Broadcasting grew rapidly between 1920-1926, the radio news early years. The news focus at the time was mainly special events and sports. Newspapers tried to block regular newscasts.
Real radio broadcasting began in 1920 in Pittsburgh and Detroit. In August, the Detroit Times started WWJ. Westinghouse followed suit with KDKA in Pittsburgh that November. Radio news early years was marked by “special events” programming. The inaugural program at WWJ was local, state and national primary election results. A few months later, KDKA signed on with presidential election returns. Beyond special events, stations carried irregular flash bulletins about “transcendental events.”
Next to election results was sports. WWJ provided World Series results in October, 1920. One year later, KDKA went a step further with the first play-by-play broadcast as the Giants played the Yankees in an all New York World Series. In 1924, WGN Chicago signed on with a broadcast of the Indianapolis Speedway classic, followed a year later by a live Kentucky Derby in 1925. You get the idea. Within five years, virtually all professional sports were on the radio.
Beyond special events and sports, radio news early years featured some regular news headlines provided by local newspapers. The first regular newscast came from a newspaper-owned radio station in Nebraska. A microphone was placed in the newsroom of the Norfolk Daily News to provide a news program at 12:15 p.m. each day.
Notwithstanding these early activities, no one really saw radio as a serious outlet for news. That belonged to newspapers, who used their cooperative Associated Press to severely limit how much news would get on the radio. Few saw news as a regular radio program, just something to fill in between entertainment. Radio stations were generally involved with cross promoting the interest of their owners. Typically, these owners were radio set manufacturers, newspapers and department stores, as well as the occasional university.
However, 1920-1926 was a period of enormous growth. Licensed broadcast stations went from none to more than a thousand.
Radio News Early Years – Outside the United States
By the mid 1920’s, radio broadcasting had taken hold everywhere. The British Broadcasting Company began operations in 1922. It broadcast election results on its second day.
However, BBC was prevented from broadcasting news unless purchased from press news agencies. Since BBC was young and had limited funds, it could not set up its own news service. And it was only able to broadcast news in the evening, after the newspapers had been published and delivered. Unlike the United States, newspapers used the radio regulator – the Post Office – to limit news on radio.
There are fascinating stories about BBC early broadcasts of sporting events without commentary. For example in the mid-1920’s BBC was allowed to place microphones at the Derby so listeners could hear the horse race. They were not allowed to provide commentary. So, listeners heard the race live, but they did not know the results until after they were published in the newspaper that evening. (Really, I am not making this up!)
However, the 1926 General Strike gave BBC its big news break. During the strike, newspaper publishing stopped. Restrictions were temporarily set aside and BBC stepped in with impartial news bulletins. At this time, BBC did its first serious efforts at news gathering and independent news broadcasting. Radio became the only source of information. Following the strike, the status quo returned and continued until 1939. You might enjoy this video about early BBC broadcasting.
During the 1920-1926 period, news was less than 1% of radio programming. All of that was about to change.