New distances, new demands

"A Farm Family Listening to Their Radio," 1926. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

Once Fessenden’s initial broadcasts proved that sound could be transmitted via radio, technology advanced quickly—as did demand. The initial voice transmissions were often erratic and weak, and Fessenden couldn’t find buyers for his new technology. Spurred by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, he moved on to a more lucrative business in inventing iceberg-detecting technology. Other scientists were fast to pick up where he left off, however.

By 1907, scientists had successfully amplified radio signals. FM (frequency modulation) broadcasts came along more than a decade later, providing a clearer signal than AM (amplitude modulation) stations (though RCA, then in the early stages of developing the television set, kept FM technology to the back burner until the 1940s).

With clearer signals that spanned longer distances came a demand from the public for new radio programming. The first entertainment broadcasts appeared in the 1910s, coinciding with the development and commercialization of the phonograph. Now, people could hear music on the radio and then buy recordings of it for their at-home phonographs, as they would do with their record players in the 1950s. Formal newscasts began a decade later. By the 1920s, America entered what came to be known as the "Golden Age of Radio," which spanned until the 1950s and the advent of the at-home TV set. It was a time when many television genres we enjoy today found their start as radio staples: soap operas, game shows, variety acts, and mysteries. Millions of Americans tuned in.