Department stores and the origins of American broadcasting, 1910-1931
Arceneaux, Ronald Jude
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When the technological and social practice of broadcasting became widespread in the early 1920s, radio stations were started by a variety of groups for a variety of reasons. A few dozen department stores established their own stations, using the nascent medium of radio to stimulate a demand for receivers and to promote their overall business. Drawing from the prior literature on the early broadcast industry and the history of department stores, original archival research, and informed by the theories of the social construction of technology and the diffusion of innovations, this dissertation explores department store radio stations of the 1920s and early 1930s. This group of stations has never been documented or studied in any systematic fashion, though many department stores facilitated the growth of broadcasting through the stations they operated, shows they sponsored on others, and promotional activities that actively encouraged this new form of communication. Philadelphia was the most active city for this type of broadcasting, with four major retailers establishing their own stations in 1922. These stations are at the center of the narrative, although those located elsewhere are also included in order to paint a broader picture of the phenomenon. In contrast to those historians who have framed the commercialization of American radio as a declensionist narrative, this dissertation stresses the explicitly commercial nature of many early radio stations. The stations operated by department stores, for example, fashioned programs around specific types of merchandise, advertised their parent company, and drew potential consumers onto the sales floor. This initial approach to radio advertising helped to pave the way for the model of commercial of broadcasting which developed in the United States. In the second half of the 1920s, as resistance to direct forms of advertising decreased, the stores were again at the forefront of this change and their Òradio shopping showsÓ directly foreshadowed the rise of home-shopping and e-commerce. The educational efforts of the department stores, including set-building contests, window displays, and classes, also reveal that the commercialization of a new media technology is not necessarily a later stage occurrence in the overall pattern of technological diffusion but may affect the initial stages of innovation itself.