Introduction

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"Charlie Lingar (coal miner) and his son listen to their battery radio," 1946. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. 

Connecting the country

Radio signaled a major shift in how Americans communicated. Once radios became widespread and affordable, they connected people in ways never before possible. By the 1920s, a few decades after Marconi’s first broadcast, half of urban families owned a radio. More than six million stations had been built. The numbers increased rapidly—by 1940, families were listening to their radios for more than four hours each day.

Radio quickly became a way for American families to stay connected and receive news. This was particularly useful for Americans living in rural areas, which, during the radio's Golden Age, was about half of the country’s population. Before the radio, these isolated towns and families were slow to get the latest news or entertainment. Now, thanks to the radio, they were part of the larger American news and pop-culture phenomena. Particularly after the FCC changed its policy on the number of and space between radio stations after World War II, construction of new broadcast outlets in rural areas meant small towns were getting their own local stations.

In addition to getting the latest news, in close-to-real time, there quickly became a market for programming geared toward rural families. Though widespread radio features like market reports and weather forecasts had immense importance to farming populations, broadcasters quickly incorporated more agriculturally focused programs. Some were local, like farming lectures broadcast from land grant colleges. Others had a broader audience, like NBC's "National Farm and Home Hour." Even the music aimed at this audience was different—networks began incorporating more folk and “barn dance” programs into their lineups, a break from more urban-focused pop acts.

While radio equipment and programming provided for a growing American market, there were still barriers for many. Especially during the Great Depression, purchasing a radio was a big investment. While the radio itself might have brought news and pop culture to rural Americans, those who couldn’t afford the price tag of a new set remained unconnected.