First Radio Commercial Hit Airwaves 90 Years Ago

Reporter John McDonough reports how AT&T ran the first-ever radio commercial on its station WEAF in New York 90 years ago this week. It changed the way broadcast was economically structured.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ninety years ago this week, back in 1922, America's airwaves changed forever. New York radio station WEAF broadcast the first paid radio commercial for the Hawthorne Court Apartments in Jackson Heights. Producer John McDonough tells us that behind that ad and the birth of commercial radio was the Bell Telephone Company.

JOHN MCDONOUGH, BYLINE: You don't have to go back 90 years to imagine what radio was like in the summer of 1922, just recall the state of the Internet about a dozen years ago, a modern miracle of technology with one problem: Nobody knew how to make it pay. Well, that was radio in 1922. How do you finance an endless stream of programming and still make money? One possibility, the profits from radio receivers, which may explain why so many department stores built their own broadcast stations that year.

But eventually, everyone has a radio set at home. What then? Broadcasting's problem was that it had much to give but nothing to sell. But there was one company that was thinking very much about sales and money in 1922, and that brings us to WEAF and the business model behind it. So obvious, it was invisible in plain sight.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALING)

MCDONOUGH: It was the simple telephone call. Bell Telephone and its parent, AT&T, might never have joined the race into radio at all if it hadn't acquired a critical patent in 1913. When the vacuum tube turned out to be a key piece in radio broadcasting, it gave the phone company a prominent seat at the radio table in 1922. More important, AT&T understood from the beginning exactly what it was that radio could sell. It was time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Your call, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Long distance.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Long distance, certainly.

MCDONOUGH: Some of you may recall the ceremony that once attended a long-distance phone call. Orson Welles immortalized its elegant rituals in this 1942 radio drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is long distance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'd like to put in a call to my home in Brooklyn, New York. The number is Beechwood 2028.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Certainly. I will try to get it for you.

MCDONOUGH: AT&T could carry any message to any place at any time. The content was up to the caller. All he would pay for was the time it took to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Will you please deposit $3.85 for the first three minutes?

MCDONOUGH: And therein lies the key to the future of commercial broadcasting. The mechanics of placing such a call today are camouflaged in the conveniences of area codes and direct dialing. But as any cell phone user learns once a month, he is still buying exactly what the telephone company had been selling for 40 years in 1922: time measured in exact minutes and seconds on a communication system for hire.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN CLUNKING)

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Will you please deposit the remaining 85 cents?

MCDONOUGH: For AT&T, radio was a natural extension of the business it had built around the telephone, and it was on precisely that model that it opened its first radio station in 1922.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: WEAF New York...

MCDONOUGH: Where other stations had spoken only for themselves, WEAF spoke for no one. It had no cause to promote, no interest to represent. Its only purpose was to trade time for money. Its studio was essentially a phone booth to the airwaves. Anyone who wanted to buy access had to bring his own message and pay the toll. The station's first customer was the Hawthorne Court Apartments in Jackson Heights, New York. The company bought 10 minutes for $50.

Around 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, August 28th, an officer of the company made his sales pitch. No recording of that commercial exists, but on WEAF's 30th anniversary, with the original moment still in living memory, the station offered this brief capsule recreation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Friend, you owe it to yourself and your family to leave the congested city and enjoy what nature intended you to enjoy. Visit our new apartment homes in Hawthorne Court, Jackson Heights, where you may enjoy community life in a friendly environment.

MCDONOUGH: With those words, modern broadcast advertising was born. The developer bought more time, then an oil company went on the air, then the American Express Company. By October 1922, WEAF had logged total time sales of $550. It called its service toll broadcasting. Four years later, AT&T sold WEAF to the National Broadcasting Company and left radio for good. But it left behind the financial structure on which American commercial broadcasting would grow rich through advertising.

WEAF would become the flagship station of the NBC network. It became WNBC in 1946 and disappeared in 1988. Its old 660 position on the New York AM dial is now home to WFAN, a sports station owned by CBS. As for Hawthorne Court, it now enjoys landmark status in New York. It remains a lovely, diverse, middle-class neighborhood, where a gracious three-bedroom condo sells for around $700,000. But this is getting to sound like a commercial, and that's where I came in. For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

CORNISH: John McDonough is co-editor of the "Encyclopedia of Advertising."

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