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The 10 Biggest Radio Moments in U.S. History (National Radio Day 2022)

Tomorrow, August 20, is National Radio Day. On this special date, we celebrate radio's incredible history: particularly its history within the United States.

Although television and the internet have risen in popularity during recent years, radio is still one of the most incredible technologies on Earth. It's been used by militaries, companies, and governments alike for navigation, news distribution, entertainment, and more. It's made news and music more accessible and has brought us closer together as a nation...and as a planet!

As we reflect upon radio's enduring impact on our country, we'd like to touch on 10 radio moments that had huge effects on our country. From important speeches to sports broadcasts and shocking news that rocked the nation, these events go down as the biggest in United States radio history.

1. The KDKA Election Broadcast (1920)

Of course, we can't make a list of important national radio moments without starting it off with the first-ever transmission in the United States. On November 2, 1920, Pittsburgh's KDKA aired live returns from the presidential election race between Warren Harding and James Cox. According to the FCC, it was the world's first commercial radio broadcast.

KDKA, owned by the Westinghouse Corporation, received its broadcast license just six days before the election. In total, the broadcast lasted 18 hours, from 6pm on November 2 until noon the next day. While the broadcast only reached an estimated 1,000 listeners, it revolutionized how news could be delivered: in real time, instead of through newspapers printed and distributed hours or days later.

2. FDR's First Fireside Chat (1933)

In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast his first "Fireside Chat" to help soothe a jittery nation made hopeless from The Great Depression. Between that year and June 1944, through both the Depression and World War II, FDR gave 30 speeches where he spoke directly to millions of Americans through the radio in their homes.

His speeches became known as the "Fireside Chats” – a term coined by CBS station manager Harold Butcher – because of the President's conversational way of speaking. The first-ever chat began: “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.” Roosevelt's chats were deemed revolutionary because prior presidents depended primarily on newspapers to communicate their messages. Because of Roosevelt's frustration with the press, he turned to radio to deliver news instead. And it proved to be more comforting and resourceful for millions of Americans.

3. The Hindenburg Disaster (1937)

On May 6th, 1937, in Lakehurst, New Jersey, a German passenger airship called the LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst. The accident caused 35 fatalities (13 passengers and 22 crewmen) from the 97 people on board (36 passengers and 61 crewmen), and an additional fatality on the ground.

While the Hindenburg disaster itself was pretty horrific, the event was also memorable due to its effect on radio. The disaster was reported live on the scene via radio broadcast as it happened. Herb Morrison was the reporter at the scene for WLS of Chicago, and was broadcasting right when the helium-filled airship crashed and burst into flames.

4. The Fight of the Century (1938)

For their first fight on June 19, 1936, Black American boxer Joe Louis was a 10-to-1 favorite over Max Schmeling, but the German won the fight in a 12th-round knockout at Yankee Stadium. Their highly-anticipated rematch came two years later, and Louis got his revenge with a technical knockout in the very first round.

The cultural impact of Louis and Schmeling's fights were enormous. After all, they were boxing against the backdrop of increasing Nazi aggression in Europe, and the United States wanted any opportunity it got to feel victory against their enemies in some way. Louis and Schmeling's second fight is believed to have had the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast. An estimated 70 million listeners tuned in, according to the Library of Congress, which selected it in 2005 for its National Recording Registry. Sure – Ali and Frazier's Fight of the Century was also huge. But this broadcast had two countries' reputations on the line.

5. Orson Welles' War of the Worlds (1938)

On October 30, 1938, panic arose as listeners heard reports of aliens taking over Earth. What they didn't know was that they were actually just listening to an audio drama created by Orson Welles. Welles wrote and directed War of the Worlds, which was adapted from the novel of the same name.

The broadcast was intended to be a Halloween special. For 60 minutes, the broadcaster delivered a series of fake news bulletins. The bulletins were allegedly so real, some listeners really believed Martians were invading New Jersey. Apparently in some cities on the East Coast, there were outbreaks of pandemonium and mass hysteria. While the actual scale of America's freak-out has been questioned and doubted in recent times, we can't deny that Welles' broadcast was a major success. Unlike most radio plays, it's a staple in the history books!

6. The Attack on Pearl Harbor (1941)

When the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, an unknown KGU reporter in Honolulu explained what was happening in real time. "I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company Building," he told NBC through a telephone. "We have witnessed this morning the distant view of a brief full battle of Pearl Harbor and the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese. One of the bombs dropped within fifty feet of KGU Tower. It is no joke. It is a real war."

The call was cut off after two minutes. Little did the reporter know he was transmitting the only live broadcast of the surprise Pearl Harbor attack in the nation. At the time of the WWII air assault – which killed more than 2,400 Americans, damaged, or destroyed nearly 20 naval vessels and more than 300 aircraft – there were 45 million radios in the United States. That day, millions around the U.S. heard the news in real time that the war had arrived on American shores.

7. Victory Over Japan in World War II (1945)

On September 2, 1945, Japan officially surrendered after two atomic bombs were dropped on the country. The first was dropped in Hiroshima, but when this did not prompt a surrender, U.S. President Harry Truman warned Japan there would be another attack if they did not end their participation in the war. When nothing was heard from the Japanese, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrender officially brought an end to World War II.

There were a few unofficial radio broadcasts announcing the surrender over the course of a few hours, but eventually the news of the surrender was made official. One of the biggest broadcasts of the news was made by CBS.

8. "The Giants Win the Pennant!" (1951)

The 1951 National League pennant game at New York's Polo Grounds between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants is known for its "Shot Heard 'Round the World." It may have been the first-ever nationally televised broadcast baseball game, but it’s best known for the thrilling radio broadcast. A dramatic moment came in the final game of a three-game, winner-take-all series. The Giants were down 4-2 in the 9th inning...but that's when Bobby Thompson came up to bat with runners on second and third base.

Russ Hodges' call on WMCA of Thompson's pennant-clinching three-run homer is one of the most memorable radio moments of the 20th century. You can feel his rush of excitement as he cries "The Giants win the pennant!" four times in a row. In 2020, Hodges’s beloved call of the Thomson home run was selected by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Recording Registry.

9. JFK's Cuban Missile Crisis Broadcast (1962)

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy warned the Soviet government that they needed to remove their nuclear missiles in Cuba or risk invasion of the island by the United States. The Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba in retaliation for the American nuclear missiles the United States had in Turkey.

The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted for 13 days in October 1962. President Kennedy spoke to the nation on October 22 to inform U.S. citizens that an agreement had been reached and the Soviets would dismantle their nuclear weapons, lessening the threat of a global nuclear war. Millions of Americans listened to his speech via radio and television, and all collectively breathed one huge sigh of relief.

10. MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech (1963)

Last but certainly not least, we have the defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. Martin Luther King's famous “I Have a Dream” Speech was delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial during a civil rights march in Washington, DC. His speech was geared towards jobs and freedom, and for Black people and white people to live together harmoniously and equally.

Not only was MLK's speech broadcast over radio, but all three major TV networks at the time (ABC, CBS, and NBC) aired King's speech. Though he was already a national figure by that time, it marked the first instance many Americans – including President John F. Kennedy – heard him deliver a full speech.

That's it for our list. If you'd like to learn more radio history and fun facts, click here to view all of our blog posts on the subject. We hope you have high frequencies of enjoyment on this year's National Radio Day. Happy broadcasting!

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Article Image: Orson Welles in front of a CBS microphone during a 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds." (Dallas Dispatch-Journal [Available through Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey