In 1938, radio was soaring in popularity. But when St. Louis radio station managers were asked to predict radio’s future in 1938, they got it all wrong.
The nation was on the tail end of the Depression, and 82 percent of households had radios. Television was still being developed. Radio’s programming was part of what is now called its “Golden Age.”
Here in St. Louis in September of 1938, KMOX put local station owners and managers on the air in a roundtable discussion to talk about the business.
Merle Jones of KMOX was quick to note just how much radio contributed to the local economy. Just ten years prior, he noted, the city’s largest station employed 20 people. Ten years later the situation had changed dramatically. The smallest station employed 35 full-time workers and the largest had 120 full-timers and another 50-75 air staff members on call. That station, KMOX, had an annual payroll then of over $400,000.
Local stations were also making a mark nationally. Hundreds of local programs were being run over the four major radio networks, which was seen as a way of promoting St. Louis as a progressive city.
So things were going well. But when they were asked about radio’s future, none could foresee the coming world war and the part Edward R. Murrow and his peers would play in making radio a necessity in every home in the nation. Instead, they focused on a new technical development, radio facsimile.
George Burbach of KSD said his station was ready to begin testing the new system of news delivery within the next 30 days. The system involved using radio waves to sent special facsimile versions of the Post-Dispatch into the homes of subscribers.
Initially, Burbach said, testing would be limited to a few receivers in the city and county. The special radio receiver contained a clock but no frequency dial. Owners would set the clock to turn on the machine at a certain time in the very early morning hours, and the news would begin printing out. It was a slow process, requiring several minutes per page, but radio people and Post management were excited about the possibilities.
For the paper, it meant readers would receive their copy in the morning, which would compete with the Globe-Democrat. For radio stations, it meant respectability that up to that point had been called into question.
That’s because the so-called “Press-Radio War,” which pitted newspapers against radio stations, had shut radio out of many aspects of the news delivery business. Newspaper owners had successfully banned broadcasters from the Congressional press galleries and had forbidden the Associated Press from selling its service to radio stations.
If radio could provide a printed news summary, it could get around many restrictions.
William West, then-manager of WTMV, said his station had already applied for a facsimile license and was planning to apply for a license for television as soon as possible.
Facsimile news officially began in St. Louis December 7, 1938. It that world premier, 15 homes received a special, abbreviated edition of the day’s Post-Dispatch, with the transmission beginning at 2:00 a.m. and usually taking around two hours to complete.
But the “wow factor” of facsimile was limited, and the system never really caught on. The “experiment” died after two years. By that time, all ears were focused on the live reports from Europe, describing a developing war. The U.S. didn’t want to be a part of it, but many citizens still had relatives living in Europe, and live reports on radio trumped newspaper reports. In 1941, 13 million radio receivers were sold in the U.S.
After Pearl Harbor, all technical development in broadcasting was halted, and radio became an even stronger medium in the dissemination of news.