Improving the microphone for radio in the 1920s forced record companies to improve the fidelity of their product, the record
Researching Rock ‘n’ Roll has led me to investigate the technology that enabled the music we hear. Of course there was the development of the electric guitar, the loud speaker, and the amplifier. Many of these developments came along at the same time as the commercial use of voice broadcasting through the medium of radio starting in 1920. Use of these electrical inventions for radio also meant rapid improvement to the various devices as amateurs and professional engineers came up with new ideas to build them, and the record companies found they had to keep up with the changes. With the advent of voice coming over the radio using an electrically driven loudspeaker, and fast developing improvements to microphones, the record companies at the same time knew they had to improve the fidelity of the 78 rpm records to keep up.
Spokane’s E.B. Craney along with Tom Symons started broadcasting with the call letters of KFDC (eventually this station became KXLY) Oct. 18, 1922 out of the Symons Building between Sprague and First Avenues along Howard Street using Craney’s equipment he’d collected as an amateur radio operator. Craney had earlier that year graduated from North Central High School where he was involved with the radio club helping operate the school’s amateur radio station (using code, not voice) with an antenna on the school’s rooftop. The signal they broadcast would often reach a university in Montana where students there listened on receivers and transmitted back in (Morse) code. Operating the radio station on top of the Symons Building, Craney played music, and when possible, had conversations with fellow radio enthusiasts. That same summer in Spokane, Pacific Telegraph had a transmitter working, as well as selling radio parts, and ran a radio school. A Spokane phone company had a working transmitter and hobbyists with crystal receivers could listen in on the conversations between supervisors and workers.
KHJ in LA was broadcasting, and in Seattle the PI newspaper had a transmitter that they listened too as well.
Just before he got together with Symons, Craney was working a summer job in a newly opened radio supply store in Spokane that was going nowhere. When Symons offered to buy out the store and go into business for himself, Craney told him that they could improve the sales of radio equipment if Spokane had a radio broadcast station of its own. Using his own amateur equipment, Craney and Symons set up and broadcast from the Symons building with five watts of power. “The furthest we got was down to Sprague and we thought that was pretty good.” The antenna went from a pole on the roof of the Symons Block building across First Avenue to a theater sign on the Columbia Block.
They built the radio station on the roof of the Symons Block building working their way up from 5 watts to 50 watts of broadcasting power over the next two years. Since their electrical generator created a hum in the signal, Craney switched to wet batteries to help eliminate the signal noise from the broadcast. In those days downtown Spokane was on DC currant. To charge the second set of batteries while the first set were in use, they just hooked up to Spokane’s current and the batteries charged up. Craney said use of the batteries “. . . cleaned the signal up, it cleaned it up real nice.”
Because the radio stations used both transmitter and receiver, station operators talked to each other after midnight, and to amateurs. The stations also rebroadcast the signal they were receiving, some from as far away as San Francisco and Calgary, Canada. Talking to each other at night was important as they used the time to improve the quality of the broadcast while experimenting with new equipment. “Out of these late night rebroadcast sessions many improvements were made on equipment circuits. Amateurs did a lot to help improve modulation too,” Craney said. Operators would roam the frequencies looking to get better signal connections with the various other operators. Senator Clarence Dill of Washington State, and from Spokane, and who was responsible for the Radio Act of 1927, talked to Craney one day about his and Symons radio station, “Dill always was kidding me, he said ‘The reason that I wrote that law was in order to control you. Because’ he said, ‘you were all over the dial out here in Spokane.’”
The station at North Central had been off the air for three years in 1927 when the Radio Act was passed by Congress. Charlie Smith, the physics teacher who had started the radio club, got a license and wanted to get back on the air. Craney helped him with the equipment to get up and running.
In 1922 record companies were still producing 78 rpm records using acoustic horns, the kind you see amplifying the sound coming from the 78 rpm records on Victor wind-up record machines, to transmit the voice and instruments to the diaphragm scribing a revolving disc of wax. Radio voice broadcasters were using transmitters (microphones) taken from telephones. Record companies had to rethink record recording to keep up.
Craney’s first microphone used to transmit his voice over radio waves was from a Federal Telephone company phone which used a double button transmitter in the handset. The phone transmitter, was filled with carbon granules inside of the diaphragm that improved the quality of the voice transmission through the phones electrical circuit. Every few months inventive electrical engineers would come up with improved microphones just for the new radio industry. Craney’s first updated microphone for broadcasting was from Western-Electric and cost $125. “The minute that a new microphone would come out that you could get a hold of, why your voice and your studio program immediately became better than the phonograph record you had. And this started in to make phonograph records frowned upon because their quality was not as good as the studio could be.”
But the record companies were soon grabbing new microphones ahead of when the radio broadcasters could get them; when they did this their records started to sound better than the radio studio broadcast until the broadcasters got the same or better microphones. A short time later in 1931 RCA Victor released records using a new material, vinyl, rather than shellac. But because record sales were dismal due to radio playing music for free, and the public was not buying records, along with the start of the Great Depression, RCA Victor stopped using vinyl as it required new machines to play them. All these improvements came together in the late 1940s to give Rock ‘n’ Roll the medium in which it was to be heard.
Craney, E.B. OH 38-39 EWSHS, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Joel E. Ferris Research Library and Archive. E.B. Carney was interviewed by Bill Moore. 19 December, 1975.
Copyright © Robert G. Schoenberg 2012