NPR it was Not
January 13, 1910
First Public Radio
Broadcast . . .
was an experimental transmission of a live Metropolitan Opera House performance of several famous opera singers.
The first public radio broadcast consisted of performances of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Riccardo Martin performed as Turridu, Emmy Destinn as Santuzza, and Enrico Caruso as Canio. The conductor was Egisto Tango. This wireless radio transmission event of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso of a concert from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City is regarded as the birth of public radio broadcasting.
The New York Times reported on January 14, 1910,
“Opera broadcast in part from the stage of the New York City Metropolitan Opera Company was heard on January 13, 1910, when Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn sang arias from Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, which were “trapped and magnified by the dictograph directly from the stage and borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships and over the mountainous peaks and undulating valleys of the country.” The microphone was connected by telephone wire to the laboratory of Dr. Lee De Forest.”
The few radio receivers able to pick up this first-ever “outside broadcast” were those at the De Forest Radio Laboratory, on board ships in New York Harbor, in large hotels on Times Square and at New York city, locations where members of the press were stationed at receiving sets. Public receivers with earphones had been set up in several well-advertised locations throughout New York City. There were members of the press stationed at various receiving sets throughout the city and the general public was invited to listen to the broadcast.
The experiment was considered mostly unsuccessful. The microphones of the day were of poor quality and couldn’t pick up most of the singing done on stage. Only off-stage singers singing directly into a microphone could be heard clearly. The New York Times reported the next day that static and interference kept the homeless song waves from finding themselves.
Lee De Forest’s Radio Telephone Company manufactured and sold the first commercial radios in the demonstration room at the Metropolitan Life Building in New York City for this public event.
The wireless transmitter had 500 watts of power. It is reported that this broadcast was heard 20 km away on a ship at sea. The broadcast was also heard in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Susan Douglas tells the story in Inventing American Broadcasting:
“The timing of the actual moment of insight remains uncertain, but sometime during the insecure winter of 1906-7, De Forest conceived of radio broadcasting. It was an insight fueled less by a compelling technical vision and more by the desired and longings of the social outcast.
During De Forest’s impoverished and lonely spells, he would cheer himself up by going to the opera. Usually he could only afford a twenty-five-cents ticket which bought him a spot to stand in at the back of the opera house. De Forest was an ardent music lover, and he considered unjust the fact that ready access to beautiful music was reserved primarily to the financially comfortable.
De Forest was convinced that there were thousands of other deprived music fans in America who would love to have opera transmitted to their homes. He decided to use his radiophone not only for point-to-point message sending, but also for broadcasting music and speech. This conception of radio’s place in America’s social and economic landscape was original, revolutionary, and quite different from that of his contemporaries.
[De Forest] told the New York Times [in 1909], prophetically: ‘I look forward to the day when opera may be brought to every home. Someday the news and even advertising will be sent out over the wireless telephone.’”