November 11, 1921: The day Chicago radio was born

November 11, 2011

In a sense, today is the birthday of WBEZ.

Ninety years ago on this date, Chicago was introduced to the latest method of instantaneous communication. They called it radio-telephony--or just plain radio.

The city was a late starter in this particular technology. In the summer of 1920 the first American broadcast went out over the air from Detroit. A few months later Pittsburgh launched a regular radio station.

Westinghouse Electric, owner of the Pittsburgh station, was eager to have an outpost in Chicago. The Department of Commerce granted the company a license for a Chicago station on November 9, 1921. Two days later, station KYW was ready to make a test broadcast.

The site of the test was the Auditorium Theater, with the Chicago Grand Opera Company performing. A single microphone was hung over the stage. From there, telephone wires would carry the sound to the KYW transmitter on the roof of the Commonwealth Edison Building, three blocks away.

Opera director Mary Garden made the opening address. Newspaper reports said she began with the introduction, "This is station KYW, Chicago." But the very first words that went out over the air were her slightly-earlier adlib--"My God, it's dark here!"

Garden's speech was followed by an orchestra piece, and then an aria from "Madame Butterfly." That was all. In a little over ten minutes, Chicago's first radio broadcast was over.

An estimated 50,000 people had listened in on their primitive crystal receivers. Transmission was received over a wide area, from upstate New York to Kansas, and from southern Kentucky to northern Minnesota. The signal was reported to be "loud and clear."

The Tribune applauded radio as an agent for democracy. High culture was now available to everyone, everywhere. "No longer will it be necessary to dress up in evening togs to hear grand opera," the paper said. "No longer will grand opera consist solely of [recordings] in towns 500 or 1000 miles from Chicago. All that is necessary is to acquire a radio telephone outfit."

Today metro Chicago hosts over 100 radio stations--but no KYW. Since 1934 those call letters have been assigned to a Philadelphia station.