How Radio Shows Work

Early Radio Programming: Who's on First

The 1921 World Series between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees was the first to be broadcast over radio. The Giants won the series 5-3.
The 1921 World Series between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees was the first to be broadcast over radio. The Giants won the series 5-3.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Although radios were available in the early 1900s, it wasn't until after World War I that the medium took off. As radios became popular, radio companies built networks and began searching for content to fill the airtime. One of the first groups formed was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), put together by General Electric, AT&T, Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company and Westinghouse. Individual stations (also known as affiliates, stations owned by individuals or companies other than the networks that aired network programs) like KDKA, WJZ, WEAF in New York and WNAC in Boston joined the air and looked to sports events and politics to fill the first national broadcasts. The presidential returns of 1920 heralded the start of KDKA's broadcasts. On July 2, 1921, RCA broadcasted the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and George Carpenter while WJZ broadcasted the World Series.

While sports, politics and news were certainly of interest, radio executives wanted more entertaining fare to entice and retain larger audiences. Larger audiences meant the networks could charge the shows' sponsors higher advertising rates. Typically, networks provided free programming but sold ad time to sponsors to run prior to or within the program; this was known as barter syndication. Some groups tried to govern the ad interruptions which led to the sponsor's name showing up in the program's title instead: "The A&P Gypsies" (a musical program named for its sponsor, the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company), "Texaco Star Theater," "The Prudential Family Hour" and the "Palmolive Beauty Box Theater."

In their quest for new programming, some stations tried everything -- reading odd news stories, relaying hours of jokes and even telling bedtime stories. Other stations looked to the theater and symphony for help, while some hailed vaudeville. Out of this melee, specific genres began to form.

Some of the earliest vaudeville acts to join radio were Fred Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Wendell Hall and Gertrude Berg. Due to the physical nature of vaudeville acts on stage, many variety shows created for radio relied heavily on music, jokes and skits that incorporated stereotypes or images people could readily conjure up in their minds. The traditional format for these types of radio variety shows was an opening musical number, funny monologue or dialog, more music, one or more comedy skits featuring a guest star, more music and a short closing bit with the guest star before the show's hosts said goodnight [source: Richter].

These variety shows grew in number and popularity. Often, it seemed that audiences were fickle and would listen to shows based on guest appearances alone. Wanting to retain their audiences and advertising dollars, radio networks and stations looked to a new type of show to keep their audiences loyal -- the serial.

In the next section, we'll focus on this genre and see what kept audiences tuning in.