PIONEER PROFILES - from Radio World Newspaper, November 1995


by Barry Mishkind ... copyright 1995

Long before anyone even thought about the question of who was the first broadcaster, a long list of young men around the world were experimenting with the new technology that Marconi had brought forth, the wireless transmitter.

Fessenden, De Forest, Tesla, Hertz, Edison, Conrad, Herrold, Stubblefield, and many more were out there. When the Department of Commerce began issuing licenses in 1911, a number of amateurs applied for licenses to cover their experimental stations constructed over the previous five or six years. (By the way, the first license was issued to George Lewis of Cincinnati, OH.)

In the main, Marconi, Fessenden, Hertz, Edison, even De Forest, came to be better known as scientists and inventors, rather than broadcasters. And, while KDKA truly has its place in history as the earliest of licensees with the word "commercial" attached (even though commercials as we know them, were still several years off), several stations trace their history before November 1920, and even before KDKA's predecessor 8XK. Hence, trying to specify "The Father of Broadcasting" may not be a reasonable assignment. For example, what about Charles D. Herrold?

Charles "Doc" Herrold

A decade before Frank Conrad built the radio station that would become KDKA as part of a bet on the accuracy of his watch, Charles Herrold was experimenting in San Francisco. But it was the initiation of voice transmissions from his "Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering" at San Jose, CA in 1909 that made Charles "Doc" Herrold a true pioneer.

Herrold was born November 16, 1875 in Illinois. His father was both a farmer and inventor. With this sort of example, it was natural that Charles was also keenly interested in science and mechanics. Like his father, he was an inventor, developing new products in many fields, including dentistry and surgery, photography, and music.

As part of his early love of astronomy, he invented a clock driven telescope. However, it was the loss of his school's only astronomy professor thatcaused him to move to physics, and electricity and the wireless took over his life.

Eventually Herrold built a 15 watt spark gap transmitter. He wanted more, however, than just telegraphy. He wanted to transmit voice information. A carbon microphone was connected in series with the B+ high voltage supply to the spark transmitter. As much as 50 watts of output power could be developed this way.

Early listeners begain to hear "This is the Herrold Station" or "San Jose Calling". The call letters "FN" were adopted for a while, as were 6XE, 6XF and SJN.

However, transmission time was curtailed by the need to replace the carbon element every one or two hours. Improvements were made, leading to the invention of the "Arc Fone." The Arc Fone was essentially six arc lights in series which developed a high frequency arc carrier upon which voice could be carried. At first, the necessary 500 volts was tapped from the streetcar lines. A special water cooled microphone had to be built to prevent it from burning out. The Arc Fone was patented on December 21, 1915.

In the meantime, Herrold had decided one of the best uses for his invention was to feed the interest of experimenters with regular programs that would publicize his College. He set up a listening room with chairs and 24 sets of receivers at a local furniture store. Later he would set up another transmitter at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, becoming a pioneer "two way" broadcaster in 1912.


It may well be that the weekly "Little Ham Program," sent out every Wednesday evening at 9PM qualifies as the start of broadcasting, at least by the definition Herrold himself used. As the son of a farmer, the concept of "broadcasting" seed was well known to Herrold. He claimed to have been the first to adapt the term to the wireless, and particularly in relation to regularly scheduled entertainment programs.

The disk jockey on Herrold's station was noteworthy: the first woman to broadcast was his wife, Sybil. Playing records provided by the Sherman Clay music store, the Herrold's likely developed the first "trade-out!" Listeners from as far away as 900 miles called to request records during the program. Among the other techniques used by Herrold to cultivate interest in his station were weekly prizes awarded to regular listeners.

Aside from ads for his College and the trade-out ads for the records from Sherman Clay, Herrold had no commercials as we know them. However, he apparently had some ideas, and wrote the Department of Commerce to ask about using the station for paid advertising. It is reported the response was "Under the laws we can find nothing by which we can prevent your selling merchandise over the air, but by the Lord Harry we hope that somebody does."

By 1915, Herrold's station SJN was well known throughout the region by amateur radio enthusiasts. But it was during the World's Fair of that year that the new medium was given a real stress test. Lee de Forest had set up a transmitter and receiver at the Fair, but the transmitter failed to operate. The upshot? Herrold's Arc Fone transmitted from San Jose to the fairgrounds, some 50 miles, eight hours a day during the Fair.

The demonstration amazed the people, who listened to news about the Fair and music. We today can only imagine what it was like: one of Herrold's associates reported that people who came into the booth would often start looking under the table, or in the back. They just did not believe the voices and music were coming from 50 miles away!

Recognition elusive

So, with all this background, why is it that many books and historians ignore "Doc" Herrold and his achievements? Perhaps it was just a matter of timing. In April 1917, all non-governmental broadcasting was ordered off the air for the duration of the war. During that time, all radio patents were "pooled" in order to provide the best radios for the military. Electronic advances tied to De Forest's Audion tubes and others made the mechanical Arc Fone obsolete.

After the war, Herrold had to rebuild his station to conform with the new standard of broadcasting. In 1921, the Department of Commerce assigned KQW as the station identification. (The last change in calls was in 1949 and the station is known today as KCBS, San Francisco.)

Unfortunately, Herrold had a hard time keeping his station going into the 1920s, and his dream began to unravel as he was forced to sell KQW in 1925. Sadly, the "handshake" arrangement he had with the 1st Baptist Church broke down and he was soon fired as the station engineer.

Over the years, Herrold tried various ways to stay near broadcasting. He was one of the first time brokers, buying time from stations, and then re-selling it to others. An effort to establish himself as The Father of Broadcasting failed to attract much attention from the broadcast community. The last years of his life were largely marked by a string of menial jobs, such as a security guard. A saddened Charles Herrold died at 73 on July 1, 1948.

Was Charles "Doc" Herrold The Father of Broadcasting? Possibly. What is certain is that he was A Father of Broadcasting.

More information is available at

[A plea: if you or your station has a written history, or any information on the roots of broadcasting, please share them with me. I would appreciate anything that would illuminate the pioneer stations and the men who built them. Books, newspaper clippings, old licenses, ratecards, EKKO stamps, radio guides, even photocopies are of benefit. Send them to Barry Mishkind, 2033 S. Augusta Place, Tucson, AZ 85710. The information will be added to the OLDRADIO infobase, and eventually donated to an archive open to all.]

Barry Mishkind, aka RW's "Eclectic Engineer," can be reached at 520-296-3797, via the Internet. You can find his home page at ""