Marconi was first, but San Jose's Doc Herrold was Firster.

Updated: Jun 12


Wednesday, June 15, 2022, marks the 102nd anniversary of what many consider the first official "Entertainment" radio broadcast.

The Marconi New Street Works radio factory in Chelmsford, England, received a general experimental broadcast license in late 1919 with the MZX call sign. It was necessary to test newly manufactured transmitters, so they would power them into an antenna and invite people to read "railway timetables or similar mundane material" over the air.

Listeners wrote to Marconi and suggested that he air more enlightening material. As a result, some locals were invited to the factory to tell stories or sing from a makeshift studio.

The Daily Mail newspaper, sensing a potential publicity windfall, paid Dame Nellie Melba to travel to Chelmsford by train. She was picked up in a chauffeur-driven car and taken the long way around Chelmsford on a touring route advertised beforehand to waving crowds before arriving at the studio.

Her historic performance was very well received, although she decided that possible future paid live performances might suffer if she was often on the radio. As a result, she refused to make any future radio performances, thus becoming possibly the first "one hit wonder" on the radio.

Despite the nearly universal recognition of this broadcast as a first, San Jose's Charles Herrold had been broadcasting from his downtown San Jose radio studio since before 1912, almost a full decade before Marconi's "Historic First." In addition, his wife sang and played records over the air to local audiences for years before the Marconi/Daily Mail-sponsored event.

Although his broadcasts already attracted significant audiences, Herrold received massive recognition for the 1915 World's Fair — the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition. Lee de Forest was to have operated a radio station on the fair's site but failed to deliver. Herrold jumped into the gap left by de Forest's failure and provided music and other broadcasts from his San Jose station, more than 50 miles away, a stunning feat at the time. Few believed radio could be viable over such vast distances, even though the first transatlantic signal occurred in 1901.

So, thanks to the publicity and endorsement by the London Newspaper, Marconi and Dame Melba receive credit for the first broadcast, and absent media publicity, Charles Herrold's early broadcasts are nearly forgotten.

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