History of Radio Advertising

Instructor: Lauren Riley

Lauren has taught college level organizational behavior and has a master's degree in Business Administration.

In this lesson, we will learn about the different forms of on-air marketing used throughout the history of radio broadcasting. We will also look at how radio advertising has stood the test of time.

The Birth of Radio Advertising

During the early ages of radio, it was often the primary form of entertainment for families. Parents and children would sit in front of the radio to listen to their favorite broadcast, and popular broadcasts would be the talk around the watercooler the next day. Such popularity did not go unnoticed by businesses. For as long as radio broadcasting has been a recognized medium of communication, businesses have used it to increase consumer awareness about their products and services. This type of marketing, using radio media to advertise products and services, is called radio advertising.


At the beginning of the 20th century, radio equipment manufacturers and retailers operated most radio stations, and used them primarily to promote radio sales, rather than to profit. Radio stations at the time were seen more as an investment to entice households to purchase radios, and less as a standalone revenue stream.

Between 1919 and 1922, radio stations began to ramp up their offerings, and it became the norm to broadcast continuously. Station owners began obtaining business licenses and seeking ways to make the medium self-sufficient. Thus, radio advertising came to be.

The first recognized form of radio advertising came in early 1922 when AT&T began to sell toll broadcasting opportunities, in which businesses could underwrite or finance a broadcast in return for having their brand mentioned on air. Later that year, the New York radio station WEAF was the first station to run an official paid advertisement. These forms of radio advertising become more and more popular, leading stations into the golden age of radio.

Radio's Golden Age

By 1930, almost 90% of radio stations in the United States were broadcasting commercials. This ushered in the golden age of radio, which lasted from the early 1930's through the late 1940's. Stations were generating enough revenue to support their operations and increase their offerings. As the demand for ads began to rise, stations began pre-recording the commercials instead of presenting them live. During the golden age, advertisers would often sponsor entire programs in which their brand would be thanked intermittently throughout the program, similar to the toll broadcasting opportunities AT&T introduced early on.

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