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"Radio's Golden Age: Then and Now" On Display At WUWF

Radio’s Golden Age: Then and Nowis an exhibit of more than 30 vintage radios at WUWF’s Gallery 88. This display celebrates the early period, decades ago, when radio was king, and makes the case that it still is today.

“Well, the golden age for radio is really defined as from the late 1920s up until the early 1950s,” said WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford. “That was truly the age when radio was the number one medium for information and entertainment.”

Crawford adds those early years of radio featured a variety of programming, “Well, music of course, things like live symphony broadcasts, news of course.”

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Echophone S-4. Circa 1924-1945. This is the kind of tabletop radio that families would have gathered around during this period to listen to their favorite programs.

“This is KDKA of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We shall now broadcast the election returns,” states this recording from the nation’s first commercial broadcast from 1920, when Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge defeated James Cox and his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“So, the family would literally gather around the radio and look at the radio while they were listening and, of course, when FDR came along with his 'Fireside Chats' that was another thing that the family would just gather around the radio,” Crawford recalled of the era.

Beyond his “fireside chats,” President Roosevelt delivered one of early radio’s most famous broadcasts.

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan,” declared the President in his speech.

The exhibit, Radio’s Golden Age: Then and Now marks the re-opening of WUWF’s Gallery 88, which has been on hiatus for a couple of years. Crawford says he drew inspiration for this display from a visit with radio colleagues in Tallahassee.

“WFSU received a bequest from a family a few years back of an enormous collection of radios from this exact time period, and, I thought, hmm, I bet folks here in Pensacola would like to see some of these radios and learn a little bit about their history,” explained Crawford.

Then, just by chance, Crawford discovered another resource here at home, a vast collection of vintage radios owned by WUWF’s broadcast engineer Roland Phillips.

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Roland Phillips, WUWF engineer, shows off one of the antique radios in his collection. It's been restored and outfitted with Blue Tooth technology.

“I borrowed a few radios from my friends in Tallahassee, but the majority of this exhibit are the radios that Roland has restored, painstakingly,” Crawford said.

“He is a perfectionist. He has restored them externally and internally. The cabinetry is beautiful, looks just like it did when they were new. And, of course, the inside, the same thing. And, the majority of them are working radios.”

“My son bought a Philco console tube AM/FM radio because he wanted to refinish the cabinet for his living room. (He) asked me if I could fix it, maybe. And, I said, ‘well, maybe.’ I got a book, got the manual, and sure enough I fixed it,” recalled Phillips about how he was inspired to begin a collection. 

Repairing electronics since the 1960s, Phillips thought this would be a good hobby to have in retirement. The vintage tubes and other parts were easier to see and back in the 1990s, during his buying spree, old radios were easy to find.

“There were literally thousands of radios on e-Bay that people had taken out of their attics, closets, whatever, and they were getting rid of them to make a few bucks. And, I bought way too many,” he said with a chuckle.

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Early radios utilized tube technology.

Along the way, Phillips decided to stick with the Philco brand and wooden cabinets, as they were easier to repair and refurbish. As we walk through the exhibit space, he points out a favorite from his collection. It’s a Philco model no. 38-17, exhibit #16.

“I bought it actually by accident, didn’t know what it was, couldn’t find any service information on it,” said Phillips. “I found out that it is an upgraded model 38-15. It’s in a really nice cabinet, fairly rare, and it finished out really nice and it works pretty good and it’s small enough that I can keep it on my dresser.”

Phillips is also a bit nostalgic about his antique radios, as he was a child of the “golden age” of radio in the early 1950s.

“I can vaguely remember sitting in the living room on Saturday night, listening to radio programs. And, we used to listen to on Sunday afternoon, The Shadow came on,” Phillips recalled.

He noted that a lot of those old shows are now available on the internet.

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Roland Phillips shows off the Blue Tooth technology that he's installed inside this Philco 39-31 console. He can now listen to radio programs from today and yesterday on this 1939 radio.

“I’ve actually “Blue Toothed” a couple of these radios, link up to the classic mystery stuff and there it is, coming out of the speaker like it was 70 years ago,” said Phillips of this marriage of Blue Tooth technology with the frame of a 1930s radio.

This combination of old and new embodies the title of the exhibit, Radio’s Golden Age: Then and Now.

“The name, the reason we call it “Then and Now” is because, obviously it was king, undisputed king, back in that time period,” explained WUWF executive director Pat Crawford.

But, he argues that good old-fashioned radio is still king, persisting despite many predictions of its demise.

“For example, in the 1950s, of course, television came and everyone immediately said, ‘Well, why do we need to have radio, it’s going to put it out of business.’  It didn’t,” Crawford proclaimed.

After television, there was the cassette recorder in the 1960s, the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s, and MTV hit the airwaves in the 1980s. More recently, there’s been competition from Apple’s IPod and other such devices, satellite radio, and on-demand streaming platforms.

Crawford believes traditional over-the-air broadcasting has been able to survive all challengers because it’s been adaptable and remains most accessible and reliable, particularly during public emergencies - such as hurricanes.

He says radio is now stronger than ever, and he cites Nielsen ratings to back that up.

“Radio reaches 93% of adults on a weekly basis. Television reaches 88%, and smart phones, tablets and computers, collectively just reach 83% of adults,” reported Crawford. “So, over-the-air radio is still in its golden age, I think, and particularly, public radio, of course.”

Listen to great diverse radio programming today by tuning to 88.1FM.

Harken back those earliest days of radio broadcasting by checking out the beautiful vintage radio on display at WUWF’s Gallery 88.

Radio’s Golden Age: Then and Now will be open until October 31.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.