One can see the technological impact of radio in a silent newsreel from 1926 titled “Wireless—The Link of Empire.” In the broadcast, premiers from across the British Commonwealth visit a wireless broadcasting station in Great Britain. This is the only description that the newsreel offers to viewers. Nothing is obviously heard and few words are projected on the screen, but the film reveals a great deal about the impact of radio. In the midst of their presumably busy schedules while visiting the metropole, British heads of state take time to visit a radio tower. In today’s world, little thought is given to radio towers, but in the 1920s, such technology was unprecedented. Citizens from all over the British Commonwealth could listen to the same material being broadcast and stay culturally connected with the home islands.
Gramophones allowed listeners to hear the latest music, but only after the records were first recorded and released for purchase. The radio soon became the vehicle by which young British listeners heard the latest music on a daily basis. These younger listeners constituted the bulk of the overall listening population. The children and adolescents who were not old enough to fight in the first World War soon came of age and represented an important group of music consumers. The renowned British physicist R. V. Jones had this to say of his younger years:
“My main hobby in my schooldays was, as with many other boys of my generation, the making of radio receiving sets . . . It was . . . as near magic as anyone could conceive, in that with a few mainly home-made components simply connected together one could conjure speech and music out of the air.”
Given that Jones was a physicist, it is surprising that he used the metaphor of magic to describe radio. However hyperbolic, this statement is an insightful commentary on the cultural effect of radio. It is easy to understand Jones’ metaphor when one considers that a relatively simple box of electronics facilitated the information and entertainment needs of a mass audience.
The ability to reach a mass audience was an opportunity that the dance bands of the early 1920s could not take for granted. According to Mark Hustwitt, the radio provided dance bands with the best way to disseminate their music. Radios were not present in the majority of British homes until the mid 1930s, but most people would have encountered the radio in some form or another well before then. Even the BBC, thought to be a proponent of only high art, began broadcasting dance music in the early 1920s from its studios in London’s Savoy Hill. The radio allowed even the poorest citizens the chance to hear the music being performed at high-priced venues, and it also reduced the need of bands to perform at multiple locations each evening. The end product of these two phenomena was that music was reaching more people than ever before and radio was able to cross the class divide like nothing else before it. The fact that a large audience was now able to hear the same material led to a standardization of music. Popular music was now more easily identified: it was the music most listened to on the radio.
The following podcast by Roger Wilmut features a series of recordings made by British dance bands in the 1920s and early 1930s.