THE RHODE ISLAND CENTURY: 1920-1930 Radio days began in Roaring Twenties
KEN MINGIS Journal Staff Writer, Povidence Journal, April 25, 1999
At first, about the only thing radio offered the Roaring Twenties was the roar of static.
That began to change as stations across the nation began broadcasting. Among the early arrivals: two radio stations in Rhode Island, WEAN and WJAR, both of which went on the air within months of each other in 1922.
Among the first thing they did was advertise radios for local department stores, according to Linda Eppich, chief curator at the Rhode Island Historical Society.
The premise was simple: If you want to sell radios, give people something to listen to.
"These three stations, including WPRO (which opened in 1926) were owned by retail stores who bought them for the sole purpose of selling the new radios," Eppich said.
Within a few years, radio was sweeping the nation, offering people an even more immediate connection with the rest of the world than they could get from movies or reading a newspaper.
In Hollywood, film studios cranked out silent movies and a star named Rudolph Valentino emerged as the Leo DiCaprio of the day.
Telephones were appearing in most every household, but as the decade began, only a handful of people in America had a radio, and it was usually a primitive crystal-tuned affair that required headphones and a lot of patience. By the time Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in May 1927, radio was a staple of the American news diet, and was rapidly becoming more than an ad venue for local stores.
Stations by then were broadcasting live music, although they would not be allowed to play recorded music until the mid-30s (at the instigation of a young crooner named Bing Crosby). And they were fighting each other to be the first with news headlines and updates.
From the start, Eppich said, Rhode Island was among the leaders in embracing the technology. "For a small state we had so many stations early," Eppich said. "We think of New Jersey and New York being the biggest, and here's a state that had less than half a million people in 1922 and we had four stations."
As the decade rolled on, Rhode Islanders found more powerful radios on store shelves, Eppich said, including a line of radios made by the Royal Radio Company, in Providence. It was called a "Polle Royal."
To listen in, you had to plug in earphones, and it helped to live close to the station, which was often set up in quarters on top of the department store that financed it, Eppich said.
"They really were primitive conditions, with WPRO putting a Quonset hut on top of Cherry & Webb," she said. "WEAN was owned by the Shepard Company and WJAR was owned by the Outlet." (In the early days, WPRO actually shared a frequency with another station, WPAW, Eppich said. "It probably didn't reach past Benefit Street. You couldn't really call it a commercial broadcast." WPRO finally went out on its own in 1931.)
Then came the networks, with WJAR the first to join up. After only a year or so in operation, it became a network affiliate of NBC.
That move, mirrored elsewhere in the nation, would lead to the explosion in radio broadcasting that took place in the 1930s, when radio boosted the popularity of Big Band music and allowed a man few people had heard of in 1929 to make the medium his own with what would be known as Fireside Chats.