By Jerry L. Wallace
May 30, 1922 is a Red-Letter Day in the history of presidential communications. On that day 100 years ago, Warren G. Harding became the first President to speak over radio. The occasion was the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
Remarkably, this significant moment in radio history is little known. You will not find it cited in “This Day in History” columns. Why? Because the history of commercial radio programming during the 1920s was generally ignored. What history we do have is often incomplete, confusing, and riddled with errors. Radio’s rapid and impressive technical development, though, was closely followed and well documented.
As for President Harding, he and his administration had a close association with early radio broadcasting. Famously, the Westinghouse station, KDKA, in Pittsburgh, PA—the first licensed commercial station—broadcast the news of his election on November 2, 1920. Afterward, plans were made to broadcast his inaugural ceremony on March 4, 1921, but those plans were dropped for reasons of economy.
Harding viewed commercial radio favorably. But, during his presidency, radio was very much in its infancy. Indeed, it would be well into the 1920s before radio found a means to support itself financially, and the technology developed to make network broadcasting practical. During this early period, Harding encouraged its growth and development. He did so through his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, who allowed radio to work out its own destiny. Importantly, this also involved the administration rejecting the idea of government ownership, such as was then common in Europe. Some thought of the Navy and Post Office Departments as candidates for shepherding its development.
On February 8, 1922, Harding had the first radio installed in the White House. This received national press attention. That spring, photographs appeared in newspapers of government officials, sitting at their desks, wearing headphones, while fidgeting with their radio receivers. The government was placing its stamp of approval on the growing radio fad. Sales of radios boomed. Christmas of 1922 became the “Radio Christmas.”
Why did it take Harding 15 months to make his radio debut? Early in his administration, he was deluged with requests to participate in radio events. He simply did not have the time to do so, nor did he want to choose favorites. On March 7, 1922, he issued a press statement that he would not be making radio broadcasts. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Washington’s primary radio stations, NOF and NAA, were operated by the Navy. Members of Congress used NOF to reach out to their constituents, but not in a political way. That ended on the night of March 30, 1922, when Senator Harry S. New, Republican of Indiana, who was then engaged in a primary battle, delivered a speech to Indiana Republicans. A political firestorm broke out. Democrats were outraged and demanded equal rights at the microphone. The result was that Secretary Denby closed Navy stations to political and other talks of a nonofficial nature, while a policy was worked out.
Denby’s edict did not prohibit official broadcasts. Thus, on Decoration Day 1922, President Harding stepped in front of a microphone at the Lincoln Memorial—placed in a white box to blend in with the monument’s white columns—and accepted it on behalf of the American people. The ceremony was broadcast over NOF at 412 meters and NAA at 2650 meters. Other stations picked it up and relayed it around the country.
A few days later, June 14, Harding journeyed to Baltimore for the unveiling of the Francis Scott Key Memorial. His remarks there were broadcast over WEAR, a commercial station. To cap off the year, on December 8, 1922, Harding delivered his Annual Address (now called State of the Union) to Congress, which was jointly broadcast by NOF and NAA.
More elaborate broadcasts took place during his Voyage of Understanding trip to the Western states, Canada and Alaska in 1923 at St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, and Salt Lake City.
At San Francisco, on July 31, 1923, Harding’s schedule called for him to give an address described as “a spectacular radio demonstration,” but his serious illness caused its cancellation. Regrettably, President Harding did not live to take full advantage of the new medium of radio to communicate directly with the people.
Jerry Wallace is a scholar of the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and has been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972. Formerly, he was an historian and archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. He also is a member of the Friends of WG Harding and researches the Harding Administration, as well. He resides in Oxford, KS.