Radio Reaches Rural America

The Early Days of REA

By Bill Harris
Orginally appeared in Antique Radio Classified, March 1994
and is reprinted here with the permission of Antique Radio Classified

Electrification didn't come to rural America until the 1930's. Before rural homes had electricity, many task had to be performed by hard manual labor. Water from the well used for cooking, washing, and watering of livestock had to be hand pumped or hand drawn. Reading was by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. The lady of the house did her washing by hand and ironed using flat irons heated on a wood or coal-fired stove.

Few rural homes had radios and those that did were "farm" sets like the Philco Model 37-34 at right.[Philco 37-34] Because of the expense of batteries and keeping them charged, radio time was doled out sparingly, usually just for special programs. Windchargers to keep batteries charged were a common site in rural areas.

The Rural Electrification Authority (REA) brought electricity to rural America, and now the work of many manual tasks was made much easier with the help of this modern wonder. Everyone wanted "the electric". It cost five dollars to sign up with REA and there had to be at least three customers per mile in order to justify the cost of running the power lines.

One farmer came in to pay his five dollars and sign up but was told his house was too far from the right-of-way. A few days later he came back waving his money. "I moved my house", he explained.

A Tennessee farmer proclaimed to his fellow church-goers, "The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, the second greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."

The most popular electrical item purchased and usually the first, was an iron for Mom; the second most purchased item was a radio. [Zenith 5S319] The 1939 Zenith Model 5-S-319, shown here, is one example of the AC-operated sets which displaced the older battery radios. Now folks could enjoy listening to the radio without fear of running down a battery.

Essayist E. B. White wrote, "When rural people referred to The Radio, they ment "a prevading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes."

"The day we got our radio," wrote one farm wife, "we put it in the kitchen window, aimed it out at the fields, and turned it on full blast. During the first week, the men hated to be out of the sound of it."

Without a doubt, the radio was one of the most popular and influential new appliances to come to the country home. The tops of Philcos and Crosleys became a place to display family pictures.

The city dweller saw radio as a medium for entertainment; the farmer used it as an aid to better farming, for by radio he could get the latest price of cattle, wheat, market news, and other practical farming advice. For the homemaker there was information on cooking, cloths, diet, and even child psychology.

Education by radio would also be important. Because of their growing numbers the rural audience was attractive to radio broadcasters, and every conceivable subject was offered over the airwaves. Even typing was sucessfully taught by radio. The REA suggested that "the power lines along the highway should pause at these little schoolhouses to deliver the few watts which stand between the child and the great world in which some day he may be a very important part."

In 1938 REA statistics showed that 86 percent of their members had a radio in the home even though the average project had only been operating eight months.

The "National Farm and Home Hour" became the longest-running program in the history of network radio. It was on the air daily from October of 1928 to June of 1944 and became a weekly program for a time after that.

Rural families did not limit their listening pleasure just to farm-related programs however, they also tuned in to entertainment just as did their city cousins.

Boys would race home after school to hurry and finish farm chores in time to listen to adventure serials. "Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy!" came from countless radios in the afternoons. The words "return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the Lone Ranger rides again!", despaired many a mother of getting the children to the dinner table.

Saturday nights would find the family gathered around to "watch" the radio. Folks would intently look at the radio while listening as if that better helped to visualize the performers and events taking place. The Grand Ole Opry with Red Foley and Minnie Pearl, and the National Barn Dance with Lulu Bell and Scotty were favorites of this night.

Sunday nights brought Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The women followed the trials and tribulations of Oxydal's own Ma Perkins and other soaps throughout the week.

The thing the rural audience cherished the most however, was the opportunity to listen to FDR's Fireside Chats. They could now feel they were a part of the political as well as the social life of the nation.

It was two decades later before television began to make inroads into rural America. It came slowly and without anywhere near the impact that radio had made.

Reference: The Next Greatest Thing - 50 Years of Rural Electrification In America by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Printed by McArdle Printing Company, Inc., Silver Spring, Maryland.