Today in Brand History: RCA Sparks the Radio Revolution
On October 17, 1919, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was created as a subsidiary of General Electric. This pivotal moment helped launch radio into the mainstream and revolutionized advertising and retail.
RCA’s origins trace back to inventor Guglielmo Marconi and his pioneering 1895 experiments with radio waves. His wireless telegraph system laid the groundwork for broadcasting voices and music over radio frequencies. During World War I, the U.S. government took control of patents related to radio technology held by Marconi and others, viewing radio as vital for national security.
After the war, General Electric led efforts to commercialize radio by forming RCA. Bringing together scientists, patents, and assets from several companies, RCA was incorporated with GE as the majority shareholder. The new company produced vacuum tubes, broadcast equipment, and radio receivers, rapidly expanding America’s radio infrastructure.
RCA’s founding marked radio’s transformation into a platform for information and entertainment. The 1920s saw an explosion of commercial radio stations, from 30 in 1922 to over 700 by the end of the decade. The first radio advertisement aired in Queens, NY just one month after RCA’s creation.
For retailers and consumer brands, radio provided an influential new advertising medium. Brands could now reach customers right in their homes. Radio enabled creative ads with music, voice actors, and clever slogans. Department stores and mail-order catalogs sponsored early radio shows to drive sales.
RCA drove much of this boom through its consumer brand RCA Victor. RCA leveraged its patents and research to produce affordable, high-quality radios for the mass market. RCA Victor radios quickly became fixtures in living rooms across America, with RCA establishing itself as one of the leading consumer electronics brands by the late 1920s.
The company was an early pioneer in radio production and distribution at scale. RCA’s manufacturing capabilities and reach through retailers like department stores fueled rapid radio adoption.
The company also owned two pioneering radio networks—the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) which launched in 1926, and the Blue Network, which later became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). NBC and ABC helped develop many of the first radio programs and enabled national distribution of content.
Iconic early shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy premiered on NBC in 1929, while popular comedy and drama series defined the Golden Age of Radio in the 1930s and 40s. The networks demonstrated how broadcasting could provide entertainment to mass audiences and create value for advertisers on a national level.
Television emerged as another major RCA innovation. RCA's researchers were pioneers in the development of electronic television technology in the 1930s. The company demonstrated the first all-electronic TV system at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, introducing television to the public.
After WWII, RCA was at the forefront in bringing televisions into mass production for the consumer market. The company leveraged its expertise in cathode ray tube manufacturing to produce affordable TV sets. Early RCA television models like the 630-TS became iconic fixtures in American homes in the late 1940s.
Television advertising also mimicked radio ads in RCA's early TV days. Many early TV commercials simply involved broadcasting an audio ad accompanied by a test pattern or photo. Eventually, TV advertising became more cinematic with filmed ads and jingles. But RCA’s innovation wasn’t just in the technology itself - the company helped develop TV as an advertising medium.
From powering the Golden Age of Radio to ushering in the TV era, RCA’s technologies transformed broadcasting and revolutionized how brands connected with consumers. The company’s innovations laid the groundwork for today’s multi-billion-dollar mass media advertising landscape.
Did You Know?
RCA’s first logo in 1919 was a ship telegraph overlaid on a globe, symbolizing wireless communication worldwide.
RCA’s “His Master’s Voice” logo with the dog listening to a gramophone was one of the most iconic early logos.
The first sponsored network radio show was the Eveready Hour, starting in 1923 and sponsored by battery brand Eveready.
RCA created the first tape recorder in 1930. Magnetic tape transformed audio recording and radio production.
In 1930, GE was forced to break ties with RCA to avoid antitrust action. RCA then became an independent company.
During WWII, RCA stopped consumer production to focus on military electronics like radar and radio systems.
RCA color televisions debuted to consumers in 1954, though uptake was initially slow due to the high cost.