What is a good definition of radio? According to an old saying: “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.”
Radio became a reality shortly after the turn of the century. However, commercial development of radio was set back during WWI as the American Navy commandeered the technology for use in the war, i.e. sending messages to and from naval ships. It is telling that the U.S. Navy press sent its final dispatch of the war, announcing armistice on November 11, 1918, via radio transmission.
Radio experienced monumental growth after the first commercial station, KDKA, was brought to life by Westinghouse Electric in 1920, just after the Great War ended. “The company was the first to utilize the radio for broadcasting purposes. The first broadcast announced the results of the 1920 Presidential election. By creating interest in the broadcasts, Westinghouse Electric cultivated demand for radios by the general public [especially for broadcasts of boxing matches]. This demand led to the sale of $60 million of radio equipment and accessories in America. By 1924, that number jumped to $358 million,” claims the website Bnhv.org.
In other words, the commercialization of radio coincided historically with the rise in the popularity of blues music in the first part of the 20th century. Such records as Bessie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” became extremely popular in the early 1920s, but the 78rpm discs had to be played on a record player, usually a hand-cranked Victrola. Radio broadcasts of music changed all that. A radio in the center of American homes became television before television. Blues made its escape from hand-cranked turntables to the radio waves as black female singers of the Classic Blues climbed the ratings. Radio music broadcast popularity soared in the 1920s, particularly after E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone, which greatly improved radio sound quality.
Not many blues writers and aficionados would make a connection between the blues and the sale of flour. But after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the blues recording business crashed along with it. Blues artists doing well selling records during the roaring twenties suddenly found they had to return to a life of hard work in the cotton fields or doing other manual labor jobs. Blues recording seemed to die an early death. However, one staple every Great Depression family needed was bread, especially the kind made from white flour. Mixing the previously popular blues music with flour advertising seemed like a no-brainer to some flour companies. Using the relatively new medium of radio was also a self-illuminating idea.
What were some early radio stations that played blues music? It was not surprising, then, that the first such blues-oriented show was The King Biscuit Time radio show, named after King Biscuit flour, the show’s sponsor. The show debuted on AM 1360 KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with performances by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. At the time (1941), it was the only radio show featuring African American music. KFFA reached a wide audience throughout the Mississippi Delta and later became famous around the world. The success of King Biscuit Time would pave the way for other African American radio stations and programming. It is still on the air daily on KFFA from Helena.
Wikipedia explains the wide-sweeping influence of this popular radio program: “King Biscuit Time was also a major breakthrough for African-American music in general. The popularity of the program and its reach into the untapped African-American demographic gained notice and spawned a host of imitators. By 1947, the first black disc jockey in the South, Early Wright, had been signed at WROX across the river. WDIA in Memphis soon became the first radio station in the South with an all-black staff (including deejay B.B. King) and a musical format based on the success of King Biscuit Time.”
Programmers at KBT wanted to aim their show at a maximized black audience so the show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers in the Mississippi Delta. KBT has racked up more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand combined; it celebrated its 17,000th broadcast on May 13, 2014. The 30-minute live show is broadcast from the Delta Community Center in downtown Helena.
While working on the Stovall Plantation, just outside Clarksdale Mississippi, a young musician named Muddy Waters heard some King Biscuit Time broadcasts on his lunch hour and decided in 1943 to head north for the bright lights and blues music being played in Chicago. The rest was history in the making. Muddy’s electrified blues style not only changed the Chicago blues, it changed the whole world of blues music. And audiences across the world also got to hear Muddy Waters sing and play via radio, thanks to the financial support from a flour company.
“Until it’s on the radio or online, it’s not real,” claims Bono of U-2.
As a child without access to television in the early 1950s, radio was very real to me. Hovering around our old cathedral radio set, I would listen to football or baseball games and radio’s Golden Age serials like “The Shadow, “Sky King” and “The Lone Ranger.” I would get chills running down my spine just waiting for the shows to begin. I never had those same feelings for television. Maybe it was because I was older. Maybe not.
Robert Lockwood Jr. performs “King Biscuit Time”