Radio Sets – Technology or Furniture?

If the Irish Free State was to fully participate in the radio age, then its citizens would of course need to own radios.  This was in itself a new departure in mass media, given that print culture required no special technology in order to participate (although it did require the special skill of literacy, but that had of course become largely taken for granted by the 20thC).  In this sense, the arrival of broadcast media had more in common, for its first generation of users, with the arrival of recorded music their parents’ generation had experienced twenty or thirty years earlier, because it also required the purchase of expensive and perhaps rather intimidating new technology.  The gradual spread of gramophones through middle-class homes from the 1890s (when many department stores, including Arnotts and Pims in Dublin for example, began advertising and selling them) may well have helped to prepare the Irish public for the arrival of radio sets as new media technologies for their homes.

Nevertheless, radios were expensive consumer goods in the 1920s, and there was clearly an understanding among all those involved in establishing Irish national broadcasting that persuading a sufficient proportion of the population to buy a set was a necessary part of radio culture taking hold in the country.  This was perhaps most immediately true of the retailers who initially committed to selling radios, and who could be seen in the mid-1920s working hard to establish them as desirable consumer goods.  Of course the cheapest way to acquire a radio was to build it yourself, as the component parts were relatively inexpensive, especially for the more basic crystal sets of the early 1920s.  The pages of the Irish Radio Journal were full of advertisements for fuses and valves, appealing to this market of early adopters.  However, the number of people with the skill or interest to build their own radios was finite, and if the medium was to expand into the wider population, then they needed to be persuaded to buy a fully-constructed radio from a retailer.

It is noticeable that the range and variety of retail radios being advertised to Irish consumers increased from the start of 1924, once the BBC’s programmes were already within range and the country waited for 2RN to begin broadcasting, reflecting an expansion of interest among the general public.  And some retailers used imaginative means to promote the new technology.  As early as March 1924, the opticians Dixon & Hempenstall (who had branched into selling radios as soon as they arrived on the Irish market) imported a delivery van whose chassis was an exact replica of the Ethophone V model of radio they were then currently selling for the eye-watering price of £37 10/- in their shop.  It drove around the streets of Dublin with speakers attached to its roof, replaying radio broadcasts to passers-by as a taste of what they could experience at home if they purchased a radio.

Looking at advertisements and feature articles for radios during the 1920s and 1930s, you can clearly see that their design rapidly developed its own aesthetic, and one which carefully negotiated both the excitement and anxiety involved for many purchasers in introducing a completely new form of technology into their homes.  This era was one which – in tandem with the spread of electrification into middle-class suburban homes – saw a great many new domestic appliances arriving in Irish homes.  The wonderful ESB archive for example shows many advertisements for electric cookers, irons, and fridges for sale via its showrooms during these years.  These were however all kitchen technologies, and as the idea of ‘domestic science’ took hold as a method for creating more efficient and comfortable homes, technological kitchens were readily accepted (especially as these appliances which were easier and cleaner to use than old kitchen ranges and fires).  The gramophone and then the radio were, however, the first technologies to invade living-rooms, traditionally a soft-furnished sanctuary from such signs of industrialisation and modernity.  Both of these technologies – but especially the radio – insinuated themselves into living-rooms by disguising themselves as furniture, their valves and wiring invisible inside walnut and mahogany cabinets of varying size depending on how upmarket a model the consumer could afford.  Smaller sets sat on table tops like polished wooden workboxes, larger ones were free-standing cabinets the size of a chest of drawers.  If the cutting-edge technology was hidden away, it was in the lines and patterns of their cabinets that radios embraced modernity – they typically displayed the sleek lines and bold patterns of art deco design, and may well have been the first example of modernist design into many Irish homes.  In 1934 for example Pim’s department store in Dublin were advertising ‘table’ and ‘console’ models of Murphy radios for just over £20 and £24 respectively, each displaying only a few discreet controls and one small dial on the face of bold contrasted wood cabinets which were made of ‘walnut and bird’s-eye maple’.  At the same time HMV were marketing combined radio-gramophones for £31, disguised in cabinets of dramatic art deco inlaid marquetry.  Even the Irish state recognised these radios as furniture, as indicated by a 1925 letter to the Evening Herald, complaining that imported radios were taxed at a rate of 33% precisely because ‘being enclosed in wooden cases they will be classed as furniture’.  This made radios very heavily-taxed consumer items indeed, given that buyers were also expected to buy a £1 annual license, the revenue from which was theoretically used to pay for the running costs of 2RN and 6CK.  In actual fact of course, non-payment of licenses was an issue from the very start.  Richard Pine’s excellent history of the early years of 2RN cites an estimation from 1926 that while there were 10,000 sets in the country there were only 3,000 licenses.  Even after the license fee was dropped to 10/- the following year and the number of radios had reached 25,000, only approximately three-quarters of those owners had a license.

The spread of radio ownership during the 1920s and beyond was therefore affected by the cost of sets themselves.  However from relatively early on, radio manufacturers began producing a wide range of models so that the market became very stratified and allowed ‘budget’ models for those with much more limited income.  To take just one example, by 1937 Philco were boasting that they offered 24 different models, the cheapest of which was £7 15/- and was branded as a ‘People’s Set’ because of its relative affordability (it is important to stress that this was still a considerable expense to most households).  However, there were other impediments to the spread of radio across all of Ireland, most significantly the lack of electricity in most rural homes until well after WWII.  Electricity spread fairly swiftly through middle-class homes in cities and towns after the founding of the ESB in 1927 but even then what it meant to ‘have electricity’ might often have meant only lighting and a couple of sockets. The villages and cottages who had been spoken of by officials in the run-up to 2RN’s launch as being the main beneficiaries of Irish broadcasting because of the improving effect it would have on country life frequently had no electricity in their homes until the late 1950s.  For this reason, ‘wet battery’ sets which could be recharged (a service often offered by local garages) were crucial to the spread of radio across rural Ireland, and it is significant that Philco’s relatively cheap ‘People’s Set’ was itself a wet battery model.

Although we have come to think of domestic media such as radios and televisions as being for private family use, this was frequently not initially the case, precisely because of their costliness.  Edward Brennan’s social history of television’s arrival in Ireland during the late 1950s and early 1960s includes many memories of people whose family was the first in their street to buy a television set and found themselves hosting many of their neighbours for particularly popular programmes (an experience which often involved having to feed those neighbours as well, a considerable cost in itself) and similar experiences seem to have occurred for early adopters of radio.  There is a remarkable photograph available on the RTE Archive website from 1933, and captioned ‘neighbours gathered at the house of Christy O’Riordan, O’Neill Street, Clonmel in 1933, to hear the 1933 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final on Radio Éireann’.  The photograph shows a group of men (and a few children) sitting on the ground in a garden around a large wooden radio which has been moved outside to accommodate the sheer size of its audience, all apparently listening with rapt attention.  Scenes like this, even on a much smaller scale, would have been a frequent social consequence of the gradual spread of radios throughout the country.  They were also of course a cause of that spread, as people experienced broadcasts in other homes and increasingly wanted a radio of their own.  Indeed, this aspect of radio’s spread through the Irish population had even been expressed by the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the Wireless Exhibition in November 1925 when he declared (in best salesman fashion), ‘Let every owner of a wireless set allow his friends to hear 2RN’s programmes, and we shall be quite safe, for each non-owner of a set will promptly decide that he must have one.  Christmas will soon be here – the ideal Christmas present is a wireless set complete with licence’.

References

Richard Pine, 2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio (Gill & MacMillan, 2002)

Edward Brennan, A Post-Nationalist History of Television in Ireland (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame Blog, at https://ibhof.blogspot.com/

The Irish Free State and the Radio Age

Official radio broadcasting in Ireland began on New Year’s Day 1926, when the Dublin station 2RN was launched, followed in April 1927 by the 6CK station in Cork to provide something closer to national coverage for what would become the national broadcaster Radio Éireann in later years.  The history of radio in Ireland is much older than that however.  Indeed Guglielmo Marconi himself had personal connections to Ireland, his mother having been a member of the Jameson family, and had done some of his initial testing of radio ranges from special stations set up in County Cork from 1902.  By the start of World War One, being a wireless operator for ship-to-shore communication (radio’s first purpose, before its broadcast possibilities were realised) had become a job possibility for some aspiring young men and there were businesses offering training courses for this new form of communication.  One such was the Irish School of Wireless on O’Connell Street, which holds the distinction of being the (probable) site of the first proper radio broadcast in Ireland when, during the 1916 Rising, the rebels took it over and used its equipment to broadcast James Connolly declaring ‘Irish Republic declared today in Dublin.  Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession.  Enemy cannot move in city’. 

Before this electrifying message could be sent however, Connolly’s troops in 1916 had to reconstruct the Wireless School’s decommissioned broadcasting equipment, because such apparatus was reserved for military use under special wartime regulations.  The end of World War One, far from ending official concerns about civilian possession of radio equipment in Ireland, only increased it as the country moved into the War of Independence and then the Civil War, although it seems inevitable that there were in fact many sets constructed from the fairly easily-available parts by the technology enthusiasts (ironically many of them deploying skills learned in the military during wartime) who drove the early development of radio in Ireland as elsewhere.  One of the reasons to believe that there were a significant number of ‘illegal’ radio sets in Ireland before the law was changed by 1924 was that as early as December 1923 Ireland’s first radio enthusiast’s magazine appeared.  Cheerfully undaunted by the longstanding  illegality of their readers’ hobby, the Irish Radio Journal: the Official Organ of the Radio Association of Ireland began appearing as a monthly publication full of articles about building, improving and using radio sets, evaluating the various parts needed to do so, and many advertisements for valves, fuses, and specialist wiring.  This magazine lasted only until January 1927, but by then it had been joined by the Irish Radio Review, the Irish Radio and Electric Journal, Irish Radio News and the Irish Radio Trader, as well as a variety of British radio enthusiast publications which were available in Ireland.  Most didn’t last very long, but Irish Radio News and the Irish Radio and Electrical Journal became well-established and both ran more or less until the television era.  A readership which could support these publications was obviously very keen on radio even while it had been technically illegal, a situation which was finally resolved (not without some turf wars between different government departments) ahead of the start of 2RN’s January 1926 broadcasts – thus avoiding a farcical situation in which the Irish state would have been broadcasting programmes which its citizens could theoretically have been prosecuted for listening to.

Just ahead of 2RN’s launch, a Wireless Exhibition was held at the Mansion House in Dublin in November 1925.  This was in part a trade fair for those in the new radio industry, but it was mainly intended to raise public interest in the new medium, encouraging new buyers to purchase radio sets in advance of Irish broadcasting beginning in the new year (the next post on this blog will be about radios sets themselves as expensive consumer items in the 1920s and 1930s).  Many retailers of component parts and complete sets took stands at the Exhibition, including the Marconi Company themselves, and there were also broadcasts by the BBC relayed into the Mansion House, as well as talks and lectures on the entertainment and educational value radio would bring to Ireland. 

Although the early days of radio in Ireland were relatively low-key in terms of the quantity (or, judging by some contemporary commentary, the quality) of programming, it is important to recognise what a watershed moment this was in Irish media history.  Radio broadcasting was at least as dramatic a change in mass media as the arrival of the internet some 70 years later – it was the first time that non-print media became available, it would rapidly come to offer programming formats unthinkable in print form (music, live sports coverage and breaking news), and it would offer it to a genuinely national audience, all listening to the same programme at the same time, in their homes.  You can sense even in ministerial speeches which refer to the opportunities radio will offer for enriching life in the Irish countryside where there are few other amusements, a shadow of the more robust excitement that must have been felt in those country homes as they tuned in their new radio set (usually powered by a rechargeable wet battery since most houses did not yet have mains electricity) and first heard broadcasts from Dublin, London and Hilversum, a world of broader horizons opening up directly in their homes.  

The recognition of radio’s immediate and widespread power also seems to have driven official Ireland’s responses to the new medium as well, in tones of  both approval and deep concern.  Many of the concerns were well-rehearsed during the work of the Wireless Committee which discussed and eventually decided to establish radio broadcasting in Ireland during the very early years of Independence.  Not surprisingly in the aftermath of nine years of more or less continuous warfare between 1914 and 1923, and especially given the anxieties about propaganda that those wars had caused (it is not a coincidence that the first modern assessments of propaganda, such as Harold Lasswell’s work, were published in the decade after WWI ended), some of the concerns about allowing radio into Ireland were driven by a fear of the power which might be exercised by those voices issuing directly into living-rooms and kitchens all over the country – a view ultimately undermined by the fact that Irish listeners could, by 1926, listen to foreign radio broadcasts but not ones regulated by their own government.  The importance of maintaining control of the national airwaves and also a more enthusiastic recognition that 2RN would be understood as the ‘voice of a nation’ by those who heard it internationally also motivated the Irish government’s refusal of several offers to establish commercial stations based in the country by ‘businessmen’ of varying degrees of shadiness.  Given how limited the budget for 2RN was, these offers to bear all the costs of providing radio services might have been very tempting for the Free State government, but the fact that these entrepreneurs’ principal aim was to broadcast intensive advertising across the Irish Sea to the otherwise advertising-free British airwaves discouraged them, as they were acutely aware that this would have resulted in the ‘voice of the nation’ being dominated by advertisements for patent medicines and processed food.

Another concern about the potential power of radio was that the new medium would promote foreign cultural forms and damage ‘native Irish’ culture at just the moment that national sovereignty had been achieved.  This anxiety would be reflected in on-going conflicts during the 1920s and 1930s about broadcasting time given (or not) to the Irish language and Irish music, as well as particular campaigns against popular music in particular – the unintentionally-hilarious Anti-Jazz campaign of 1934 is well worth exploring for anyone unfamiliar with it.  The early years of radio in Ireland were often marked by this tension between official (or self-appointed) guardians’ anxieties about its impact on Irish culture, language, morals or politics, and the fairly enthusiastic response to 2RN and other stations which could be picked up in homes around the country.  As JJ Walsh, the first minister to preside over Irish radio put it, in his own burst of considerable enthusiasm in his speech at the Wireless Exhibition in 1925,

“Hearing is surely the most precious sense mankind possesses; through it he receives the most rousing appeals that can be made to his reason and to his imagination.  Powerful as the written word may be, how much more powerful is the living voice which adds to the matter of the discourse the impetus of that subtle quality, the personality of the speaker?”

References

Richard Pine, 2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio (Gill & MacMillan, 2002)

Maurice Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Talbot Press, 1967)

Johannah Duffy ‘Jazz, Identity and Sexuality in Ireland During the Inter-War Years’, Irish Association for American Studies, No. 1 (2009)

Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame Blog, at https://ibhof.blogspot.com/