There is no question that radio changed the world. Today, we take for granted that we not only hear, but see events from all over the globe, very often in real time. We have all watched a football or a baseball game, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day or the Rose Bowl Parade, a presidential inauguration, or the nightly news - all live, all without a second thought as to just how remarkable that is. And when the president gives a speech or a press conference, we are right there. But of course, it wasn’t always so.
During the ‘20s people began gathering around the remarkable new invention of the radio, often coming for miles to listen to news or entertainment, as it was not yet then a common household device. Radio linked the country from coast to coast, bridged the divide in culture and ended the isolation of rural folks.
Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th President (1877 - 1881) may have been the first U.S. president to have his voice recorded, but no evidence of that remains. The earliest example of a recorded speech by any U.S. President is believed to be that of Benjamin Harrison’s address at the 1889 Pan-American Congress. It was captured on an Edison wax cylinder. https://lib.msu.edu/vvl/presidents/harrison
Although William Taft (1909-1913) did not address the public through radio, he did distribute recordings of his speeches, made on a phonograph. by the Victor Talking Machine Company. https://victorrecords.com/william-howard-taft
On November 2, 1920, In the first commercial radio broadcast in American history, station KDKA Pittsburgh broadcast the results of the United States presidential election. Warren G. Harding defeated James Cox to become the 29th president of the United States.
President Harding (1921 - 1923) had a keen interest in technology, and began recording several of his speeches on a phonograph that used wax discs. He was the first President to have a radio installed in the White House. In February of 1922 representatives of the Department of the Navy installed it for him in the second floor library. No amateur set, it had a significant range, allowing him to listen to stations across the continent and even overseas. He tuned in as much as possible whenever he was in the White House.
Harding was the first president to have a radio address broadcast, addressing the nation on May 30, 1922 at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, at which Francis Scott Key was recognized as the composer of the “Star Spangled Banner”. It was heard by 125,000 Americans.
Later that same year, on Christmas Eve, Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s Vice President, and his wife Grace, herself a radio enthusiast, listened in as Mr. Coolidge gave a pre-recorded greeting to the American people. President Harding did not give this Christmas greeting himself, likely due to the fact that his wife, Florence, had been seriously ill for weeks.
The speech had been recorded 11 days earlier on a new invention, called the pallophotophone, created by Charles A. Hoxie, a successful engineer with the General Electric Co. This complex, sensitive device used 35mm film to photograph sound waves, later reproducing the photographed sound with perfect clarity. During the recording process, it was noted that Coolidge was somewhat taken aback when he heard his voice, clearly and distinctly, for the first time. Previously, he had heard his voice on poorly made recordings, played on the hand-cranked gramophone. https://coolidgefoundation.org/blog/coolidge-on-the-air-christmas-eve-broadcast-of-1922/
To insure as large an audience as possible, GE had secured three officials from Harding’s Administration. In addition to Vice President Coolidge, Secretary of War John W. Weeks and Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby would address military personnel. Under Hoxie’s watchful eye, the participants’ remarks were carefully recorded on the pallophotophone.
Station WGY was one of the most powerful radio stations in the United States, with a 1,500 watts transmitter and a towering antenna. When conditions were just right, its programs could be heard throughout the country, in Alaska, and occasionally even in Europe. Hoping to achieve a long-distance record with the Christmas Eve broadcast, GE requested that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ask its Hawaiian readers to notify the company if they received WGY’s signal, and European listeners were encouraged to cable WGY if they received the broadcast, with the station happily paying the charges.
The recorded speeches of Coolidge and the two Secretaries were broadcast twice; first at 7:30 PM (EST) and then again at 10:30 PM. The first was intended for radio listeners in the Eastern States, the second, for those in the Western States. A musical performance preceded the addresses and again during the interval between the broadcasts.
The New York Times later reported that “The voices of Mr. Coolidge, Mr. Weeks and Mr. Denby came through the air with little extraneous sound. They were so distinct that slight pauses…were recorded. Even an inhalation seemed to register, so delicate was the instrument….[The musical program was] heard as clearly as if it were in the next room…” In fact, the Times’s radio operator at first refused to believe that the broadcast was coming from WGY, which was about 100 miles from New York City.
Mr. Coolidge had previously spoken on the radio on low wattage stations with limited broadcast range. Due to GE and WGY, he would now have an opportunity to address his fellow citizens from coast to coast.
Charles A. Hoxie continued to experiment with his pallophotophone and in a few years, its technology made “talking pictures” possible.
One year later, on December 6, 1923, Calvin Coolidge delivered his first major address as President of the United States, the first president to directly address the American people. His words were broadcast over a nationwide radio hook-up and was heard by millions. Speaking directly to the American people, he introduced himself and his political program. As President, Coolidge made extensive use of the new medium of radio, with most of his major addresses being broadcasts. He also put in place the Federal radio regulatory scheme, embodied in the Federal Radio Act of 1927, still mostly in place today.
President Coolidge signed into law the Radio Act of 1927 on February 23rd, which required broadcasters to offer political candidates who request it equal time to air their views. A related provision required broadcasters to offer time to candidates at the same rate as their “most favored advertiser.”
Bipartisan legislation set up a five-person Federal Radio Commission, charged with regulating the use of the airwaves “as the public interest, convenience, or necessity” required. The commission had the power to revoke licenses and levy fines for violations of the act but lacked any censorship powers, although “obscene, indecent, or profane language” was barred.
Until the commission, Herbert Hoover, as Commerce secretary and future president (1929-1933) played a major role in shaping radio. His powers, however, were limited by the federal courts. He wasn’t allowed to deny a broadcasting license to anyone who wanted one. Hoover was an engineer and his background of developing regulations for the mining industry was helpful. “He was very much interested in standardization, how you could make sure things worked, and worked properly,” He made great contributions to broadcasting. The Hoover Radio Conferences, in 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1925 established the basic principles on which the American system of free broadcasting was built.
Iowa Broadcast News Association https://ibna.org/2020/12/20/documentary-details-president-hoover-and-radio-history/
There is a documentary on Hoover’s contributions to broadcasting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZb-XAftN-U&t=7s
Probably the radio addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) are the most well known of any Presidential broadcasts. His “fireside chats”, a term coined by journalist Robert Trout, were regular updates to the American public, delivered frequently during the Great Depression. His first radio address was delivered on March 12, 1933. Ninety percent of American households owned at least one radio by then, making the radio addresses widely accessible. Roosevelt’s purpose was “to ease fears and to inspire confidence in his leadership.”
Roosevelt also delivered his Fireside Chats during World War II in an effort to offer justification regarding America’s involvement in the conflict. The addresses were effective in building popularity for his administration.
Could Harry Truman (1945-1953), Roosevelt’s successor, hold this audience? In the language of show business, Franklin Roosevelt was a hard act to follow. But Truman proved himself to be a radio speaker who meant to be clearly understood, with a deliberate manner who spoke so slowly it was sometimes exasperating. He made a virtue out of making himself plain - making it easy to believe what he said.
Truman’s radio coach was James Leonard Reinsch, managing director of the James M. Cox radio stations in Dayton, Atlanta and Miami. Picked by the Democratic National Committee to handle its radio activities, Reinsch coached Truman during and after the campaign. Before he started working on him, Reinsch said Truman talked like a machine gun. Afterwards, the President tended to chant carefully enunciated phrases by syllables—all with his pronounced Missouri accent.
The “Golden Age of Radio” passed. Dwight Eisenhower became the first president to allow TV cameras in the White House and in 1961 John F. Kennedy one-upped his predecessor by agreeing to have a press conference broadcast live, including a question and answer session with reporters.
The first official White House website was created in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s administration and in 1994, Bill Clinton became the first president to send an email over the Internet while in office.
And then came Twitter...