A Universal Speaking Service: The Role of Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in the Development of National Network Broadcasting, 1922-1926

Article excerpt

Radio transmission evolved into something new on November 2, 1920. On Election Day a recently established radio station in East Pittsburgh, KDKA, reported the election results to a public that was becoming increasingly interested in radio. How to define "the first broadcast station" is still debated, but on that day Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, the company that owned KDKA, transmitted a general purpose program designed to reach a mass, general-interest audience of casual listeners.

As the decade progressed, corporate powers in radio manufacturing battled for prominence as the industry headed in a potentially lucrative new direction. The patent pool that had been in effect during the war was lifted, leaving corporations vying to become the bellwether of the industry. The battle for leadership and dominance in the largely experimental and unregulated world of radio broadcasting led to legal arbitration, corporate negotiations, personal animosities and, eventually, cooperation and cross-licensing (Bilby, 1986; Hilmes, 1997; Spalding, 1964; Sterling & Kittross, 1978). In his biography of David Sarnoff, Kenneth Bilby writes, "The years between 1922 and 1926 were the most crucial in the development of American broadcasting. The service matrix that exists today, for television as well as radio, was configured then" (Bilby, 1986, pp. 68). As the dominant broadcasting and communications companies of the day struggled to establish a regular, national broadcast presence, Bilby notes that "in security-sealed corporate board rooms and Manhattan legal offices, and at secret arbitration hearings, the penumbral drama unfolded" (Bilby, 1986, pp. 68).

The story of how Radio Corporation of America, General Electric, and Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company worked together, if occasionally at cross-purposes, to build the structure of national network broadcasting has been told, but not from each company's perspective. The personal and business correspondence of Westinghouse Vice President and broadcast pioneer Harry Phillips Davis illustrates how Westinghouse planned to enhance and, later, preserve their leadership position as the industry evolved. If the drama unfolded behind closed doors, then these documents provide a window into the negotiation from Davis's and Westinghouse's perspective.

H. P. Davis's Broadcast Proposals

Broadcast history texts tell the familiar tale of how Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse, set up an experimental radio station at the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At Westinghouse, Conrad had been in charge of the governmental wireless experiments during World War I. After the end of wireless restrictions imposed during the war, Conrad began airing programs of music, lectures, and sports scores that were picked up by wireless enthusiasts with receiving sets. As the broadcasts grew in popularity, a local department store, the Joseph Horne Company, ran an advertisement promoting Conrad's station and the store's radio department. The advertisement read that "Mr. Conrad will send out phonograph records this evening for amateurs with radio receivers" ("First Radiophone Station," 1922, p. 7; "Great Men of Radio," 1922, p. 6; "Story Told of Birth of Broadcast," 1922, p. 7).

Conrad's supervisor, H. P. Davis, an engineer and vice president at Westinghouse, saw the advertisement and inferred that if the broadcasts found an audience with little promotion, an organized, high-quality program designed to reach a wide, mass audience could be very effective (Barnouw, 1966; S. J. Douglas, 1987; Head, 1956; Sterling & Kitross, 1978). Davis later recalled thinking that if there was entertainment on the air, people would demand "ears," or Westinghouse could establish a wide market for radio receiver sets. ("Great Men of Radio," 1922). Davis sent for Conrad and informed him that Westinghouse was shutting down Conrad's experimental station. …