“That radical thing”: The Rise and Risibility of Broadcast Reception

“What is the future of the radio business in the United States? Is it to be like the telephone, the automobile, or the phonograph business, a thing that will rise suddenly to almost universal acceptance by the public and support great manufacturing plants?” These aspects of the “Commercial Side of Radio” were mooted back in May 1922, when they were raised in the first issue of Radio Broadcast. Clearly, broadcast reception was not simply a matter of technology. It required the establishment of a new industry devoted to giving receptive audiences something to receive and to making their reception a favorable one. There was room yet for doubt that radio was here to stay and take pride of place in the parlor.

Enter the satirist, ready to poke fun at enthusiasts and skeptics alike. Among those who could not pass up this opportunity was one Harry M. Doty, who, in 1922, wrote and published “Tiddville and the Radio,” a “Rural Comedy in One Act” involving a group of yokels who gather to take in their first radio broadcast, a demonstration—or wireless reception—prepared for them by a young “radio fan.”

As much as Mrs. Simpson, his mother, regrets that “[t]here’s no such thing as getting any work out of him around the house or farm nowadays,” there is some comfort to be gleaned from the possibility that “some day or other he may be a great electrician like Mr. Edison or Mr. Marconi who invented the wireless telephone.”

Those assembled in Mrs. Simpson’s sitting room are representatives of the older generation, folks somewhat behind the times and, whether resisting change or willing to catch up, do not quite know what to make of or do with the newfangled apparatus.

There is uncertainty as to the nature of broadcasting, whether or not the receiver is a telephone capable of transmitting the voices of the audience. “Why,” exclaims one concerned listener, “if this sort o’ thing keeps up, a body won’t dare to do a thing because if they talk, them air waves or whatever scatter it all over creation for folks to listen to.”

Another is having a peabrainwave. “That radical thing” (“It isn’t a radical, it’s a radio,” the boy corrects) was capable of carrying messages from places thousands of miles away, it should also be possible to carry them “straight up” and communicate with those dearly departed we hope to have gotten there.

“I never heard of one of these machines getting messages from above excepting from an airship,” the young radio fan remarks. Besides, the “government allows only a few of the larger stations to send messages. All I can do is to receive ’em.”

Anxiety and puzzlement give way to grumbling: “Do you mean to tell me that when you’re usin’ that thing, all you can do is to listen to what somebody else is sayin’ and never have a chance say a word back?” Who would put up with such “one-sided conversations”?

Not those present, all of whom voice their objections. An academic is concerned that staying at home to be entertained—rather than entertaining—would mean an end to social gatherings such as Tiddville’s choral club, whereas the local pastor is troubled by the thought that, if sermons were broadcast, local churches would have to close, leaving one member of the party to wonder about the future of community “strawberry festivals and oyster suppers.” And what of wedding ceremonies, if couples could not make their vows be heard?

By the time the receiver picks up the transmission of a prizefight, everyone’s had enough of “that machine,” even though they condescend to tuning in a concert so that a latecomer to their gathering may partake of this demonstration.

However crude, this sketch perfectly mirrors the radical changes brought about by the radio: the decline of local theatricals, the shift from a culture of making home entertainment to one of consuming what was centrally produced, and the demise or marginalization of the amateur broadcasters to whom radio telephony had been something other than a one-sided conversation.

Doty, who wrote a number of plays for amateur performers, might well have been among those who had reason to be wary of broadcast entertainment. He may not have aligned himself with the rustics, but he understood and accommodated them. In the Note that prefaces his comedy, he states:

A radio outfit is not absolutely necessary for the presentation of this play although one may be used if it can be obtained. With one or two small boxes, wires, receivers, or horn, etc., a representation of the radio apparatus can be easily made.

A comedy about radio reception without a radio receiver? It wasn’t that, anno 1922, radios were mere oddities; if they were not fast becoming commodities, Doty’s topical comedy would be pointless. Still, radios were hard to come by. As stated in the aforementioned issue of Radio Broadcast, ever since broadcasting stations like KDKA, Pittsburgh, were providing entertainment “for public consumption,” thereby giving consumers a “reason to buy radio telephone receiving sets,” manufacturers had

never been able to catch up with the demand. The manufacturers of radio receivers and accessories are much in the situation that munition makers were when the war broke. They are suddenly confronted with a tremendous and imperative demand for apparatus. It is a matter of several months at best to arrange for the quantity production of radio receiving apparatus if the type to be manufactured were settled, but the types are no more settled than were the types of airplanes in the war.

Whether it meant war for amateur players and hobbyists, whether it was ammunition for lampoonists or opportunists, radio broadcasting had arrived. Eventually, even Tiddville rubes would buy Cunningham tubes, and from small hayseed homes antennae would sprout. The era of streamlined, national broadcasting was yet several years off, but “[t]hat radical thing” had surely arrived.

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