This week in history: First public radio broadcast

Detroit radio station WWJ reached 30 homes.

August 20, 2010 08:45
2 minute read.
Early radio station.

311_early radio (black and white). (photo credit: Courtesy)

On August 20, 1920, the radio station WWJ, known then by its call sign 8MK, aired the first public broadcast ever at 8:15 p.m. Using a borrowed phonograph from the Edison Shop, Howard Trumbo placed a record on the turntable. He chose two records for the occasion: “Roses of Picardy,” and “Annie Laurie,” two of the most famous World War I songs. Frank Edwards, one of WWJ’s first operators called into the night on-air “This is 8MK calling,” to the delight of an audience listening on homemade receivers, in perhaps 30 Detroit homes.

On August 21 of the same year, the station aired the first news broadcast. The newscast consisted of local, state and congressional election returns, plus general news bulletins. Following the news broadcast premiere, the news front page headlines read “The News Radiophone To Give Vote Results. Amateurs Over Michigan Are Invited To Give Wireless Parties And Hear Voices In The Night.”

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The radio station followed the newscast with several other “firsts,” among them the first sports broadcast and the first regularly scheduled religious broadcast. It also broadcasted the first play-by play of Michigan football, when they played Wisconsin.

8MK was initially licensed to Michael DeLisle Lyons, a teenager and radio pioneer. He assembled the station in the Detroit News Building for the Scripps publishing family, but they asked him to register the station in his name because they were worried the new technology might only be a fad and wanted to keep some distance from the effort.

Later that year, Michael and his brother Frank, also assembled the first radio in a police car in Toledo, Ohio (with Ed Clark who started WJR 760 AM in Detroit). They caught a prowler using that radio, and the story captured headlines across the country.

The Scripps family mainly invested in Lyons radio efforts because it was worried that radio might replace newspapers if the new technology caught on. In fact, most early radio stations were built by families who owned newspapers for the same reason: the fear that radio would put them out of business. After all, why buy a paper if you could turn a knob and hear the news?

Fast forwarding to 2010, the WWJ station is currently owned by CBS Corporation and has a 24 hour live webcast. While in 1920, only about a thousand homes in Michigan had the equipment to hear the new form of communication that became WWJ News Radio 950, the station now has an estimated audience of 700,000 a week.

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