by Steven Dugan
No one could have imagined the impact radio would have on Americans when KDKA in Pittsburgh went on the air in 1920. Before then, electronic communication in the United States was very limited. The telegraph had been around since the 1840s, but the telephone didn’t come into wide-spread use until the 1890s. Radio pioneers like Guglielmo Marconi used newly discovered radio waves to create a wireless form of communication—something that the telegraph and telephone were not.
KDKA is regarded as the first commercially licensed radio station in the world. There were other stations that broadcast before KDKA in 1920, but they were experimental stations not fully licensed. Jim Hilliker, former Los Angeles broadcaster and radio historian, writes that ham operators began sending music over the airwaves as early as 1908, albeit on a purely amateur level. By 1922, some 600 stations dotted the landscape across the US, providing news and entertainment to Americans. As long as your family owned a radio, you could hear the President’s voice from the White House, or a concert from New York City! Radio sales soared.
In Los Angeles, there were about 21 commercial radio stations in 1922; some of them still on the air today. Radio in early Los Angeles was not the 24-hour-a-day endeavor it is now. Many stations were on for a few hours a day or, they would broadcast a few hours in the morning and not resume programming until the evening. Other stations even powered down at certain times because they shared frequencies with other stations.
One of the earliest radio stations in Los Angeles, first broadcast on April 13, 1922, is a familiar one: KHJ 930 AM. Three days later, KFI went on the air. Other stations like KFWB, KECA (later KABC), and KNX (an experimental station in 1921), soon began commercial broadcasting. Call letters in the East generally started with a W; in the West, a K; and were assigned two ways. Through April, 1922, radio stations were given three-letter call signs. After that, the Commerce Department, then in charge of radio licensing, distributed call signs with four letters, beginning with KD-, KE-, KF-, and so on.
The other way call letters were created allowed station owners to request call signs to help listeners better remember the station. For example, KHJ advertised their call letters meant Kindness, Happiness, and Joy. KECA was named after its owner, Earl C. Anthony, who also owned KFI. KFI was rumored to stand for Farm Information because they broadcast frost reports, warning farmers and orchard owners to light up their smudge pots overnight to keep their crops from freezing. According to KFI’s website, the connection between its call letters and farm information was a happy coincidence; the call letters were assigned in order using the three-letter formula.
Daily programming on KFI consisted of Vesper Services, or evening prayers, from the Christian Church. Owner Earl Anthony broadcast a weekly show from his Packard dealership. Music from Chickering Hall in Los Angeles provided entertainment. Whether you had a radio or went to a friend’s house to listen, the radio brought the country and the world into your living room. When radios were installed in cars, they fit perfectly into Los Angeles’ commuter lifestyle.
Today, the ways we can listen to music, news, and information are plentiful. In addition to traditional radio, one can connect their cell phone to a sound system, subscribe to satellite radio, or connect to a variety of streaming services. This technology has developed so much over the span of a century, and it’s exciting to think of what lies ahead.