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  • Writer's pictureKatie Aitken

Voice Over Origins : Radio

Person relaxing with a retro radio
Photo by Eric Nopanen (@rexcuando)

The origins of radio itself may go further back than you realise - all the way back to 1886 when Heinrich Hertz first identified radio waves. However, the common concept of radio as you and I may know it now, with music and chat, didn’t arrive until over a century later. The introduction of the transmission of audio and voice over via radio was the result of numerous technological advancements which have ultimately revolutionised our way of life.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a pioneer of radio and the first voice to be on radio. Ultimately, he was the first radio DJ
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden

There are several figures associated with key developments in radio. The dramatic side of the story arises with the issue of dates of achievements, demonstrations and patents, making the topic of what and who came first a well debated one! But we aren’t delving too much into that aspect of radio origins. Instead, the consensus of who the first voice on radio was is actually a pretty universally agreed upon subject. That title goes to Reginald Aubrey Fessenden.

Fessenden was a Canadian scientist who broadcast the first radio show, featuring voice and music, transmitted over a long distance. The year of 1906 was a busy year for Fessenden. Initially, in January, he established a system of transatlantic wireless telegraphic communication between Brant Rock in Massachusetts and Machrihanish in Scotland. While there was news of the Scottish station picking up voices that had been transmitted between the station in Brant Rock and another nearby station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the receiving tower at Machrihanish was destroyed in a storm, meaning that Fessenden’s exploration into direct voice communication on a transatlantic level came to a halt.

Reginald Fessenden was the first voice to appear on radio
Fessenden - the first voice on radio

However, Fessenden remained determined to put his system to use and demonstrate its capabilities. On Christmas Eve 1906, at 9pm, Fessenden transmitted the first official radio show. The show was mainly picked up by ship crews in the Atlantic but was also heard by wireless operators as far away as Norfolk,Virginia! The show famously consisted of Fessenden reading verses from the Bible, playing a recording of Handel’s ‘Largo’ and performing a violin solo before finally wishing his listeners a Merry Christmas. Just a week later, Fessenden put out a New Year’s Eve show with similar content, which was picked up in the West Indies by banana boats belonging to the United Fruit Company.

So it is a scientist that we have to thank for being the first voice on radio and numerous inventors (shout out to Ernst Alexanderson who invented the first alternator capable of transmitting speech - a system that Fessenden employed to combine with radio waves) who expanded upon the use of radio.

At a very similar time to Fessenden’s great leap, a familiar name was also making waves. Lee de Forest, who was also a relevant name in the origins of voice over in animation, was working on a concept that broadcast news and music:

“I had in mind its great usefulness as a means for broadcasting news and music entirely in addition to the use of the wireless telephone as a means of two-way communication by voice...From the beginning, (as) a great lover of opera and fine music, I was intent on developing the means and methods for broadcast distribution of these elements of culture to widely scattered audiences.”

Vaugn de Leath was the original radio girl and the first female voice over on the radio
Vaugn de Leath - The Original Radio Girl

In 1915, he received an experimental station license and began radio transmissions of news bulletins and concerts. His experimentations continued until America entered the war and radio stations were ordered to go off air in 1917. When the ban was lifted in 1919, de Forest reopened the station and recommenced transmission, including a series of live broadcasts by a popular female vocalist named Vaughn de Leath. Consequently, she has come to be regarded as ‘the original radio girl’.

While the industry of voice over and radio are separate, obvious comparisons and connections can be made. It is no exaggeration to say that the medium of radio has been up there as one of the most important technological advancements in history. As well as providing entertainment, spreading news and being a top medium for marketing, it has also been a life saver for many over the years.

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