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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