Historical Markers
Radio Station KDKA Historical Marker
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Radio Station KDKA

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
KDKA Headquarters, 1 Gateway Center, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
November 30, 1990

Behind the Marker

A man dressed in a suit stands at a microphone.
KDKA Radio's Harold W. Arlin in a publicity photo from the early 1920s.
On the afternoon of Friday, August 5, 1921, Harold Arlin sat down in a box seat behind home plate to watch the Pirates defeat the Phillies, 8-5. He wasn't there just to watch, though; he was also there to tell fans beyond the ballpark what he was seeing. When he opened his mouth to speak into the telephone he was holding, Arlin changed the way Americans would enjoy baseball, and indeed, every other sport, forever.

An electrical engineer by training, Arlin graduated from the University of Kansas in 1917, then moved to Pittsburgh to work for the Westinghouse Electric Company. In 1920, another Westinghouse engineer, markerFrank Conrad, who had been experimenting with the novelty of radio for years, set up a primitive wireless machine in his garage and began broadcasting music over the airwaves. His broadcasts quickly became so popular that local department stores began stocking, advertising, and selling the wireless sets that could receive Conrad's signals.

The original broadcast transmitter of KDKA, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1920.
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Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad’s garage radio broadcast studio, Wilkesbarre,...
Sniffing potential profit in Conrad's operation, his bosses at Westinghouse, in October 1920, petitioned the Department of Commerce for the nation's first commercial broadcasting license, then built a far more sophisticated broadcasting facility on the factory's roof. On November 2, KDKA signed on the air, and, at 8 p.m., began transmitting updates on the presidential election returns. Radio, as we know it, was born, and a powerful industry was poised for take-off.

Intrigued by what he was hearing, Arlin, then a Westinghouse foreman, made daily visits to the rooftop station on his work breaks. In January, when Westinghouse decided KDKA needed a signature voice, Arlin, on a lark, auditioned. He got the job, and was named program director, as well.

On loan from his day job, the medium's first full-time announcer read news headlines and community-service bulletins, spun records, and chatted between songs. On occasion, via telephone, Arlin also broadcast live dance music from beyond the station. On the lookout for something new to lure the listening audience, on August 5, he went to markerForbes Field.

Just a month before, Westinghouse's main rival, RCA in New York, had created a stir by transmitting a live call of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey's title defense against Frenchman George Charpentier from Jersey City, N.J. Through a system of strategically placed wireless receivers, listeners could hear the fight from New England to KDKA's backyard. But big fights were held only so often. Baseball was played just about every day.

A man wearing a suit and tie, stands next to a microphone.
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Bill McKechnie at KDKA, Pittsburgh, PA, October 3,...
"We were looking for programming," Arlin recalled years later, "and baseball seemed a natural. I went to Forbes Field and set up shop." The operation, a hand-held telephone connected to a transmitter in a box behind home plate, had a few glitches, though. "Nobody told me I had to talk between pitches," he conceded, and when he did, his distinctive deep voice did not always come through. "Sometimes the transmitter didn't work. Often the crowd noise would drown us out. We didn't know whether we'd talk into a total vacuum or whether somebody would hear us."

Plenty of "somebodies" did, and sports' broadcasting became a sensation. Radio sets flew off the shelves, and fans, intrigued by what they were hearing, arrived at Forbes Field in record numbers. The game took on a new dimension as Arlin learned to paint images with his words and infuse drama into the proceedings. For the first time, baseball fans could be in two places at once: in the stands and in their living rooms. It no longer became necessary to make a trip to the ballpark to take in a game; the game, instead, could come to you. Broadcasting opened a new vista, certainly, but it also closed one; seeing a game had always been a communal enterprise. Through the magic of radio, it became a solitary one, as well.

Harold Arlin, at the microphone, and Bob Prince broadcasting a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game, August 30, 1972.
Harold Arlin, at the microphone, and Bob Prince broadcasting a Pittsburgh Pirates...
Arlin followed his inaugural baseball broadcast with another first, the next day, when he took his equipment to the Allegheny Country Club for a live broadcast of the Davis Cup tennis match between Australia and Great Britain. In October, he and KDKA became part of a three-station Westinghouse network that broadcast the World Series between the Yankees and the Giants for the first time. Then, in October, Arlin returned to Forbes Field for another first: a college football game. He yelled so loudly after a Pitt touchdown against West Virginia that he briefly knocked the station off the air.

Radio soon became an indispensable part of the fabric of American life and an important tool for sports fans everywhere. When the home team was playing, it was not uncommon for retail stores to mount speakers on the sidewalk. When a game was on, listeners could stroll the neighborhood able to pick up uninterrupted play by play through each passing window.

In 1925, Arlin left both KDKA and broadcasting when Westinghouse transferred him to its personnel department in Ohio. Years later, he twice returned to the Pirate broadcast booth: once, in 1966, when the team celebrated his achievement with a day in his honor, and again, in 1972, when Hall of Fame announcer Bob Prince turned the mike over to him for a few innings to let Arlin call the performance of his grandson, Steve Arlin, then pitching for the San Diego Padres. Harold Arlin died in 1986.

After the end of World War II, television arrived and bumped radio aside. Pennsylvania would have its milestones in this new medium, too. In 1939, the Eagles played in the first TV broadcast of a pro football came, and in 1940, Pitt took part in the first TV broadcast of a basketball game. In 1962, the first telecast via the Telstar communications satellite included part of a Phillies-Cubs game live from Wrigley Field. Ten years later, the first sports telecast by HBO, a hockey game between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, reached HBO's entire audience: 365 subscribers in Wilkes-Barre.
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