Of course, most enthusiasts of classic radio recall the glory days of the medium in the 1930s, and some may even have a soft spot for the rough-and-tumble early broadcasting of the 1920s. But the earliest era in broadcasting, the silent era of radio, is still largely neglected.

Silent radio broadcasts began out of an Edison company shed in New Jersey circa 1894–the exact date is slightly controversial. But the happy coincidence of a microphone left open during a mime show that was being recorded on phonograph led the Edison engineers to realize that there was market potential for silent radio. The first regularly scheduled silent radio show, the Jolly Follies, would follow. An adaptation of a popular Newark mummery, Jolly Follies was broadcast live, with intertitles, over the Edison company radio transmitter. The lack of sound meant that the carrier wave could be far less powerful and reach a much larger audience, and soon the few families that could afford radio sets were crowded around them every day at 5:45 for the Follies.

Silent radio also produced a number of phonograph discs for home listening, the most popular being a Follies competitor out of Philadelphia, the Quiet Riot. The disc, A Bully Day for Quiet Riot, sold 300,000 copies–close to one for every phonograph in circulation at the time. In a 1904 report, the New York Herald predicted that silent radio would soon overtake minstrel shows as the number one entertainment phenomena of the new century. Sadly, it was not to be.

Despite the wide popular embrace of silent radio, radio talkies had been under development since the beginning. Edison put out a radio show with a Morse code soundtrack as early as 1898, and by 1905 many silent radio shows were including sections with sound. Morse code, semaphore, smoke signals…the earliest non-silent radio shows experimented with them all before hitting on the formula so familiar today.

In turn, this spelled disaster for the established silent radio shows and stars of the earlier era. The Jolly Follies mummers spoke with heavy Slavonian accents, and the show faded in popularity despite an attempt to produce it with an all-new cast. The last episode was broadcast in 1919. Quiet Riot ended even sooner; its successor, Noisy Boys, was off the air by 1917. Stories about destitute former silent radio stars were a fixture of 1930s broadcast journalism, and due to the live nature of silent radio broadcasts, few were preserved for posterity–accounting in large part for their modern-day obscurity.

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Heeey there, listeners out there in Transistor Radio Land! This is your old pal Nine-Volt, AKA Nines, AKA Niner-Niner, AKA Volty. I’m coming at you live from my underground pirate transmitter, which the FCC has been trying to locate and shut down for well over five years now. Give it up, guys! Here’s a tip for you: that piece of steel you had dynamited in Matamoros last week was just a decoy.

Fact is, you’ll never find your old pal Nine-Volt, so you should just stop trying!

Before we hook you up with some more music, we’ve got some business to take care of. You might hear that sick beat in the background while I’m talking to you; many thanks to the fan who sent that reel in parcel post. It might just be behind all of old Nine-Volt’s pirate transmissions from here on out!

A fan in San Fernando would like to shout-out to Oswaldo Hernandez of Glen Valley, CA; she sent in a fiver and a reel of a song to be played for him. Thanks for the scratch! Your song will be played tomorrow at 4:20 PM Pacific.

A dark warning here from a listener in Kentucky for one “B.S.” This fan says “I am coming to kill you slowly and painfully” and sent in a reel with a song to that effect. Look out, B.S.! Since there’s no bribe, I’ll play you your death song whenever I get around to it, but you’d better grow eyes in the back of your head!

Finally, before we spin our next reel, I’ve got a package here from a listener behind the old Iron Curtain, who’s given me a manifesto to read and a reel to spin. There’s a hefty bribe for old Nine-Volt but it’s in Polish Zloty. Once I get that converted, we’ll see about getting your manifesto and your music out there. Listeners beware: it’s in Polish and it’s three hours long!

Inspired by the song ‘9V’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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It was really exciting. After all those years of chasing bizarre and obscure radio stations with his transmitter and receiver, John was ready to see what they were saying.

Amateur radio had been like a gateway drug, and once he could receive broadcasts from far enough away John had discovered numbers stations. They were mysterious, high-frequency transmissions that repeated buzzes electronic tones, numbers, or letters, and the other amateurs John consulted with agreed that they were probably used for espionage. If a spy in the field had a special sheet called a “one-time pad” with the decryption key, which was truly random, as big or bigger than the message, used only once (and destroyed after use), and kept totally secret.

The code was literally impossible to break without knowing the key on a one-time pad.

And the envelope that John had just received in the mail had a warped and bubbled one-time pad that had been supposedly recovered from a sewer pipe.

John turned the transmitter on at the appointed time, which he had carefully researched beforehand. A metallic, artificial woman’s voice began reading phonetic letters after a brief musical tone: “Bravo, Echo, Hotel, Juliett, Kilo, Mike, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Whiskey, Zulu.”

For each letter, John used the appropriate space on the one-time pad, and gradually a message began to emerge:

JOHN T GUNDERSON WE KNOW YOU ARE LISTENING

Getting one-time broadcasting rights was a whole different kettle of fish from getting home viewing rights, especially when the original agreement was inked in the 80’s when digital downloads weren’t even a spark in Steve Jobs’ eye.

“Episode 2×13, ‘Heavy Medals,'” Karrie said, keying the safety copy up on the movieola. “Original airdate, March 15 1987.”

Gary flipped through the cue sheets. “Looks like only two songs for this one. One’s just in the end credits.”

Karrie fast-forwarded. End credits songs were always the easiest to swap out, as they didn’t usually impact the story in any meaningful way. “What do you think? Send it to the house composer for an original piece?”

“Nah, just drop in the instrumental theme he wrote for 1×21,” said Gary. “The fans will bitch, but they’ll still buy the DVD. Next is ‘Through the Window’ by Power of Silicon.”

Karrie keyed through the episode, script in hand. “It’s mentioned in dialogue at 2:27, 8:17, 13:00, 14:58, 20:09, and 22:11.” She squinted. “Each of those is actually 1-2 mentions apiece, very close together.”

“Holy shit,” Gary said.

“They built the whole episode around the song. It’s about Carla coming to terms with her hatred of electronic elements in music and ends with Ferg swapping one of her reels, on-air, so she accidentally plays a bunch of hardcore techno. That piece, thank god, was by the house composer.” Karrie rubbed her forehead. “How much does Power of Silicon want for home viewing rights?”

Gary consulted his sheet. “1.2 million dollars plus residuals. Apparently the former lead singer’s getting a divorce.”

This post is part of the August Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s theme is color as a metaphor for an aspect of one’s writing.

Graham’s apartment was lit well enough from the streetlights below that Allison was able to find her way around without fumbling for a light switch. WJR was playing quietly in the dark, combining with the rain on the windows to generate a sheet of white noise.

“Nice place,” Allison muttered, glancing at the spare surroundings and the heap of dishes in the sink. Her gaze alighted on the overstuffed armchair in front of the radio. “What’s with the purple loveseat?”

“Purple’s my favorite color,” Graham said. “I’ve loved it ever since I had a little cast-iron toy truck that was that shade. Poor old girl was down to her last flecks when Mom melted her down for a scrap drive during the war.”

“Even so, purple doesn’t seem like your color,” Allison said, settling into the chair. “It wouldn’t strike most people as very manly, though it’s anyone’s guess how much raw masculinity matters to someone in your line of work.”

“Not just any purple,” replied Graham. “A very ancient and powerful hue they called ‘Tyrian purple.’ You could smell the sea-slugs they boiled in its manufacture for miles, and only emperors were allowed to wear it. Then, in time, people got to thinking it was a softer color, a pretty color, and now if you see purple at all it’s on a lady’s dress. Slumming in the fashion industry to pay the bills when once only the most powerful man in the world had the right to use it.”

“You think that’s a sad fate for a color that once represented absolutist oppression, huh? Some might say that purple’s gotten its poetic due.”

Graham shrugged. “I feel like purple and I both have a lot in common, in point of fact. Our best days are behind us, and we’re left to grind out what we can in a long, slow afterlife. Such potential, at the beginning, all wasted. So it’s livening up ladies’ dresses while I sit here with a job that can’t afford to pay me. Made into a handbag against your will or chasing down an overdue library book because you’ve got nothing better to do…I’d say there’s a kinship there, wouldn’t you?”

Graham gazed at his shoes as he spoke; Allison felt like she out to do something to lighten the mood, which the weather had already rendered depressing enough. “Being a handbag isn’t the worst thing in the world,” she said. “I know a few alligators that are dying to be just that.”

“Ostriches too,” Graham said, smiling a little. “And I could teach them a thing or two about putting your head in the sand.”

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post an entry of their own about a colors as metaphors for aspects of writing:

Aheïla (direct link to the relevant post)
Ralph_Pines (direct link to the relevant post)
AuburnAssassin (direct link to the relevant post)
semmie (direct link to the relevant post)
Anarchicq (direct link to the relevant post)
CScottMorris (direct link to the relevant post)
PASeasholtz (direct link to the relevant post)
LadyMage (direct link to the relevant post)
DavidZahir (direct link to the relevant post)
aimeelaine (direct link to the relevant post)
FreshHell (direct link to the relevant post)
sbclark (direct link to the relevant post)
Bettedra (direct link to the relevant post)
Guardian (direct link to the relevant post)
M.R.J. Le Blanc (direct link to the relevant post)
laffarsmith (direct link to the relevant post)