Birth of Public Radio Broadcasting

1910 New York Times advertisement for the wireless radio

1910 New York Times advertisement for the wireless radio

Yesterday and today in 1910, opera was first heard on the radio in what is considered the first public radio broadcast. On January 12, Lee De Forest conducted an experimental broadcast of part of the live Metropolitan Opera performance of Tosca and, on January 13, Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn singing arias from Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci. Susan Douglas tells the story in Inventing American Broadcasting

“The timing of the actual moment of insight remains uncertain, but sometime during the insecure winter of 1906-7, De Forest conceived of radio broadcasting. It was an insight fueled less by a compelling technical vision and more by the desired and longings of the social outcast. During De Forest’s impoverished and lonely spells, he would cheer himself up by going to the opera. Usually he could only afford a twenty-five-cents ticket which bought him a spot to stand in at the back of the opera house. De Forest was an ardent music lover, and he considered unjust the fact that ready access to beautiful music was reserved primarily to the financially comfortable. … De Forest was convinced that there were thousands of other deprived music fans in America who would love to have opera transmitted to their homes. He decided to use his radiophone not only for point-to-point message sending, but also for broadcasting music and speech. This conception of radio’s place in America’s social and economic landscape was original, revolutionary, and quite different from that of his contemporaries… [De Forest] told the New York Times [in 1909], prophetically: ‘I look forward to the day when opera may be brought to every home. Someday the news and even advertising will be sent out over the wireless telephone.’”

In They Made America, Harold Evans continues the story: “De Forest was disappointed in his dream of bringing culture to the masses, especially his beloved opera. In 1933 he denounced ‘uncouth sandwich men’ whose advertisements had come to dominate radio. ‘From the ecstasies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, listeners are suddenly dumped into a cold mess of ginger ale and cigarettes.’ He was still in anguish in 1946. He told broadcasters they had sent his ‘child’ into the street ‘in rags of ragtime, tatters of jive and boogie woogie, to collect money from all and sundry, for hubba hubba and audio jitterbug.’”

Today, live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts are heard over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network, which includes over 300 stations in the United States and stations in 40 countries on five continents. You can also listen to these broadcasts online.


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1 Response to Birth of Public Radio Broadcasting

  1. Pingback: Plan to Make Radio Household Utility | The Story of Information

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