For many of us today, accessing entertainment in the comfort of our own personal space is easier than ever. Entertainment offers itself at every corner, from the web pages of the internet, to viral videos on social media, to the plethora of streaming services that bring a seemingly infinite selection of choices to our fingertips. However, before there could be 10 devices to a household or blockbuster movies available to stream on airplanes, there first came a form of communication and entertainment that rewired the world: the radio.
The invention of radio began in the late 1800s, when physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz successfully transmitted electromagnetic waves through the air. Over time, the transfer of what was called “Hertzian waves” eventually became known as radio waves. When thinking about the early days of radio, one might imagine its crucial role in war communications, FDR's fireside chats, and the novel family-friendly shows that had 20th-century American families crowding their living rooms for entertainment. However, in its earliest moments, like many new technologies, the radio was first the purview of hobbyists and eccentrics.
These early days of radio are what broadcaster Anthony Rudel expertly highlights in his well-researched and entertaining book Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio. With an eye for story and a nose for unconventional characters, Rudel dives into the history of radio throughout its process of becoming a household given, describing its development and role in the lives of interesting individuals up to the 1940s.
From the transformation of radio from a hobbyist’s delight into a force of culture, politics and economics, to the emergence of notable radio stars like the charlatan Dr. Brinkley or professional boxer Jack Dempsey, Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio paints a detailed, colorful picture of “the entrepreneurs and evangelists, hucksters and opportunists” (Publishers Weekly) who employed the tool of radio for their own purposes.
In this riveting excerpt from Rudel’s deep dive into radio’s first few decades, read an account of the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindburgh Jr., one of the most nail-biting events covered by early radio.
Read on for an excerpt from Hello, Everybody!, then download the book!
MARCH 1, 1932—That night, ignoring the unwritten rule about waiting for newspapers to issue an extra edition to announce breaking news, the CBS network interrupted a concert by a Chicago-based dance orchestra, shocking listeners across the nation with this bulletin:
Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., l½ year-old son of Colonel and Mrs. Charles A. Lindbergh, was kidnapped just after dark tonight from his crib in the Lindbergh home at Hopewell, N.J. He was dressed in his sleeping clothes.
During the days that followed, radio would establish and secure its place as a dominant source of breaking news and information; radio's immediacy had found its true calling. Stations issued a steady stream of bulletins and appeals for the baby's safe return. Network and station managers placed their transmitting equipment at the disposal of the authorities; phone lines and transmitting equipment were installed near the Lindbergh estate in an effort to assuage the flood of callers demanding more information. Regular programming was shunted, and instead of signing off during the overnight hours, stations remained on the air in case there was some news or information to be shared with anxious listeners.
The networks, with their coast-to-coast reach, fed affiliated stations nonstop programming, remaining active, ready to provide bulletins twenty-four hours a day in case some piece of news broke. Not since the beginning of broadcasting had the radio facilities of the entire nation been turned over to one emergency, either public or private. Radio's undivided attention was focused on the return of America's hero's son.
In one of the more poignant moments of the Lindbergh case, one day after the kidnapping, NBC network announcer Ben Grauer took to the air to read a personal message from the baby's mother about the child's special dietary needs. The strict diet was to help the child recover from an illness, and it was Mrs. Lindbergh's wish that the kidnappers heard the detailed requirements, which included half a cup of prune juice after the baby's afternoon nap, and "fourteen drops of viosterol, a vitamin preparation, during the day."
On the fourth day of the manhunt, America's religious leaders got involved, taking to the airwaves to appeal to the kidnappers for the child's safe return. Representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths spoke over a nationwide network arranged by CBS, all pledging immunity should the kidnappers return the child to one of their houses of worship. Speaking on behalf of the Catholic faith was Father Charles Coughlin, whose powerful oratory overshadowed all other radio speakers.
Do you realize that you have their first baby? Do you realize that you are holding away from the mother's arms flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood; that you are not injuring the baby half so much as you are crushing her heart in a great press, making her bleed the wine of sorrow?
He ended his talk by asking the kidnappers to find some sequestered church or orphanage and return the child, adding that he pledged his assurance that no questions would be asked. While the speech did not bring the baby back to his parents, its powerful message generated thousands of additional letters, and dollars, for Coughlin's church in Royal Oak.
For the next seventy-two days, radio announcers reported from the New Jersey scene, describing in detail every aspect of the hunt for the missing baby boy and telling anxious listeners about the hundreds of clues that had flooded in, none of which led to anything concrete.
Sensing that radio's news-delivery power might be greater than originally believed, the New York Times criticized the radio newspeople for the way they issued bulletins without making certain the information was anything more than rumor, arguing that radio's immediacy was detrimental to the accuracy of the reporting. Delineating the difference between journalism and radio reporting, the Times went on to point out that the cost of the extra reporting and airtime for the Lindbergh coverage was hurting radio. Nonetheless, the broadcasters vowed to remain continuously on the air, ready to flash the news if the missing child should be found.
MAY 12, 1932—That evening, the news flashed that the infant's body had been found in the woods near the Lindbergh home. Following the national and international outpouring of sympathy for the Lindberghs, cries of outrage and pain filled the airwaves. The White House and members of the Senate and Congress publicly mourned; from Michigan, Father Coughlin sent his personal sympathy and extended his "felicitations" to the family, for their child, in his mind, was not dead, "merely waiting for them in the land of eternity."
With the personal thoughts out of the way, Coughlin seized the opportunity to call on his listeners to view the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby as a challenge to "eradicate the gangster and hoodlum from our country." For Coughlin the tragedy was another chance to further his image as a leader, both spiritual and societal. During the coming decade, the link between Coughlin and Lindbergh would develop and strengthen, as would the importance of radio as a tool in the hunt for the baby's kidnapper, and the eventual arrest, trial, and execution of Bruno Hauptmann.
Radio's coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping was a significant turning point. For those who had doubted the medium's ability as a credible source for news, the coverage of the tragedy had to have been eye-opening. Radio was no longer solely for entertainment; it could lay aside "its jazz and comedy to play a greater role in mysterious dramas of life."
What was significant was not that radio could report the news, but that it made it come alive in ways the print media could not. Radio had become the audio canvas of American life, providing escape and reality for millions of listeners.
Want to keep reading? Download Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio today!
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Archive to continue publishing the history stories you love.
Featured image: Alessandro Cerino / Unsplash