Radio Ink Magazine

KDKA: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL. BUT NOT THE FIRST

One hundred years of broadcasting. It’s been understood as fact. But there are myths associated with a station long believed to be the first radio station to be licensed by the FCC.

What’s the real story behind the birth of KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh? It is indeed 100 years old. And its roots stretch back to before 1920. But, based on documentation collected over the last 50 years by scholars and radio historians, a hidden truth has been brought to light: broadcasting (a term first used by farmers to describe their seeding process) dates back to 1909. Why, then, is KDKA widely regarded as the “first radio station”?

Two big, often-repeated reasons have emerged. One involves its owner. The other comes down to savvy marketing, courtesy of an owner intent on making radio more than a hobbyist’s leisure pastime.

A Steel City Legend Arrives

On May 13, 2020, as part of the virtual NAB Show festivities, NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith saluted KDKA as he noted the celebration of the 100th anniversary of broadcasting. Smith spoke of “the first commercial radio broadcast,” from KDKA. That specific language is at the crux of the debate over KDKA’s role in the birth of broadcasting.

“There’s always been robust debate over who gets credit for ‘the first commercial broadcast,’ and honestly, I don’t know if anyone knows for sure who wins the prize,” says Dennis Wharton, the now-retired EVP of communications at the NAB.

One individual who has looked into the earliest days of radio broadcasting for decades believes she can state with certainty that KDKA was the first station in any way, shape, or form. She points to WWJ-AM in Detroit, and to the origins of KCBS-AM in San

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