The Big Broadcast of 1921 (11-11-1921)

On this date, Chicago was introduced to the latest method of instantaneous communication.  They called it radio-telephony—or just plain radio.

The city was a late starter in this particular technology.  Scientists had been transmitting sound via radio waves for years.  In the summer of 1920 the first America broadcast went out over the air from Detroit.  A few months later, Pittsburgh launched a regular radio station.

In Chicago, the impetus came from the Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of Pittsburgh’s pioneer station.  The Department of Commerce granted Westinghouse a license for a Chicago radio station with call-letters “KYW” on November 9, 1921.  Two days later, the station made a test broadcast.

Mary Garden

KYW had scheduled regular broadcasts with the Chicago Grand Opera Company.  The site of the test was the opera’s home, the Auditorium Theater.  A microphone was hung over the stage and telephone wires carried the sound to the KYW transmitter on the roof of the Commonwealth Edison building, three blocks away.

Mary Garden, director of the opera, made the opening address.  Newspaper reports said she began with the introduction, “This is station KYW, Chicago.”  But according to legend, the first words that went out over the air were her slightly-earlier adlib—“My God, it’s dark here!”

Garden’s speech was followed by an orchestra selection and an aria from “Madame Butterfly.”  That was all.  In a little over ten minutes, Chicago’s first radio broadcast was over.

An estimated 50,000 people had listed in on their primitive crystal receivers.  The transmission was received over a wide area, from upstate New York to Kansas, and from southern Kentucky to northern Minnesota. The signals were reported to be “loud and clear.”

The Tribune saw radio as an agent of democracy.  High culture was now available to everyone, everywhere.  “No longer will it be necessary to dress up in evening togs to hear grand opera,” the paper said.  “No longer will grand opera consist solely of [recordings] in towns 500 or 1,000 miles from Chicago.  All that is necessary is to acquire a radio telephone outfit.”

Today, the Chicago area hosts over 100 radio stations.  But don’t look for KYW.  Since 1934, those call letters have been assigned to a Philadelphia station.


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