June 14, 1922. Warren G. Harding becomes the first US President to have his voice transmitted live over the radio, forever altering the way politicians interact with the American people.
It’s 8:00 PM on July 22nd, 1910 at Scotland Yard in London, England.
Chief Inspector Walter Dew puts a bottle of brandy and a glass on his desk… and then he pours.
Walter is distraught. Days earlier, he found the body of a murdered woman buried in a London cellar. Walter suspects the woman’s husband is the killer, and he’s been trying to track him down ever since. But the man who the papers are already calling “the London Cellar Murderer” seems to have vanished.
As Walter refills his glass… the telegraph whirrs to life outside his office. Walter doesn’t think much of it. He polishes off his second glass and contemplates calling it a night. But then… his office door swings open, revealing one of his staff members standing there wide-eyed with excitement, with a telegraphed message in hand.
Walter snatches the piece of paper from him. His eyes scan the message sent from a ship captain in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It starts, “Strong suspicions London Cellar Murderer amongst passengers.”
Walter’s never received a tip from a ship at sea before. So at first, he’s a bit skeptical. But then he sees the description of the passenger; it perfectly matches the one of the dead woman’s husband. So Walter doesn’t waste any time. He hurries out of his office… and darts through the lobby on his way to the front door.
Walter steps out into the dark London streets and tries to hail a cab. Confused, the staff member follows him outside, and asks his boss what he’s doing. Walter grins since he's going to book passage on a ship, and chase the London Cellar Murderer across the Atlantic.
On July 31st, 1910, Walter finally arrests the suspected murderer in Quebec, Canada. But his success, in this case, will reverberate far beyond Scotland Yard.
As news spreads about the radiotelegraph that helped Walter track down the alleged killer, much of the public becomes fascinated with radio technology. This newfound interest leads to increased demand for radios and gives rise to the amateur radio movement in the United States. Soon, people across the country start building their own transmitters, and they search for new ways to communicate via radio.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, one avid amateur radio user will conduct experiments that push the boundaries of the medium, and eventually inspire a former newspaperman and politician named Warren G. Harding to embrace the new technology. Fueled by his fascination with the radio, Harding will eventually become the first US President to have his voice transmitted live on radio on June 14th, 1922.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 14th, 1922: The First President to Speak on the Radio.
It’s October 17th, 1919 outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Frank Conrad, an electrical engineer, sits in a small room over his garage. He’s surrounded by wires, instruments, and a phonograph. Tonight Frank is feeling giddy. He loves to tinker and experiment, and right now he’s going to try one of his biggest experiments yet: Frank is going to broadcast music from his homemade radio station.
In 1919, commercial radio stations don’t exist in America. Still, years earlier, Frank built a transmitter and converted the room above his garage into an at-home studio. Then, he applied for and received an experimental radio license from the US Board of Commerce, which allows him to legally broadcast to other amateur radio users in the Pittsburgh area. Until now, Frank has transmitted his radio messages in Morse code via telegraph, but tonight he’s replaced the telegraph with a microphone.
Frank tests his mic, puts a record on the phonograph, and lowers the needle. When the music starts playing, Frank flips the switch on his transmitter and sends the song out over the airwaves.
During the following week, Frank goes about his job at the Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company as usual. But soon, he hears from some of his amateur radio friends. They tell him the music sounded great, and that he should keep it up. Some even request particular songs they’d like to hear.
So, in his free time, Frank goes back to his room above the garage, digs through his record collection, and broadcasts more music. Frank knows he only has a handful of listeners, but he’s excited about this new venture because he’s a big believer in radio technology. Frank thinks radio can become a major source for news, entertainment, and communication down the road, and he’s eager to get as many people interested at the young medium as possible.
Then in late 1919, Frank gets a boost when a local newspaper runs a story about his music broadcasts. Soon, Frank hears from more amateur radio users in the area, and song requests from his growing audience start pouring in. Frank decides the best way to keep people listening is to make his broadcast a regularly scheduled program. So, by early 1920, Frank starts playing music for two hours every Wednesday and Saturday night.
But Frank has a problem: he doesn’t own many records. Fearing his audience will tire of hearing the same songs over and over, Frank comes up with a plan. He meets a local music store owner and proposes a deal. Frank asks the owner to supply him with the latest records, and in exchange, Frank says he’ll do an on-air advertisement for the music store. The owner loves the idea, and Frank heads home with several additions to his playlist.
In the summer of 1920, playing new music gains Frank’s homemade radio station a sizable audience of regular listeners. But more importantly, Frank’s pastime catches the eye of his bosses at the Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company.
One day at work, Frank gets called into the office of Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis. Like Frank, Harry has big dreams for the radio. He tells Frank that Westinghouse wants to put radios in thousands of people’s homes. Harry says he thinks Frank’s music broadcast demonstrates that radio can be a perfect entertainment outlet, and he believes Frank’s on-air commercials prove that radio is also a great way to advertise. Then, Harry tells Frank he wants his help getting other people across the country excited to buy radios.
Frank and Harry brainstorm how to best show the public the power of the technology. Eventually, they decide they should broadcast an event, one that impacts the entire country, and Frank thinks he has the perfect idea. He says they should broadcast live results of the upcoming November 2nd presidential election between the two candidates: James Cox and Warren G. Harding. Frank says they can use the election to illustrate how radio provides information faster than the newspaper.
Harry is on board, but he wants to reach people beyond the Pittsburgh area. So in late summer of 1920, Frank and a team of engineers set out to construct a transmitter on one of Westinghouse’s buildings. Frank designs the transmitter to be significantly more powerful than the one he has at home, so they can broadcast to radio users in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Frank and his team have high hopes for their election night coverage, but not even they can foresee the full impact their undertaking is about to have.
In the fall of 1920, presidential candidate Warren G. Harding is already looking for new ways to communicate with his supporters. The Westinghouse election night broadcast will inspire Warren and convince him that radio is the medium of the future.
It’s September 1920 in Marion, Ohio; less than two months before the 1920 presidential election.
Republican candidate Warren G. Harding steps onto his front porch. A band plays music, as Warren waves to the thousands of visitors gathered on his sprawling front yard. Warren quiets the band, and in his calm, affable voice, thanks everyone for coming.
Since July, Warren has regularly given speeches from his home, in what's being called his “Front Porch Campaign.” As a longtime newspaper publisher, Warren has come to believe that communicating directly with the people is the key to political success. And Warren thinks newspaper editorials and speeches like the one he’s giving today allow him to connect more closely with voters than he ever could by barnstorming across the country.
From his porch, Warren calls for a “return to normalcy.” He tells the crowd that Americans must find balance again after the horrors of World War I. Then, after sharing some thoughts on America’s future, Warren strikes up the band again and takes photographs with members of the audience.
Warren expects that many in the press will criticize his speech for being light on substance. But for Warren, the “Front Porch Campaign” isn’t about policy; it’s about talking to people. Warren enjoys speaking from his porch because it allows him to reach out to people in a way that the newspaper can’t provide.
But soon, as the election comes to an end, Warren learns that even speaking to thousands of people from his front porch pales in comparison to a burgeoning new technology that looks poised to change communication forever.
In October of 1920, Frank Conrad and his Westinghouse team are still hard at work preparing for their election night radio broadcast. They put the finishing touches on their radio transmitter, and they build a small studio on top of a Westinghouse building. But Frank understands that the new technology is only part of the equation for their upcoming event. Frank’s top priority now is getting a broadcast license from the federal government.
Over the years, the US Department of Commerce has issued amateur radio users experimental broadcast licenses, like the one Frank uses for his music show. But Frank and his team are attempting something that has never been done before. If all goes well, they'll broadcast election results to multiple states, stretching far beyond the range limit covered by an experimental license.
So Frank calls on Westinghouse’s top brass for help, and they don’t disappoint. At the end of October, just days before the election, the Commerce Department issues its first commercial radio station license, and Frank’s studio atop the Westinghouse building becomes home to the first American commercial radio station: KDKA.
Frank and his team now have the federal government’s blessing, but they still have one more deal to close. Just in time for the election, they get staff members of the Pittsburgh Post to agree to telephone them every time the newspaper receives an election update. The radio team will then share those updates with their listeners. Finally, after months of work, Frank and his team are ready for their broadcast.
1On the night of November 2nd, KDKA goes live with their election night event, reaching about 1,000 people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Frank focuses on the technical aspects of the broadcast, while his colleague, Leo Rosenberg, handles on-air duties. As they receive election results from the Pittsburgh Post, Leo immediately shares them with their listeners. And in between updates, he entertains people by playing music.
Then, early on November 3rd, KDKA receives the final results: Warren G. Harding has won the election. In Ohio, Warren learns that he will be the next President of the United States when KDKA announces it on the air. Everyone getting their news from the radio knows the election outcome hours before it’s printed in the newspapers.
And the election night broadcast shows Warren how quickly radio can keep people informed. It also shows him that radio can be used as a tool for a politician to talk directly to the American people; as if he’s sitting with them right in their homes.
After taking office, Warren G. Harding will promote the growth of radio; he will advocate for increased access to the technology, and make history by becoming the first US President to have his voice transmitted live on radio to over 100
It’s June 14th, 1922 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.
President Warren G. Harding steps up to the podium and takes in the crowd. Warren is here to dedicate a monument to Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner.” After a life in politics, making speeches is second nature to Warren. But today’s speech is unique, and Warren is excited and nervous about what it could mean for the future.
Since taking office in 1921, Warren has been a major supporter of radio. Inspired by KDKA’s historic broadcast of his election victory, Warren organized a conference with amateur radio users to discuss possible federal broadcast standards and the growth of the commercial radio industry. Then, in February of 1922, Warren had a radio installed in the White House. And today, he’ll use the radio to give many Americans their first opportunity to ever hear their president speak live.
From the podium, Warren steps up to a microphone and dedicates to Francis Scott Key and all the soldiers and sailors who defended Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 a statue called “Orpheus with the Awkward Foot”. The crowd in attendance cheers, and thousands listening by radio at home nod in appreciation.
At the time, the broadcasters don’t have the ability to record Warren’s speech, so his exact words at Fort McHenry will eventually be lost to history, but the effect his speech has on the culture at large will not.
Warren’s address is heard by close to 125,000 radio listeners in Baltimore and the surrounding areas. Warren’s radio debut, and the press coverage that follows, introduces much of the country to the technological possibilities the future holds. And soon after, demand for radio spikes, and the number of commercial radio stations steadily increases across the US.
Bolstered by the country’s growing interest in radio, Warren continues to employ the medium to communicate with the American people. Some historians will suggest it is Warren G. Harding’s use of radio that ushers in the “era of the modern president.” Before Warren hit the airwaves, many Americans never imagined that hearing their president speak was a possibility. But after Warren sets the precedent of using technology to communicate with the people, others follow his example, and Americans will come to expect to hear directly from their president.
Though Warren’s time in office is cut short when he dies in August of 1923, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, continues Warren’s appreciation for the power of radio. In March of 1924, Coolidge works with commercial stations all over the country to have his inaugural address broadcast live to close to 23 million listeners:
"COOLIDGE: Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope inspires the heart of all humanity."
While Coolidge is in office, a range of political scandals involving Warren G. Harding’s administration begin to emerge. Posthumously, Warren’s presidency will be seen by many as a failure. But regardless of his political legacy, Warren G. Harding is responsible for significantly changing the presidency, and the country, by embracing a new technology and becoming the first President of the United States to have his voice transmitted live on radio on June 14th, 1922.
Next on History Daily, June 15th, 1215. Amid growing opposition to his tyrannical rule, King John I of England adds his royal seal to the Magna Carta, the first written constitution in European history.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.