “breadboard radios”—looked like a science experiment. Using them was not for the faint of heart! They typically required three different types of batteries, a separate speaker, a wire connected to the earth (“ground wire”), plus a very long outside wire antenna (and lightning arrestor).
Like later 1920s radios in cabinets, they had not just one tuning dial to adjust, but three! This type of early model is called a Tuned Radio Frequency (TRF) radio, because each of the three circuits processing the radio frequency signal has to be tuned separately.
The style of radio cabinet in the preceding photo is called a “coffin” because of the way the lid opens. By 1930 and into 1933, new vacuum tubes requiring less power made it possible to build table-top versions. In the 1960s radio collectors began to call them “tombstone” or “cathedral” radios because their shape was similar.
An Annual Radio Show to Meet Growing Consumer Demand
The demand for radios in Asheville was so strong by the late 1920s that an annual Asheville Radio Show was held in 1928 and for several years thereafter (Asheville Citizen, February 19, 1928). The man in charge that first year was G.O. Shepherd, then the Director at station WWNC (and the former host of the popular Gosh and his Gang radio show on WABC). The show was attended each year by thousands eager to see and purchase the latest radio technology that had become available, housed in beautiful table and console cabinets.
Note: The prices shown in the ads below are in 1928 dollars. A hundred dollars in 1928 would be about $1,800 in 2023. In other words, these radios were not inexpensive! Even so, around eight million radios were sold in the United States in the 1920s.
Asheville’s Only 1920s Radio Maker
So, were any vacuum tube radios ever actually built in Asheville? Yes! In the early 1920s, entrepreneurs started the Hi Grade Wireless Instrument company to make and sell radios. According to this 1922 advertisement, they also operated station WFAJ on behalf of the Asheville Citizen newspaper:
Only two Hi-Grade radios are known to still exist today. One is in the Asheville Radio Museum at A-B Tech, donated by Mr. Robert Lozier (whose research was used in much of this story). The radios were built by John Rambau (operator of WFAJ) and possibly George Stevens in rooms rented in the Asheville Citizen building. The walnut cabinets were made by Dolph Blankenship on Brevard Road in West Asheville.
While Hi-Grade was the only local radio manufacturer, it did face stiff competition from local retailers selling radios made by national radio manufacturing companies. Hardware stores, department stores and even drugstores all wanted a piece of the action selling these products.
Growing Availability of Radio Stations Heard in Asheville
When conditions were right, Asheville listeners could hear broadcasts from hundreds or thousands of miles away. A handful of other early stations ranging outward from Asheville could be heard “every night.” Among these were Atlanta, Chicago, College Park, Detroit, Louisville, Memphis, Newark, and St. Louis.
Some listeners even made it a hobby to send in reception reports to stations for which they were rewarded with so-called Verified Reception stamps, to be displayed in a special album sold by shops.
The Impact of Radio in Rural Western North Carolina
Here are some of the many ways that radio improved lives for folks in Western North Carolina:
- It opened the world to them. Early radios were capable of not only receiving U. S. broadcasts, but also those from many countries overseas. This became especially important in the late 1930s and the 1940s during World War II.
- It made locals begin to think of themselves more as Americans rather than just as proud residents of the county where they lived. This is because they could now hear more news about what was happening all over America as well as hearing speeches by national politicians and elected officials.
- It brought an unimaginable amount of family entertainment to folks whose main option before was finding ways to entertain themselves. Now, they could hear a wide variety of music, listen to comedy and drama shows as well as sporting events—even bedtime stories for the kids!
- One of the most popular shows was The Farm and Home Hour, started at station KDKA. It became available nationwide because, in 1927, the Columbia Broadcasting Network was formed, sharing content with members of the network nationwide (including WWNC). By coincidence, the son of the founder of the Farm and Home Hour lives right here in Asheville today!
- In rural areas it could help bring hard working folks together. A family with a radio could put it on the porch and invite over neighboring farmers for an evening social. Since the radio was often operated by a large battery (like one in a truck or tractor), the sponsoring farmer might park his truck at the top of the hill, so Monday morning he could put the battery back in the truck, turn the ignition to ON, push in the clutch, release the brake to begin rolling down the hill, drop the clutch to crank the engine and thus begin to recharge the battery!
The radio program information in the photo below shows the amazing variety of information available, including classical and many forms of popular music, drama comedy, news and more. It illustrates WWNC’s attempt to appeal to a broad range of listeners, giving them what most appealed and tempting them to listen to other possibilities.
Much of this was made possible by the creation of network broadcast companies, such as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) started in 1926 by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a conglomerate formed by General Electric, Westinghouse and American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T).
WWNC was a member of this network, which helped develop radio programming content and make it available to all member stations. NBC still exists today, as does the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), a competing network formed in 1928.
Special Benefits of Radio for Farmers
The individuals, families and social gatherings that composed the listening audience were not the only ones to benefit. The value of radio to farmers was detailed as early as 1922 in the newspaper (Asheville Citizen, October 20, 1922).
For their own special reasons, farmers might want radio shows prepared for and directed to them:
- Advance weather reports. A weather report on the radio could give enough advance notice that it might be possible to bring in a crop before bad weather ruined it.
- Daily pricing reports. A farmer located near a railhead (or a local market) could try to sell his produce and livestock on days when prices were highest.
- Education to earn a better living. The U.S. Department of Commerce began offering a “college for farmers” via weekly radio broadcasts. It taught such things as how to increase crop yield using fertilizer and how to prevent livestock from getting sick (or treating them if they did). The broadcasts included helpful information for women folk as well (preparing and preserving food, for example).
Did You Know…Television Also Uses Radio Waves!
Practical black and white television did not become available to most folks until the late 1940s, but experimental TV broadcasting began as early as 1927. As early as 1931, such a rudimentary television system was said to have been demonstrated at the Asheville Radio Show (Asheville Times, September 23, 1931).
Two types of radio waves were used for television. The black and white picture information was sent using a method called Amplitude Modulation (AM), the same as used for radio broadcasts at the time. The audio signal was sent using the method called Frequency Modulation (FM), which provides the static free sound heard on the FM radios commonly used today.
While television was certainly a development interesting to the technical minded 1920s radio fan, it was far too primitive to provide appealing or useful visual entertainment. If television programming to succeed broadly and commercially, it was going to have to measure up to what people could see in movie theaters.
But that is another story, for another time.
The Asheville Radio Museum has an extensive collection of early newspaper articles and other materials such as those seen here on its website (avlradiomuseum.org). In the main menu at the top of the screen, choose Topics. Then choose one of the several topics from the submenu (e. g., vintage home radio, WWNC, farm radio, Asheville early radio).
You can also view and hear early radios on display in the Asheville Radio Museum, located on the A-B Tech campus in room 315 of the Elm Building. The museum is open on Saturdays from 1-3 PM, February through November. Tours at other times can be scheduled for small groups.
Guest post by Stuart Smolkin, Curator, Asheville Radio Museum
The author wishes to thank historian David Whisnant for his Asheville Junction blog post, and vintage radio expert Robert Lozier, for allowing their research to be incorporated into this story, and for their friendship and guidance in the development of the information above.