Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

How America Adopted Radio: Demographic Differences in Set Ownership Reported in the 1930-1950 U.S. Censuses

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

How America Adopted Radio: Demographic Differences in Set Ownership Reported in the 1930-1950 U.S. Censuses

Article excerpt

Radio set ownership data reported in the U.S. Censuses of 1930, 1940, and 1950 suggest that several factors affected the rate of radio adoption during these decades. Although a majority of U.S. households were radio-equipped by 1931, substantial numbers of poorer Americans, especially those living in the South, could not afford sets until much later. A majority of African American families, the poorest of all, did not own radios until well into the 1940s. It was not until 1950 that 95% of all American households owned receivers.

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There is little doubt that when radio first arrived in the 1920s, it caused a great deal of excitement. Sterling and Kittross (2002) describe it as a time when "the country was afire with radio fever" (p. 69). Barnouw (1966) writes of the early "euphoria" of radio set manufacturers who "couldn't produce fast enough" (p. 91), and Hilliard and Keith (2001) maintain that "people were buying radio receivers as fast as they could afford to" (p. 31). Such descriptions are justified since the number of licensed broadcasting stations jumped from just 5 in 1921 to over 500 by 1924 (Sterling & Kittross, 2002, p. 827) and by 1927 Americans were spending $198 million annually on radios (U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, 1930, p. 841). (1)

The decade of the 1920s was a prosperous period for many Americans, especially those who lived in the urban areas of the North and West. Good economic times meant that many city dwellers had the luxury of buying the new radio equipment as soon as it appeared on the market. In addition, early radio stations were usually built near urban centers where signals could be received by the maximum number of affluent consumers. By 1928, there were 28 stations broadcasting in the New York City metropolitan area, 36 in Chicago, and 24 in Los Angeles (U.S. Federal Radio Commission, 1928, pp.117-123).

Yet America's phenomenal radio boom was primarily experienced in the cities of the North and West. In the nation's poorer regions, radio's arrival was much slower. In 1928, Atlanta had only three radio stations and New Orleans seven. For the 44% of Americans who still lived outside the cities, service was spotty or non-existent. Several large rural states had fewer than six radio stations, and these tended to have smaller transmitters than their urban counterparts. For example, in 1928, the entire state of South Carolina had only two stations transmitting with an aggregate power of 90 watts (U.S. Federal Radio Commission, 1928, pp. 117-123).

While the coming of radio may have been a sensation in some parts of the country, other Americans were suffering from economic hard times--even in the years before the Great Depression struck in 1929. In these areas, many families were in economic crisis, few entrepreneurs were willing to build stations, and widespread radio adoption was still years away.

Despite the considerable interest in radio's early industrial history, little detailed research has been reported on how receivers were adopted in the United States. Starch conducted surveys on radio adoption in the 1920s (Spalding, 1963-1964, pp. 36-37) and Cantril & Allport (1935, pp. 85-86) made early use of Census data to describe the growing radio audience. Lichty and Topping (1975, pp. 451-455, 521) and Sterling & Kittross (2002, p. 862) described overall adoption rates for several years based on data from industry and Census sources. (2) Jellison (1993, p. 61) used 1930 Census data to examine different rates of radio ownership among farm families in several midwestern states, and Craig (2001) discussed the relative slowness of early adoption by rural families. But none of these sources investigate in depth the differences in radio adoption patterns nor do they attempt to detail the social factors that helped determine when families decided to buy their first radio.

Without a clear understanding of how American families adopted radio, historians have an incomplete picture of the audience during these years. …

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