We are living in the age of citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle. Reports about almost anything newsworthy can be had from many perspectives, both vetted and amateur. Just a few decades ago, people relied on daily newspapers, radio, and word of mouth for their news. On the brink of the television age, several radio stations in the United States participated in an experiment to broadcast news over radio waves. But this was no ordinary transmission. At the other end, a new type of receiver printed out news stories, line drawings, and pictures on a long roll of paper.
Radio facsimile newspaper technology was introduced to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair at two different booths. One belonged to an inventor named William Finch, and one to RCA. Finch had recently made a name for himself with his talking newspaper, which embedded audio into a standard newspaper in the form of wavy lines along the edges that were read by a special device.
Differences in Paper
Both Finch and RCA’s receivers used continuous rolls of paper, but only the RCA units could cut it into sheets. RCA’s paper was 8.5” wide and of standard composition while Finch’s was about half the size and chemically treated. After a while, Crosley got into the game with their Reado receiver, which they sold at Macy’s for a price that undercut both Finch and RCA.
The receiver differences meant that content providers had to consider more than one type of equipment, much like app developers do today. News and photographs laid out on RCA’s standard-width paper would look very different on Finch’s half-width stock.
What’s That Screeching Noise?
If you’ve ever answered the phone when a fax machine is calling, you have some idea of what the radio version of facsimile transmission sounded like. Because of this, the FCC mandated that fax news broadcasts on the AM band be restricted to the hours of 1:00AM and 6:00AM. Several stations transmitted news on the fairly new FM band at all hours of the day. Broadcasters later experimented with multiplexing to transmit audio and facsimile on the same FM frequency.
Too Much New Technology
Proponents of radio facsimile argued that it provided a permanent record for news, and that reports heard over the radio can be easily misheard or misinterpreted. Several radio stations were owned by newspapers, and it was these stations that tried the hardest to satisfy the citizens’ thirst for news with this innovation. Many practitioners viewed the new technology as supplemental to the daily newspaper and radio reports rather than as something that threatened to replace them.
Like any other new technology, the radio newspaper was plagued by the chicken-and-egg problem of consumer adoption. No technology gets off the ground without early adopters, and where there is no audience, there are no advertisers. The receivers averaged 15 minutes to print one page, and this was unappealingly slow for many people. Most household budgets were stretched thin from the Depression and the war so families had to choose between radio newspapers and television. Which would you choose?
In the video below, Hal Wallace of the National Museum of American History gives a brief history of radio newspapers and shows off an RCA unit from 1938.
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