Radio and the election of 1920
posted by Jim McAllister
at 29 January, 5:06 PM 0
Frank Conrad and crew tabulating and broadcasting the
1920 presidential election results on KDKA, Pittsburgh.
At the turn of the 20th Century, presidential elections seemed so simple. Today we think of Obama and his two plus year campaign to get re-elected. In the early 1900s, campaigns would begin a couple of months before the election; usually around Labor Day.
There was no Air Force One to zoom around the country so if a candidate wanted to get maximum exposure he would hand out lots of leaflets and post plenty of signs explaining why you should vote for him. If he had the backing, he could also do the most effective type of campaigning up to that time called the “whistle stop.” Whistle stops consisted simply of a candidate or candidates going from town to town and giving their campaign speeches from the back platform of a passenger train.
They would spend a small amount of time in each town to deliver their message and then move on. It was very effective for its time and lasted well into the 20th Century.
In the 1920 presidential election, it was James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt for the Democrats against Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge for the Republicans. Up until that time, election results took a long time to reach the public as updates were usually sent by wire services to the local newspapers for publication late the next day.
That system was about to change as 1920 would become the first year that election returns had electronic media coverage. Television was still far off but radio had advanced to a point where a guy named Frank Conrad, who worked for Westinghouse, was desperately, along with his crew, completing a radio transmitting station on the roof of the tallest building on the Westinghouse campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their goal was to be ready on election night to broadcast the returns to the few folks who had radios.
On October 27, the facility was complete and given the call letters KDKA. On November 2, four men recorded the election numbers that were received from the Pittsburgh Post via telephone and a gentleman named Leo Rosenberg read them over the air through a clumsy array of wires used as a microphone.
On that night broadcasting was born. The next day, the Westinghouse switchboard was flooded with calls from people wanting to know how they could get a radio. It was quite a contrast from today where we have several TV networks on election night feverishly reporting every trend and vote throughout the night and into the early morning.
Frank Conrad died in 1941 at 67 but he got to see radio flourish from the humble beginnings at KDKA to the number one form of entertainment at the time of his death.