Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

A Sales Floor in the Sky: Philadelphia Department Stores and the Radio Boom of the 1920s

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

A Sales Floor in the Sky: Philadelphia Department Stores and the Radio Boom of the 1920s

Article excerpt

On March 18, 1922, two rival department stores in Philadelphia launched radio stations, projecting their sales floors far beyond the immediate, physical boundaries and into the ether (Barnouw, 1966, p. 100). WFI, operated by Strawbridge & Clothier, was first on the air with local politicians, dignitaries, and musicians broadcasting from a glass-enclosed studio on the store's fourth floor. WIP, located inside the nearby Gimbel's store, unveiled its operations approximately 45 minutes later using a similar studio arrangement. By the end of that year, two other department stores in the same city, Wanamaker's and the Lit Brothers, launched their own dedicated radio stations. The phenomenon of "department store radio stations" was not unique to Philadelphia, however, as 30 such establishments across the country erected their own transmitting towers during the radio boom of 1922 ("Who Will Ultimately," 1923). An astonishing variety of groups, including radio manufacturers, newspapers, churches, universities, and small businesses of every stripe rushed to create radio stations at the time, although it was unclear how these operations would be funded. A commercial system of broadcasting developed in which privately owned stations, using government-licensed radio frequencies, sold airtime to advertisers. Those stations using different economic models found survival difficult and most adopted the commercial system, affiliated with one of the growing networks, or withered away (Sterling & Kittross, 2002).

While department stores accounted for only a fraction of the 600 plus broadcast licenses that were doled out in 1922, raw numbers do not reveal the significance of this phenomenon (Sterling & Kittross, p. 69). Before the radio boom, these stores pioneered new techniques in advertising and adopted new technologies, including electric lights, elevators, and plate glass windows, before these mainstays of modern life became common (Abelson, 1989; Leach, 1993; Pasdermadjian, 1954; Porter-Benson, 1986). They frequently sponsored musical concerts, with opera being especially popular, and several of the larger stores built their own theatres (Tyler, 1992). Building upon these traditions of advertising, technological innovation, and public entertainment, stores were often the first in their respective cities to establish radio stations. These stations demonstrated how radio programs could be fashioned around certain types of merchandise, how the airwaves could be used for advertising, how women could be targeted as consumers, how broadcasting could be staged as a public spectacle, and perhaps most significantly, how this new form of mass communication could be transformed into a source of profits.

Using the four Philadelphia department store radio stations as the focal point of analysis, this study argues that the commercialization of the American radio industry was not a dramatic paradigm shift in the late 1920s as much as a continuation and professionalization of ongoing practices. The commercial system was not artificially imposed upon the industry by a handful of corporations, but was rather a culmination of practices that had been developed by department stores and other pioneering broadcasters. Certain practices that historians have associated with a later period in radio's evolution were present to some degree from the very beginnings of broadcasting. Investigating the origins of the commercial system of broadcasting is relevant today as this particular method for funding electronic media continues to influence and inform contemporary practices. The latest innovations in electronic media bring advertisements into every conceivable nook and cranny of daily life, yet the process by which commercialization occurred in the early radio industry has not been sufficiently explored.

Today, department stores are just one type of retailer among countless others, but in the 1920s, they were still a distinct cultural institution. …

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