It happens whenever a lucky caller answers a trivia question live, or a celebrity talks to the DJ via phone call. Why do some radio stations let guests call-in while on-air, and how did the tradition start? The answer is actually a lot more complicated than you would think.
DJs talking to guest callers live is a really fun part of broadcasting. But it wasn't always the norm. Due to the risks and complications that come with the feature, call-in talk radio as we know it didn't become popular until the early 1950s. It's not that the technology to do call-in radio was once impossible. It was other barriers – like legal issues and audio quality – that delayed the format's growth for several years.
Nowadays, call-in talk radio is considered one of the most exciting features of a radio station. Most stations utilize a delay to prevent bad language from being broadcast. But otherwise, call-in exchanges are pure, raw, and authentic radio magic.
Interested to know how call-in talk radio began? Keep reading to learn about the feature's interesting (and scandalous!) history.
Call-In Radio's Legal Repercussions
First off, it's important to note that it would have been very possible for public call-in radio to exist during radio's humble beginnings in the early 1920s. Engineers on the Internet Broadcast List have speculated how it might have been done. A suggestion from “Cowboy” Curt Flick notes that since candlestick phones had a dynamic coil-diaphragm ear piece, the station’s engineer could have tried wrapping a significant number of turns of wire on an iron core of some sort, and then put it up against the earpiece.
Another theory suggests the person on the air could hold the earpiece against one of the carbon microphones of that day – although the audio would sound distorted. As contributor Xen Scott pointed out, “The challenge would have been to maintain an audio balance between the studio talent and the caller. The concept of mix-minus was [well] in the future.”
Still – while the technology would have been flawed, calling in to a radio station would have been technically possible and could have been improved upon by the radio nerds of the day. Which leads to the humongous question...why didn't anyone try it?
The simple answer: because the DOC (Department of Commerce) made it illegal to do so. Not only that, but trying to have someone call-in could cost a station its license.
Even the mere act of mentioning people had called your show was strongly discouraged by the DOC, the agency that supervised radio in the years before the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) and its later incarnation, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).
In those early years of radio, the DOC drew a hard line around what they called “direct communication.” According to the Radio Act of 1912, all radio stations had to avoid “the transmission of acknowledgments to individuals relating to the receipt of letters, telegrams, and telephone calls.” In 1923, several radio magazines even published reminders from the DOC that radio stations were not allowed to broadcast “point-to-point” communication. They were not allowed to even mention the receipt of telephone calls, or telegrams, or letters, nor give the names of people who had gotten in touch.
Why did these strict rules around call-in radio exist? It may have been influenced by something that occurred in 1921-1922: a time when it was hard to determine whether stations were amateur or commercial. In those days, amateurs regularly filled in for their commercial radio colleagues due to unreliable transmitters. The problem was that broadcasting commercials or any message for money was forbidden on amateur stations. Given the official separation of amateur and commercial stations, the DOC seemingly felt like a rule reminder was needed, and that it should also include that mentioning the name of a listener requesting a song was a no-no.
For the most part, the radio stations of the early to mid-1920s seemed to fear the wrath of the DOC. Wanting to keep their licenses, they followed the rules religiously. They typically broadcast from remote locations, but when it came to direct mentions of specific people in the audience, only the newspapers and magazines quoted people who were there.
Of course, at that point in time, few radio stations really gave any thought about putting live phone calls on the air – even though it was technologically possible! It wasn't until a bold musician of the late 20s tried something new that the reputation of call-in radio began to change.
Little Jack Little Opens the Phone Lines
In late January of 1929, popular musician Jack Little (known on stage as “Little Jack Little”) was doing a guest radio appearance at KSTP in St Paul, MN. This was something he did often, usually in conjunction with a performance he was doing locally. But this particular broadcast was unique: with help from the station’s chief engineer Harry Geise, Jack took fan phone calls and put them on the air.
As Radio Digest reported, he first put a caller from Dallas, TX on the air; another called from Lima, OH; then another from Milwaukee, WI. Another reporter from The Associated Press also wrote about the astounding event, noting the long-distance conversation occurred thanks to a “special telephone-microphone pick-up.”
There is no evidence KSTP got in trouble for the stunt, nor was their license put in jeopardy. It's possible the station got permission ahead of time from the FRC, which allowed the callers to be broadcast. But despite how easily KSTP got away with the once-illegal act, most stations didn't attempt call-in radio until the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Before the late 40s, there was a radio station that acted as a sort of pre-cursor to the concept of call-in radio. That station was NBC's America’s Town Meeting of the Air, which debuted in 1935. Hosted by George V. Denny Jr., it was a national talk show featuring high-profile panelists discussing current issues. It was notable for having an outspoken studio audience which asked serious questions, and sometimes heckled the guests. The station set up listening rooms at remote locations in various cities, where members of those audiences could step up to the microphone and ask a question. It wasn't a telephone call-in show, but it was the first station of its kind that allowed members of the public from distant locations to talk with guests and the host.
Call-In Radio Becomes Popular
Eventually, radio shows featuring phone call-ins started popping up. Among the early pioneers of talk radio and call-in radio was the controversial Joe Pyne, who started his radio career as a traditional announcer in smaller markets like Lumberton, NC, Kenosha, WI, Chester, PA, and Atlantic City, NJ. To the chagrin of his bosses, he gradually began inserting his opinions about politics into his radio shows. While his openness about politics got him in a lot of trouble with his higher-ups, he was able to find a home for his unbridled opinions – and the opinions of others.
In 1951, he was on the air at WILM in Wilmington, DE. Pyne began doing a call-in program he called It’s Your Nickel. The name referred to the fact that in the early 1950s, it cost five cents to call from a pay phone. Pyne quickly became known for his controversial statements and for arguing with his callers. But surprisingly, the show made him very successful. Perhaps it's because deep down, us humans love the adrenaline rush of arguing with strangers? (Nowadays people do it over social media!) Below is a video version of the show, recorded in the 1960s to promote Pyne's call-in radio show.
Anyway, Pyne's call-in show wasn't the only program in 1951 to make a big splash. There was also Party Line, which made its debut at KDKA in Pittsburgh. Hosted by married couple Ed and Wendy King, the program originally aired at midnight and was later moved to 10pm. By the summer of 1951, it had listeners writing in from 41 states. It was a family-friendly show where Ed and Wendy tried to answer questions and solve listeners’ problems. There was also a popular segment that involved spooky stories. The show remained extremely popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and didn't end until Ed’s death in 1971.
Phone Calls, But No Voices
While It's Your Nickel and Party Line were popular call-in shows of the 50s, the way they handled callers was a lot different from how stations handle callers today. Up to the mid-1950s, it was custom of early talk shows to just repeat what the caller was saying. It's Your Nickel did this, and so did Party Line. In fact, Joe Pyne told an interviewer in 1952 that it would be too unpredictable and dangerous to just put a caller on the air live. But by 1957, that's exactly what Pyne was doing – arguing on-air with listeners who called to debate him.
While Joe Pyne and several other talk show hosts started to put callers on the air by 1957, there was a good reason why some late 1940s/early 1950s call-in hosts had reservations about it – and it wasn't because of poor audio quality or worries that a guest would swear.
The real reason may have been due to a 1947 FCC ruling, “Use of Recording Devices,” which was implemented in 1948. The FCC decided it was a radio station’s duty to notify a caller that their call would be recorded and/or broadcast on the air. It's still true today: before any recording starts, permission from the caller must be given.
To make sure callers knew they were being broadcast, stations were ordered to use “a distinct, audible tone warning (beep tone) signal at regular intervals during the conversation.” Allegedly, the beep tone was very annoying for audiences to listen to, so that's why most station hosts just repeated words from a phone call verbatim after the guest called in.
Although radio stations and the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) lobbied the FCC frequently, the beep tone ruling remained in place until 1972. And then radio stations were free! Innovative satellite technology came into common use in the 1980s, and could beam a speaker from virtually any location to a mass national radio or television audience. At the same time, the U.S. government’s deregulation of the telephone, radio, and television industries opened up a seemingly infinite number of inexpensive, decentralized opportunities for broadcasters. Thus making call-in radio better with time!
So that's a brief history of how call-in talk radio got started. The next time you're dialing in a station's number in an attempt to be the lucky caller who wins a ticket to a concert, just remember it took years to allow people like you to have some time in the spotlight. Don't take call-in radio for granted!
Looking to learn more about radio's long and fascinating history? Click here to view more Live365 History of Radio pieces. Happy broadcasting!
- The Early Years Of Call-In Talk Radio - thebdr.net
- II. History: U.S. Talk Shows from Radio to Television and the Internet - ellenhume.com
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