One Hundred Years Ago, Cincinnati Radio Was Still Getting Its Act Together

The trials and tribulations of broadcasting’s early days.
In 1924, three Cincinnati radio stations had to share a single frequency and negotiate an equal division of airtime, but it took federal intervention to make peace among the broadcasters.

Cincinnati Enquirer 8 June 1924, Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

New technologies consistently discombobulate the social order. So it was when some canny entrepreneurs began exploring the potential of this new-fangled sensation called radio. The electronic medium was so shockingly different from anything that came before, many graybeards announced radio was only a transient mania. The Cincinnati Post [6 March 1924] objected:

“In spite of current rumors that public enthusiasm over the radio is a ‘passing fad’ and is due for a slump, several electrical authorities who contributed to a survey of the sales for 1923 and to estimate the probable sales for 1924 reported that the sales this year are due to climb another $120,000,000.”

An editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer [20 July 1924] hailed the growing commercialization of radio and predicted only amazing improvements ahead:

“With new ideas, new apparatus and new experimenters appearing in the radio field each day, radio is entering the greatest year of its development.”

Despite such optimism, the situation on the airwaves suggested that radio had yet to get its act together. Even though Cincinnati’s newspapers devoted page after page to coverage of this emerging phenomenon – the Enquirer printed a 12-page radio section every Sunday throughout 1924 – getting access to radio was still something of a challenge.

Cincinnati’s Crosley Corporation offered bargain-basement radio sets for the low, low price of $10, but that still equates to $200 in today’s money. Top-of-the-line Wurlitzer sets, at $180 in 1924, would cost more than $3,000 today. Throughout the year, almost every issue of every Cincinnati newspaper printed wiring diagrams so readers could build their own crystal sets.

All of this excitement was occurring at a time when Cincinnati had only two part-time radio stations: WLW, owned by the Crosley Corporation, and WSAI, owned by U.S. Playing Cards in Norwood. Both of those stations broadcast on the same frequency, 309 meters (equivalent to 970 kilohertz).

On a typical day, WLW broadcast from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., then turned the airwaves over to WSAI from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., then WLW returned to the air until about midnight. The federal government back then assigned frequencies to cities, not to individual stations. All stations in each city had to share that city’s frequency.

With radio frequencies assigned to cities rather than stations, Cincinnati listeners could easily pull in stations from across the country.

From Cincinnati Enquirer 13 April 1924. Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In effect, every radio station was a clear-channel operation because no other stations operated on that frequency. Consequently, as listeners rotated their dials, they could enjoy broadcasts from throughout the continental United States. Cincinnati newspapers published radio schedules from New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles and other cities.

All was well until the end of May that year when a third radio station, WFBW (predecessor to WKRC), began broadcasting from the Hotel Alms on the assigned Cincinnati frequency. Since WLW and WSAI had mutually agreed to schedule around each other, there was little airtime left to allocate to this upstart. Negotiations went nowhere. Powel Crosley was unwilling to give up a single minute of his airtime. The dispute, dubbed “Battle of the Air” by the local press, was finally resolved when the feds reassigned WLW to the 423 meter (708 kilohertz) frequency. WLW had to share that frequency with WBAV out of Columbus, Ohio.

Another big development from 1924 was a lawsuit. Jerome F. Remick & Co., a New York music publishing company, sued WLW radio because the station broadcast a performance of the song, “Dreamy Melody,” copyrighted by Remick. United States District Judge Smith Hickenlooper dismissed the case in a victory for radio broadcasters. Hickenlooper’s legal logic demonstrates just how disruptive radio, as a new medium, could be. Grasping for any precedent, Judge Hickenlooper noted that player piano rolls do not violate copyright each time they are played. A year later, an appeals court tossed Hickenlooper’s opinion onto the judicial trash heap and the copyright debate dragged on for decades.

Ignoring the legal and administrative haggling, what did Cincinnatians listen to in 1924? The local airwaves carried some surprisingly curious programming back then, although access to radio stations was strictly limited to white folks.

For instance, a heartbeat. On 17 February 1924, Miss Frances C. Jones, employed by WSAI as an accompanist, made radio history by broadcasting the sound of her heart. Next day, the Cincinnati Post was exuberant:

“The heartbeats were audible to listeners all over the country. Persons living thousands of miles from Cincinnati reported the ‘thump-thumps’ were heard on loud speakers.”

A month later, WLW introduced a barking dog named Nana-Hats-Off who accompanied her owner, Dr. Glenn Adams, secretary of the Cincinnati Kennel Club, to promote a dog show at Music Hall.

Cincinnati stations broadcast a lot of talk, and much of it sounds rather soporific. WLW gave Municipal Judge W. Meredith Yeatman a half-hour to expound upon “Automobile and Traffic Ethics.” Bleecher Marquette of the Better Housing League rambled about residential conditions in Cincinnati. Every speech from the annual dinner of the Cincinnati Bankers Club was broadcast in its entirety, no doubt to the delight of the populace. Dr. W.A. McCubbin fulminated for most of an hour on WSAI against fungi and bacteria.

The really popular programs offered an unusual mix of music. There were piano recitals, chimes concerts, vocal sextettes singing “old-fashioned” songs, violin solos, and musical performances from Emery Auditorium and the downtown hotels. The really, really popular broadcasts featured that nascent abomination, jazz. Alfred Segal, longtime Cincinnati Post columnist who, under his penname Cincinnatus, was considered the conscience of the city, expressed his exasperation [13 March 1924]:

“Sometimes Cincinnatus wonders that the pure air does not rebel against the waves of jazz it must carry every night. Sometimes when he tunes in New York or Chicago, only to receive another saxophone blast, Cincinnatus says to himself, ‘Was this wonderful thing invented for this – to disturb the heavens with discord, to defy the stars with the noise of tinpans?’ If Mars is inhabited and if the inhabitants receive our radio concerts, they must often wonder at the nature of the earth-beings who fill the ether with such hideous sounds every night.”

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