Setting the record straight- Radio’s birth in Buffalo

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo


Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting 


In history, definitives can be hard. Publicists are often most loose with noting something as “first” or “tallest” or “oldest,” because it sounds better than “one of the first,” one of the tallest,” or “one of the oldest.” A good publicist knows that even if you can’t be 100% sure of your claim– so long as no one is quick to challenge it, and so long as it gets repeated often enough, it becomes “fact.”

There were decades of advancements that lead up to the day that most historians agree was the birthdate of modern radio– November 2, 1920.

That’s when Experimental station 8XK in Pittsburgh–which would eventually become KDKA–broadcast the results of the Presidential Election in what is often heralded as “the start of the radio era.

But Pittsburgh was not alone on the radio dial that night. That same historic night, at the same exact time, election results broadcast by The Buffalo Evening News also came in loud and clear on wireless sets across Western New York.

Radio listeners in Buffalo and Pittsburgh had the same mind-blowing, history-making experience on what was a rainy evening in Western New York. People sat around their wireless sets in their living rooms, finding out in real time that Warren G. Harding had been elected President.

The newly born power of radio was equally evident in both cities, and the marvel and wonder surrounding this growing technology was exactly the same. In fact, it was all part of the same plan.

The American Radio Relay League, an amateur radio operator group still in business to this day, created a plan to “beat the regular wire service in getting the election returns to the public.”

“The plan is to have a good amateur transmitting station in each important city throughout the country send broadcast via radio the available data in his territory once every hour. This information will be picked up by thousands of radio amateurs who will arrange, through the local newspapers or in some other manner, to bulletin the returns for the general public in their respective territories.”

All this is described in a Pittsburgh Daily Post article, which goes on to say that Frank Conrad’s 8XK will take part in the effort for Pittsburgh area listeners.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 21, 1920

A Buffalo Evening News article announcing the broadcast of election returns for Western New York doesn’t mention the larger plan, but does offer more detail about the Buffalo plan.

Buffalo Evening News, October 28, 1920

So how is it that high school text books say Pittsburgh’s broadcast that night was “the historic first commercial broadcast” but the remarkably similar experience that listeners had in Western New York (and in other cities around the country) at the very same time goes unmentioned?

The simple answer is—the amateur operator in Pittsburgh, Frank Conrad, worked for Westinghouse Electric. Westinghouse had a lot riding on getting its radio equipment and vacuum tubes out on the market before David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America did.

Westinghouse saw gold in making sure that when people bought radios—they had something reliable to listen to. The company also saw an edge in being able to promote that they’d got a head start over RCA.

Westinghouse’s Pittsburgh station, the one that would eventually take the call letters KDKA, was first to broadcast in the battle between Westinghouse and RCA. That was the original claim. Even the Pittsburgh newspaper makes it clear that the station was one of many—tied for first, if we mark that day as the start of the modern era of radio.

As it often happens, Westinghouse’s heavy marketing very quickly dropped the “tied for first” notion, and over the last century, history has accepted the muddled marketing of a radio manufacturer as fact.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, nobody was bending the truth of radio’s birth to sell vacuum tubes. In fact, the historic events that took place that rainy night were mostly lost as history quietly turned the page. The high school electronics teacher who broadcast Buffalo’s first elections results didn’t work for a giant corporation.

In fact, after participating in the world’s first scheduled radio broadcast, Charles Klinck continued a normal life as an electronics teacher for the next four decades at various Buffalo high schools and then at Buffalo State Teachers College (Buff State) and Erie County Technical Institute (ECC). For Klinck, that night was about nothing more than using technology to get Western New Yorkers the news faster.

The point is, the listener experience was the same in Buffalo and in Pittsburgh. Thirty years later, teens who were choosing between WKBW and WNIA for their rock ‘n’ roll didn’t care that KB was in a million-dollar broadcast center and WNIA was (and is) in a ranch house in Cheektowaga. From its infancy, radio has been the theater of the mind.

Before the 1920s were out, Westinghouse and KDKA mounted bronze plaques and created marketing pieces calling their broadcast “the world’s first scheduled broadcast.” Buffalo’s participation that night was so utterly forgotten that the Courier-Express didn’t even mention any connection to radio when Klinck—Buffalo’s first broadcaster– died.

Eventually in Buffalo, marketing drummed up another radio “first” which, much like KDKA in Pittsburgh, has now been celebrated so long nobody seems to question it. May 22, 1922 is often marked as the anniversary date for the start of Buffalo radio.

That’s the date WGR signed on. WGR promoted its first broadcast as “the birth of Radio in Buffalo” when the station called itself “Buffalo’s First Licensed Broadcasting Station” during the station’s 25th anniversary year in 1947. By the mid-50s, that had been shortened to “Buffalo’s First Radio Station.”

First, let’s be clear. WGR did something Charles Klinck didn’t. WGR was a licensed commercial radio station, and the first successful radio station to survive– but it wasn’t the first.

But back in 1922, WGR was not claiming that their broadcast was the birth of Buffalo radio– because that would have sounded foolish to the people who’d been listening to Buffalo radio for years by then. Not only had folks listened to Klinck, but they also listened to another licensed station—WWT, which signed-on before WGR.

WWT had a host of technical problems and had nowhere near the support, staff, and finances that WGR had as an arm of the Federal Telephone and Telegraph Co.– but WWT, not WGR, was Buffalo’s first licensed station, for better or for worse.

Again, WWT disappeared when WGR signed on, and was mostly forgotten to history—to the point where nary an eyelash was batted when WGR “forgot” about the station 25 years later.

So the question remains…when should we mark the start of broadcasting in Buffalo?

It’s hard to say. Like most technological advances, the early days of radio were more about experimentation and evolution rather than definitive dots on a timeline.

To fix that, I don’t think we should erase dots—just add a few more and celebrate them all.

The research and writing presented in this book adds a few more dots on Buffalo’s broadcasting timeline, and reclaims some rich history that’s been long forgotten. It simply means more dates, stations, people and great moments in Buffalo broadcasting that are worthy of celebration.

Combined, they make for a full, rich history of a medium that has been a part of our lives—and reflective of our lives– in Buffalo for a century now.


This page is an excerpt from  100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online.

The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.