Proof that the world’s first radio show was broadcast 113 years ago on Christmas Eve doesn’t exist, but the purported occasion is still marked annually during the holidays.
Since 2012, radio engineer Brian Justin has spent part of his holidays commemorating the apparent achievement of a Canadian inventor from his rural southwestern Virginia home. The audience is small, but it ushers in a sense of nostalgia for listeners, alongside mistletoe, hot chocolate and Hallmark movies.
“It’s a ritual,” Justin said. “It’s kind of geeky enough that the average person on the street is not going to get anything out of it. I can’t see it on my cellphone . . . [but] the mystique of radio is there.”
Justin, 55, broadcasts a re-creation of what radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden claimed to have transmitted at 9 p.m. on Dec. 24, 1906, from a studio in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Fessenden, who had worked with the United States Weather Bureau (renamed the National Weather Service) to improve Morse code transmissions, used a 420-foot tower in the coastal town to transmit and receive Morse code messages across the Atlantic.
Fessenden, however, also had an ear for entertainment. His wife, Helen M. Fessenden, described the pioneering holiday transmission in her 1940 biography “Fessenden: Builder of Tomorrows.” She wrote of his recollection:
“The program on Christmas Eve was as follows: first a short speech by me saying what we were going to do, then some phonograph music. – The music on the phonograph being Handel’s ‘Largo.’ Then came a violin solo by me, being a composition of Gounod called ‘O, Holy Night,’ and ending up with the words ‘Adore and be still’ of which I sang one verse, in addition to playing on the violin, though the singing of course was not very good. Then came the Bible text, ‘Glory to god in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will,’ and finally we wound up by wishing them a Merry Christmas and then saying that we proposed to broadcast again New Year’s Eve.”
On Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, Justin – with a call sign of WI2XLQ – uses a home-built transmitter based on an early-1920s design to send the program from his home in Forest, just outside Lynchburg, to a small, devoted group of listeners. Broadcast below frequencies used by AM radio, the eight-minute program, on a loop for about 24 hours, is audible to other amateur radio junkies with appropriate gear. About two dozen tune in, by Justin’s estimation, although he said he has “no real way of knowing.”
In a medium where successfully sending or receiving a distant signal offers an operator bragging rights, Justin said the holiday transmission has become a tradition.
“It’s just sort of taken on a life of its own,” he said. “They ask every year . . . are you still going to do this?”
David Isgur, spokesman for the National Association for Amateur Radio, said Justin is marking “one of the significant events in terms of the growth of radio technology at the turn of the 19th century.” One-hundred years ago, he said, scientists and tinkerers were starting to discover how to send sounds through the air, but they couldn’t have envisioned the worldwide communications network and entertainment industry built on their efforts.
“That spirit of experimentation and exploration of how to make technology is something that runs through the backbone of amateur radio,” Isgur said. “There’s always been people that do ‘home-brew’ – trying to find newer, ingenuous ways of generating radio waves.”
Among radio “home-brewers,” meanwhile, a controversy over whether Fessenden’s broadcast occurred the way it allegedly did occasionally bubbles to the surface. Fessenden described the broadcast decades after he said it occurred, and there is no recording. One sleuth who dug through radio logs around the broadcast’s centennial found nothing that pointed to what would have been an unusual radio event.
James E. O’Neal, a retired radio engineer and an editor for the Broadcast Technology Society, said he told the story of the Fessenden broadcast for years before researching it around its 100th anniversary. Though Fessenden completed a well-documented radio demonstration with reporters present around Dec. 21, 1906, O’Neal said, he found no evidence for the “very romanticized” myth that’s been passed down by engineers for generations.
“I did not set out to debunk the story,” he said. “Nothing lined up to make it factual. . . . There’s just nothing there.”
Justin’s ritual might not be based on actual events, but listeners say it’s still a powerful tradition.
Ria Jairam – call sign N2RJ – tuned in to Justin’s program, live-streaming the signal more than 400 miles away from Wantage, New Jersey. She captured, amid a host of snaps and pops, a presentation that sounded a lot like what Fessenden described, including the swelling strings of “O, Holy Night.”
A 40-year-old mother of triplets, Jairam said she became interested in amateur radio in high school in Trinidad and Tobago. She credits the medium with pushing her toward a career in technology, working in systems engineering in the financial industry while serving as a National Association for Amateur Radio volunteer. Her 9-year-old children are studying for their FCC licenses, she said.
Though the world has moved on from Fessenden’s accomplishments, Jairam said the holidays are a fitting occasion to revisit them.
“I had this playing while my kids and I were having Christmas dinner,” she said. “There’s a nostalgia factor. . . . It’s a window into the past.”