H. W. Arlin: Broadcasting Radio in the 1920s

Photo of KDKA radio announcer Harold W. Arlin in 1921
KDKA announcer H. W. Arlin on the radio in 1921

Announcing radio programs might be called the world's most recent profession, because announcers for broadcasting stations were introduced first about four years ago when KDKA, the world's pioneer station of the Westinghouse Company at East Pittsburgh, Pa., was started.

H. W. Arlin, the world's pioneer radio announcer, made his debut early in 1921 and has been continuously "on the air" since. Thus his long service entitles him to the honors of being the veteran of radio announcers.

Arlin's studio experiences have been many and varied. Life as a radio announcer is not a drab affair, as there is a necessity of being continually on the "qui vive."

In the following interview Arlin tells of some of his studio experiences and some interesting contacts with his radio public.

"I am often asked the question, 'Do you become tired of announcing?' or 'Does radio work become monotonous?' My answers to such questions are always in the negative, thanks to an ever-curious and an assisting public. By such an answer, I mean that any monotony which might otherwise tend to creep into the almost continual execution of programs is quickly dispelled by a multitude of extraneous duties with which an announcer is confronted.

"Probably one of the most interesting phases of studio work comes through contact with the public, not entirely by personal association, but also through the telephone and telegraph. No work can become monotonous or tiresome where the public is involved . On the contrary, I have found that a study of the whims and fancies of the public has been an exceedingly interesting one. Paraphrasing the famous expression of Abraham Lincoln, 'You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you can't please all of the people all of the time.' Not in radio, at any extent. This statement could be applied to the view of the public on any one phase of radio entertainment such as music or sports. When applied to all of the phases of radio, it becomes many more times effective. What one person likes, another dislikes, and what one person condemns, another approves; so an announcer is almost justified in concluding that a 50-50 break with the listening public is fair enough, However, 100 percent satisfaction is always the goal.

"In telling of the announcer's contact with the public we may take into consideration only one phase of this contact; that of telephone conversations. The nature of the telephone messages received, together with the conversations that follow, tend to create in one a desire for the study of people. The thoughts and ideas which prompt these many calls are perhaps innumerable; perhaps some one conceives an idea by which radio can be of aid to him in his own personal advancement or the advancement of some pet theory, or possibly someone desires some information which may vary from that of a query regarding what is the proper food to give a sick baby to that of certain details regarding a program to be broadcast several weeks hence.

"A few of the seemingly endless number of such questions and requests may be of interest. A confiding interest in our listeners, (this same public) will necessitate the omission of the names of any personalities involved in the following:

"One of our good Canadian friends recently called to tell us about a circular parking station he had invented for automobiles which would handle 200 cars and which could be operated by one man . Appreciating the need for better parking service and predicting great success for his venture, he requested that we advise the radio public of his invention with full details as to where to purchase these stations.

"A lady calls us and requests that we announce that she has just left a package of pajamas on the street car and would like to have the service of the radio in recovering them. After being informed that we never make local announcements except in cases of robberies, kidnapping, lost persons and such emergencies, she replies, 'Well, this is an emergency case, because it is the only package I had.'

"An elderly lady, apparently a student of nature, calls and gives us the following important news item: 'Will you please announce that t here is about four inches of snow in my backyard and that I have just seen two cardinal red birds?' Of course, a very usual sight for this time of the year.

"No sooner is the telephone receiver on the hook than the bell again rings and an innocent feminine voice pops the following impression: 'I just heard you announce that you had received a telegram from New York commenting on the program. I would like to know if you are also broadcasting to Ohio tonight, as I would like to request a number for some friends out there who do not have the advantages of a radio.'.

"It has also been brought very forcibly to my attention that radio has made a greater impression upon the public than has music. Of the many proofs of this statement, I might cite an occasion on which a program was being presented by the great Fritz Kreisler.

The telephone rings and the following question comes from one of our listeners: 'Do I have to listen to that novice all evening?' A very provoking question to ask an announcer on such an occasion. He was then asked if he knew who he was listening to and after replying in the negative, he was very politely told that if his set was not working properly or that if he didn't appreciate the music, he was in no way obligated to keep on listening the rest of the evening. This, apparently, answered his first question satisfactorily, and was an answer which fortunately savored very little of the thoughts that were running through the announcer's brain.

"A lack of appreciation for the success of artists or for the repertoire used by them sometimes results in requests which provoke a smile from the person to whom they are addressed. When presenting a program at KDKA recently Christine Miller Clemson, who before her marriage was one of the country's contraltos and a concert singer with an enviable record, was requested to sing the jazz number 'Red Hot Mamma.'.

"Perhaps one of the most common requests received is that requesting an artist to sing a particular number. In spite of the fact that there are thousands of songs, a good many listeners cannot quite understand why the singer does not have the particular number they request. Song pluggers are requested to sing 'Arias' and grand opera stars are requested to sing jazz numbers by the well-meaning audience. It also happens quite often that in spite of the fact that we receive hundreds of requests for numbers during a particular evening, some well-meaning individual is at a loss to know why his or her particular request was not granted.

"Oftentimes a party will call and ask the following question or a similar one: 'I have a five-tube neutrodyne set and cannot hear anything. Will you please tell me what is the matter with my set?' The opinion seems to be quite prevalent among a good many listeners that the wavelength determines the distance which a station can be heard, and usually the belief prevails that the distance a station can be heard varies directly with its wavelength. This opinion is the cause of some very humorous questions being asked.

"Among the innumerable questions are such questions as these: What time is it? Where is station WXV located? What is the name of the waltz the band played last Saturday night? What is the wavelength of station WXV? How far are you broadcasting tonight? Who is going to give your program on the 2nd of next month?'

"And so the announcer soon finds himself converted into an information bureau from which the dissemination of news adds a very colorful diversion to his vocation."

From Radio Age, June 1925