Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Newark, Bamberger's and the rise of radio

It's hard to fathom now, but 90 years ago, commercial radio was little more than a novelty. Barely past making a sizable investment in a phonograph player, many families were wondering whether it made sense to buy a receiver to listen to one of the few broadcast stations on the air. People got their information from print newspapers and magazines, or from their friends, and the concept of hearing the words of a far-away singer was mystifying. Why would they sink more money into a new gizmo they didn't really need?

Businesses were facing a similar quandary from the opposite side of the transaction -- a chicken-and-egg dilemma of sorts. Retailers couldn't sell radios if there was nothing being broadcast for people to listen to, and owning a radio station was a risky proposition unless a good number of people had the instrument to pick up and follow your signal.

A few brave entrepreneurs, however, decided to take the plunge, among them Newark's Louis Bamberger, owner of New Jersey's largest retail establishment. Already selling phonographs and recordings when commercial radio was introduced in the early 1920s, he saw the potential for radio to be just as big, perhaps even bigger. After all, it could deliver inexpensive entertainment that would never get boring. Unlike a phonograph that required the purchase of new recordings from time to time to stave off monotony, radio offered the prospect of free and varied programming once consumers purchased the receiver.

Bambergers' Newark flagship store,
sporting the massive WOR antenna.
Supplying that programming was the next step in the equation. Imagine how easily Bamberger's employees could sell receivers if the store were to operate its own radio station! Even better, what if it was so close that the signal couldn't help but come in loud and clear?

Bamberger decided to find out, in the process founding one of New York City's most enduring radio stations. From a small studio on the sixth floor of its flagship Newark store, Bamberger's made history on February 22, 1922, broadcasting Al Jolson's "April Showers" on a 500 watt signal on radio frequency 833 AM. Rather than getting the "WLB" call letters he had hoped for, the new station was assigned "WOR," the letters previously designated for the ship U.S.S. California.

Within a year, WOR was demonstrating the power of radio so successfully that Bamberger considered shutting it down for fear it would hurt phonograph sales. Others suggested that he should take a broader view, encouraging him to consider the broadcasting industry as a growth opportunity in its own right. WOR opened studios in New York to supplement its Newark facilities and eventually expanded its reach with a 50,000 watt capacity. The Bamberger Broadcasting Service became a key member of the Mutual Broadcasting System, broadening the influence of radio nationwide during the mid-20th century.

WOR left Newark for good in 1941, and few people remember its New Jersey roots. Bamberger's itself was sold to Macy's in 1929, eventually taking the corporate name in 1986 and closing the Newark store in 1991. Interestingly, in the years since, the old flagship location has returned, in a way, to the business of dispatching information. Its sturdy construction makes it an ideal site for telecommunications equipment and computer server farms, an unintentional though apt link to the early days of much simpler though still astounding means of sharing information.


  1. Funny, today was Lincoln's 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address so I went to the "Seated Lincoln" at Essex County Courthouse which is a hop, skip and a jump away from this location! Then visited the Newark Rotary Club and went to the balcony at One Newark Center! best regards, Craig


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