From its birth in 1920 to the rise of television in the early 1950s, commercial radio played a central role in American life. For much of this era, the radio itself held an honored place in the center of the home. Entire families would gather around it to hear important news events, listen to live music, or catch the latest installment of a hit drama or comedy series such as The Lone Ranger or Amos ‘n Andy.
But by the early 1950s, technological shifts—most notably the introduction of television into the family living room—heralded significant changes in the American people’s relationship with radio. The rise of smaller, portable radios meant that individuals could now listen virtually any time or place. The growing popularity of television rendered radio drama and comedy series nearly obsolete; listeners were less satisfied with merely listening to stories on radio when they could see them unfold before their eyes on television.
But far from disappearing from American life, as some predicted, radio instead reinvented itself in the early 1950s. Recorded popular music would come to play an increasingly central role in radio programming over the next two decades, as opposed to the live performances that dominated the airwaves in the decades prior. As the major networks, such as NBC and CBS, shifted their attention from radio to television, radio stations came more and more under local control, allowing for greater experimentation and creativity in programming. One such local owner, Todd Storz of WKOH in Omaha, Nebraska, pioneered a new format in which listeners could hear recordings of their favorite songs over and over again, paving the way for what would soon become known as “Top 40” radio. Some stations began playing a broader range of recorded music, including some that emphasized Rhythm and Blues performed by African-American artists. These changes set the stage for radio to play a central role in the Rock and Roll explosion of the late 1950s.