Since its first broadcast on the second of November, 1920, KDKA has become synonymous with Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh synonymous with KDKA. Now today’s Blogtober post is about KDKA AM, not the television station. We’re talking old school analog radio, folks. The kind that uses transistors, receptors and other -ors.
KDKA’s past is over a hundred years old. So old, in fact, that KDKA is the oldest radio station in all the United States. A pretty impressive claim, right? It also has deep ties to the electrical company Westinghouse – a maker of televisions and household appliances. That’s not where Westinghouse got its start. Have a read of this post to understand its history, if you like. But both of these can be read independently of each other. So here we go. Let’s take a look at the long history of a great Pittsburgh institution: KDKA.
The Early Days
When one thinks of KDKA, Westinghouse often doesn’t come to mind. At least for those who don’t know its humble beginnings. In fact, it wasn’t George Westinghouse who was involved in this project at all, for the founder of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company had indeed passed on in 1914. It was Harry P. Davis, Westinghouse’s vice president, who laid the groundwork for the country’s first radio station.
As life would have it, the electric company was already developing transmitters and other radio components for use in the military, commissioned to do so by the US government. When the war ended, Davis decided to continue the company’s efforts in radio, effectively continuing its “radio race” with rival companies, the Radio Corporation of America and the General Electric Company.
They first tested their radio system as a form of “private radiotelegraph” between Westinghouse facilities, and it was so successful that they submitted an pplication to become a limited commercial radio station.
An application, signed by H. P. Davis, was submitted to the Eighth District Radio Inspector, S. W. Edwards in Detroit, who forwarded it to Washington, and on October 27, 1920, Westinghouse was issued a Limited Commercial station license, serial #174, with the identifying call letters of KDKA.source
Of course not everything about KDKA’s founding was simple. More regulations were introduced by the government, licensing practices changed, and station call letters became standardized. Just like the “h” at the end of Pittsburgh, KDKA is unique in that they were allowed to keep their original call sign.
The Westinghouse station became so popular with its workers when it came to news and other types of programming that HP Davis saw potential for its use as a mass market tool. However, this meant further development of radio components needed to be done. A so called “transmitter race” was on, and several individuals were on standby with equipment at the ready in case their receivers were needed. They chose November 2nd as the first broadcast date, as hearing live results from the November political elections was an extremely popular past time with Westinghouse’s workers.
This Westinghouse broadcast was not unique — that evening at least three other stations made audio transmissions of election returns, including the Detroit News‘ “Detroit News Radiophone” service, a temporary arrangement made by the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch in conjunction with William E. Woods of the Benwoods Company, “manufacturers and distributors of wireless outfits”source
While not unique, the Westinghouse KDKA broadcast was widely regarded as successful, and they soon began setting up more broadcasting stations and licensing for operation.
KDKA was among the first to add other entertainment like live musical performances in the 1920s, religious services on Sundays and aired political speeches. They followed the trends and what was popular at the time. They covered boxing matches, professional baseball games from Forbes Field, college football games and hosted comedians.
By this time there were more radio stations, and KDKA often partnered with many of them to bring programming to other parts of Pennsylvania. More radio frequencies were also introduced, both long and short, and soon commercial programming became a tempting idea for some programmers.
In 1922 J. C. McQuiston, from the Westinghouse Department of Publicity, declared that “if advertising were permitted, it goes without saying that all the good work that has been done in giving valuable information and pleasant entertainment for the people would be destroyed”source
Westinghouse eventually got on board with the idea, noting that they realized its financial benefits. Later in the 1920s, Westinghouse joined its previous competitors, RCA and General Electric, to create two new national radio networks.
KDKA saw success with this new partnership, and was able to incorporate more special programming into its schedule. Not only that, but they broadcasted important “breaking news” messages whenever something of great importance happened. A practice that continues to this day.
For a time KDKA branched out into news concerning events abroad and even within the rest of the United States. However, by the 1950s, with most of its listeners being from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, people wanted news locally. More music was added, regular baseball games were aired and KDKA saw many famous names in the station. These included Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee, just to name a few.
In 1954 KDKA added a television station to its repertoire, as that medium was quickly gaining popularity. In Westinhouse’s quest for funding both of these ventures, its radio stayed with NBC while KDKA-TV became affiliated with CBS. You can read more on this relationship here.
Modern Day Radio
The addition of commercials and television were huge changes for Westinghouse and KDKA in the 1950s, but nothing could’ve prepared them for a full on digital age. Its musical offerings changed with the times, as did the station’s plethora of hosts. From the 50s and into the 80s, KDKA AM still aired news and contemporary music.
On April 10th, 1992, KDKA ended its music programming in favor of news and talk shows. It’s from this we get the famous quote: “the day the music died.”
Instead of just continuing as a subsidiary of CBS, KDKA merged with them completely in 1997. “Westinghouse would later turn itself into CBS Corporation in 1997. Viacom bought CBS Corporation in 1999, but five years later transformed itself into CBS Corporation, thus making KDKA a part of CBS Radio.”
KDKA in the 2000s continued to see many changes, and in 2010 it celebrated its 90th anniversary with programming reminiscent of its roots in politics. Ownership of the station changed hands several more times, but kept both its AM and FM frequencies. Today it is part of Audacy.
Now you might think that was a lot of information for a “brief” history of KDKA. However, when it comes to well known Pittsburgh institutions, there really is no such thing as brief history. So much more exists, and this is how I was able to boil it down for today’s Blogtober post.
Whether you ever listened to KDKA or not, Pennsylvanians will still be familiar with its popular broadcasters: Marty Griffin, Wendy Bell, and Rush Limbaugh, just to name a few. There is so much more to KDKA’s history than what I was able to include in today’s post, and it makes for some fascinating reading. Even if you don’t understand much about “tech” things, I hope you’ll have a read of the history for this very Pittsburgh institution.