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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

The Magic of Radio

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

In the early 20th century, while people clustered in isolated villages in the Texas Hill Country, the outside world came as a voice through the air.

Old-time radio was an escape from war, economic depression, prohibition and mundane circumstances. Through the magic of radio a person could experience faraway places he or she could never hope to reach.

Radio was a buzzword long before the first wireless receiver appeared in Gillespie County. In the early 1920s stores in Fredericksburg offered "Radio Specials." The Radio 5 Orchestra was a popular Hill Country music group.

On September 20, 1922 a newspaper called the Fredericksburg Radio-Post hit newsstands for the first time.

That same month, in a garage in Harper, Gordon Harper built what may have been the first wireless receiver in Gillespie County.

People came considerable distances just to see Harper's contraption and watch the tubes light up. They stood as still as tombstones, heads tilted toward the receiver, until music from a thousand miles away broke through the static.

The science was too much to comprehend, but the wonder of the moment was unforgettable.

Then Hill Country radio got a boost when WOAI in San Antonio began broadcasting on September 25, 1922.

At first enthusiasts built their own radios. Then in 1924 Wesley Franz began selling complete radio sets at City Garage across from the Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg.

Soon radio changed everything - from social patterns to politics.

Ladies in Fredericksburg started a Radio Club that met regularly in someone's home to socialize and listen to music.

"The air will be the battleground of the next presidential campaign," David Sarnoff of RCA correctly predicted, "and radio will play an unprecedented role in the coming election,"

Sports, especially boxing and baseball, received a boost from radio.

On July 4, 1923 Jack Dempsey fought Tommy Gibbons in a world heavyweight title fight in Shelby, Montana. Fight fans huddled like refugees in the American Legion Hall in Fredericksburg to hear the bout on a receiver set up by radio experts from Fort Sam Houston.

That same night another crowd gathered to hear the fight at Lee Mason's Garage on Water Street in Kerrville.

On July 12, 1923 boxing fans packed Louis Kott's Ford dealership in Fredericksburg to hear the Luis Firpo-Jess Willard fight from New Jersey. There was a lot of static in the air that summer night, so reception was garbled. Then a news flash came through that Firpo knocked Willard out in the 8th round.

In October some lucky listeners got to hear the 1923 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants.

Sporting events provided some of radio's biggest moments until December 7, 1941.

Some overly optimistic prognosticators in the 1920s predicted radio, along with other industrial age inventions, would transform society.

"The problems which cannot be solved by statesmen may be disposed of by inventors," one pundit wrote.

"The hope of the world is in sudden mechanical revolution."

"Transportation has been revolutionized by the automobile and communication has been revolutionized by the wireless."

"Radio has turned the world into a whispering gallery."

The radio, along with modern transportation, has "destroyed or removed all barriers between Americans and the outside world. Provincialism had been practically wiped out of existence in this country."

"In time the radio will bring the people to a closer understanding of each other."

And for a while it did; until talk radio and cable news came along in the late 20th century.

Old-time radio brought people together to share entertainment and information. Talk radio and cable news divide us by reinforcing our opinions without expanding our knowledge.

No, radio didn't solve our problems, but at least we forgot about them for a while.

Radio brought Broadway and Yankee Stadium into distant living rooms. People gathered around the radio, like cowboys around a camp fire, to share the emotion of a favorite song or the drama of a breaking new event.

Old-time radio was communal, but it was also personal. Paraphrasing Jack Benny, "You saw the performers in your own mind and painted each moment with your imagination."

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" January 15, 2020 Column

Sources:
"Local and Personal," Fredericksburg Standard, September 23, 1922.
"Editorial Notes," Fredericksburg Standard, December 16, 1922.
"A Grand Celebration," Fredericksburg Standard, July 7, 1923.
"Firpo-Willard," Fredericksburg Standard, July 14, 1923.
"Athletics Won Deciding Game From Heaters, 11-3," Kerrville Mountain Sun, July 5, 1923.


"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • Drama at the Tax Office 1-1-20
  • The Mysteries of Buffalo Cave 12-15-19
  • O. Henry in Fredericksburg 12-1-19
  • The Nimitz: Hotel with a History 11-15-19
  • Emil Sauer - Diplomat and Adventurer 11-1-19

    See More »

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    Columns

    "Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • Drama at the Tax Office 1-1-20
  • The Mysteries of Buffalo Cave 12-15-19
  • O. Henry in Fredericksburg 12-1-19
  • The Nimitz: Hotel with a History 11-15-19
  • Emil Sauer - Diplomat and Adventurer 11-1-19

    See More »


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