Christmas Eve and the Birth of 'Talk' Radio

As the story goes, voices on radio were first heard 100 years ago this Christmas Eve. Reginald Fessenden figured out that by combining two frequencies together, it would be possible to speak over the airwaves.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The poetic sounding name for a discovery that lead to a change of events culminating in me, talking to you, right now.

Reginald Fessenden made the discovery in the early years of the 20th century. A Canadian by birth who began his career working for Thomas Edison, Fessenden figured out that by combining two frequencies together, radio could do more than simply transmit Morse code. It will be possible to speak over the airwaves.

Thank to him, radio became a sound medium. It happened 100 years ago. And as writer Dean Olsher explains, the first implementation of Fessenden's principle is one of radio's creation myths.

DEAN OLSHER: These are the details passed down to us. Christmas eve, 1906, not far form Plymouth, Massachusetts. Three days earlier, Fessenden had notified shifted key to monitor the airwaves. At the appointed hour, 9:00 in pm, they heard -

Well, it's actually impossible to know exactly what they heard, but it may sounded like this.

(Soundbite of Archived Radio Program)

OLSHER: The last cylinder recording of an Aria by Handle, the largo from his opera about the Prussian King Xerxes. There was to be a reading of scripture by Fessenden's wife and secretary, but the first ever instance of mic-fright rendered him mute and gave the first ever instance of dead air.

The Fessenden jumped in and gathered himself.

Mr. CHRIS BROOKS: (As Reginald Fessenden) Glory to God in the highest. And on Earth, peace. To men, have good will.

OLSHER: The name have got the credit for inventing radio. Marconi had imagine that it would be a way to transmute Morse code, to reduce the tremendous loss of life from the open seas. And while listening to Dips, and Dots, and Bashes, dogs have its appeal: It's somewhat limited.

By making it possible for music and speech to travel over the airwaves, radio, as Fessenden understood it, would become an extension of the most primal human communications. Fessenden took this newborn creation that had been conceived as merely information medium, and made it into an evocative one.

Thanks to him, (unintelligible) developing in the Bay of Fundy. For the first time, sailors at sea away from their families for unbearable stretches could connect with someone from home, a stranger who had suddenly gained intimate access.

Thanks to Fessenden, a fellow human being could whisper into another's year from away, and reach the innermost recesses of the imagination.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh Holy Night")

OLSHER: Fessenden described the debut broadcast of "Sound" in a letter at the end of his life. Then, came a violin solo by Ming, being a composition by Gunot called, "O Holy Night," and ending up in with the words adore and be ill, which I sang in one verse in addition to playing the violin, though the singing, of course, is not very good.

It was the birth of a new thing that would utterly change the century that followed. And the very evil of the day set aside to commemorate that group described in the Gospel Of Luke. And what was it (unintelligible).

But wait a minute, Gunot didn't write O Holy Night. And come to think of it, (unintelligible) the lyrics of that song. So what to make of this? Should we chalk it up to the failing memory of a dying man? Possibly. After all, it turns out that there is a tune called, "Adore and Be Still" and it was written by Gunot, so you can see how easy it would be to mix things up.

But isn't it funny how so many writers keep repeating Fessenden's error. As it happens, there is only a single source for this story and that's Fessenden's own deathbed letter. And as with so many of radio's creation myths, there had been doubters and disputers, and even more substantive challenge goes like this, Fessenden was a self promoter with a healthy ego. Why would he have passed up the opportunity to let the world know that his milestone at the moment that it happened? Why did he then wait decades to share this irresistible story?

It's always good to question the reliability of a narrator whose pastramis reputation stands to benefit from a little burnishing. And here's another thing, Fessenden had recorded Italy's one test broadcast.

(Soundbite of radio clip)

OLSHER: Why did he not also saved his history making, public broadcast of Christmas Eve 1906 for posterity. Or perhaps, he didn't see it as irresistible at the time. It may have required hindsight and lot's of it to understand its true importance. So the naysayers didn't prove anything. There's no slam dunk.

But there is the shadow of a doubt. Well, the fact is Fessenden did figure out how to make it possible for people to talk and play music over the radio. Whether things happened exactly the way he described or probably remained an unanswered question forever.

But we retell our creation myths not because of a medieval factual information about history of science. We don't leave the immediate for tips on how wolves might suckle human newborns.

So what is the lesson here? What do we find attractive about this myth? Even if the literal truth is disputed, what higher truth does it convey? Or is it radio can do remarkable things. It can inform but more importantly, it can reach between the ears and grab hold of what's in there. It can be a beacon of truth. but don't forget, with just a few years after Fessenden spread his message of peace on Earth, a failed painter from Austria would become master, for what, using the airwaves to win over a large numbers of followers to decide hatred and fulsome. Fulsome is not always the same thing as lying. It has to do with intentions.

It's quite possible that ears down the road, you'll remember that we once heard Fessenden's actual broadcast over a hundred years ago, even though I told you it was a reenactment. The mind plays tricks, because it wants so much to believe.

So by all means, allow the radio to seduce your heart and guide you through the fog. But don't let it shut off your brain. (Unintelligible) for us. We risk following the siren's call toward the rocks.

BLOCK: Dean Olsher is a writer in New York. That was Christina Smith playing the Violin and Chris Brooks as the voice of Reginald Fessinden.

I'm Melissa Block. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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