Early Radio Announcers Invented Their Profession in the 1920s

Photo of KDKA radio announcer Harold W. Arlin in 1921. He's holding a piece of paper and standing at a microphone consisting of two boxes perched on a large wooden column.
KDKA announcer H. W. Arlin on the air in 1921

Anyone who listens to the radio knows that the announcer or disc jockey has gone through some form of training to do the job right. But obviously in the early days of radio, there were not any schools to train people in the field of communications. So that meant anyone who wanted to do on the air work could just walk down to the local radio and ask for a job, and most likely they would get one.

The first person who deserved to have the title of announcer was H. W. Arlin who got his job just by hanging around the local radio station. He attended the University of Kansas and earned a degree in 1917 in electrical engineering. He was working in the east Pittsburgh plant of the Westinghouse graduate student training course.

At the time that the station KDKA went on the air in 1920, he was a supervisor, which would allow him to get all around the studio. He peeked in the studio one night and after a conversation with the person who was working at the station, got himself a job.

On Jan. 1, 1921, Arlin became the first permanent station announcer. The studio did not look like one -- basically, the studio was anywhere from which you could broadcast. A tent was set up next to the station shack that housed the transmitter, but the tent was not every helpful when any kind of bad weather came around!

Also, the 8:30 p.m. train did not help them any, as its whistle was heard during any program that was on, and this was a major annoyance. One night a tenor was brought in to sing. When he opened his mouth to sing, an insect tried to explore his mouth and the tenor said some words you do not say on radio, let alone anytime. The engineer did not wait to cut the power.

Arlin was everything that a radio station needed. He also became the first sports announcer in the nation when in 1921, he broadcast a prizefight at Motor Square Garden that was transmitted via telephone to Arlin in the studio.

The first New York radio announcer was Thomas Cowan. He was given the job when station WJZ went on air. The studio was a shack on a roof at the Westinghouse plant in Newark, New Jersey. He officially started on October 1, 1921. At 8 p.m. he went on air with these famous words, "This is WJZ, WJZ, WJZ, the radio telephone station located in Newark, New Jersey. This is announcer Cowan. Please stand by to tune.

The station only stayed on the air for two and a half hours, but that is a lot of time for a radio announcer. He decided to play phonographs on the air. He had earlier borrowed a phonograph and some records from his friend Thomas Edison. A few days later, Edison called and asked the station to stop playing the records, so they returned them and bought their own.

Cowan also brought singers to go on the air. After a while, he did not have to request that singers go on air; they volunteered.

WJZ made up a new studio with carpets, drapes and a better piano. Limousines were rented to pick up the singers, and their photos were hanging on the walls. Cowan later resigned from being an announcer but became a station manager and brought in Milton Cross. Cross took the job because he was a singer and thought that singing on the radio would enhance his musical career, plus he would get paid $40 for four nights of singing. He even read the Sunday comic strips when the Newark author didn't show up to read them.

However, there was one rule on his job that probably not many announcers appreciated: They were not allowed to use their own names on the air. So Milton Cross became "AJN."

Ryan Mihalak in Old Time Radio Gazette, February 1994

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