The first radio broadcast from Rochester was no small-time operation.
A live concert at the Empress Theatre downtown went out via the latest in technology to a portable transmitting station parked on the street, to a radio station in Los Angeles, and from there, coast to coast across America.
It was Wednesday, Aug. 4, 1926, just past the dawn of the radio age. Few homes locally had radio receivers, and there were fewer than 700 broadcast stations in the entire country. Pulling in radio signals was still, in some ways, an activity for hobbyists who liked to fiddle with the dial late at night to find distant stations.
One of those distant stations was KFWB, which was owned by the Warner Bros. motion picture company. The 500-watt station broadcast from a studio on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. But with the right atmospheric stations, and because there were so few stations clogging up the airwaves, listeners as far away as New York could occasionally hear KFWB’s signal.
Which brings us to the Rochester broadcast. To promote the company, demonstrate how radio transmission works, and experiment with different atmospheric conditions, Warner Bros. embarked on an ambitious plan. In early 1926, Warner Bros. engineers converted a Moreland Motor Coach bus to a portable radio station, 6XBR. Starting in May of that year, the bus hit the road, stopping at Warner Bros.-affiliated cinemas for nightly broadcasts.
At each locale, a show featuring local bands, orchestras and singers would be sent, via the portable studio, to KFWB, and in turn sent out on that station’s frequency.
The converted bus arrived in Rochester the afternoon of Aug. 4 and parked in front of the Empress Theatre. “City authorities today authorized the police department to close South Broadway from Center Street to First Street while the giant movable station halts in front of the theater,” the Post Bulletin reported.
At 8:30 p.m., the Rochester Park Band, directed by Harold Cooke, took the stage of the Empress and started its concert program. Next to be heard was Congressman Allen J. Furlow, who regaled the listening audience with a list of the natural wonders of Southeast Minnesota. Later, the American Legion drum corps, which had been performing outside, was brought into the theater to join the concert.
For bystanders on Broadway, a “large horn brought the entertainment to the people in the street, all the numbers being clear and distinct with plenty of volume,” according to the Post Bulletin reporter at the scene.
Meanwhile, the Empress office received several phone calls from listeners in the area who were listening to the broadcast. “Most of these came from people with receiving sets in the city,” the Post Bulletin said, but also from “some of them at some distance from Rochester.”
In the coming months and years, a “receiving set” would take a place of honor in most homes, usually in the living room, and the wonder of radio transmission would bring entertainment and information to listeners of all ages.
At some point, it became difficult to imagine a time before radio — just as we today struggle to comprehend what life was like before the advent of personal computers.
Of course, as some old-timers might remind us, one never had to complain, like we do with computers, that “I need to restart my radio — it froze.”
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.