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I’ve been reading a Bill Bryson book called One Summer for a while now, picking it up and putting it down in between other books. It’s a fascinating read full of facts and anecdotes from a period in American history (the 1920s) when a lot seemed to happen in a short space of time.
One particular story piqued my interest.
It's about the moment in history when radio took off in America, and how.
Not when it was invented, that was earlier. More than 20 years earlier in fact. But it wasn’t achieving widespread adoption. Around 1920, radios were a novelty item. According to the book ”companies that made the radios didn’t care what people listened to, or whether they listened at all, once the radios were bought.”
In today’s atmosphere of mass media, that seems like a terrible mindset. However, in 1920, the only mass media was newspapers, so nobody really had a business playbook for this kind of thing.
Notably, there was little content to inspire people to buy the hardware. Which was probably because it was seen as a novelty item, so content production was not a good investment.
Enter David Sarnoff, a Russian-born American businessman. Sarnoff isn’t a well-known name in history, but he played an important role in the adoption of radio and television.
Sarnoff knew you needed to demonstrate radio's potential to turn it into a must-have, widely used item and kick start investment in content.
Sarnoff knew you needed to demonstrate radio's potential to turn it into a must-have, widely used item and kick start investment in content. In 1920, the massively popular Dempsey–Carpentier fight was an opportunity. It wasn’t actually Sarnoff who initially saw the potential for broadcasting th fight. That was Andrew White, a New Yorker with a passion for amateur radio.
White could not raise the funds or the equipment – investors told him he was crazy. He formed a partnership with a Sarnoff, a friend and another young radio enthusiast. They didn't have enough funds between them, but they put together a scrappy setup and made it happen.
A special licence was granted by the government to allow a temporary 24-hour radio "station" to be created for the broadcast. They used longwave radio frequency, which was owned by the US Navy. They ran their own 2.5 mile cable between the fight arena and their transmitter, because AT&T blocked them from using the telephone network.
The fight itself was one of those considered the ”Fight of the Century”. It was the first boxing fight to produce $1,000,000 in revenue (a "million dollar gate"). It also had an 80,000 capacity arena (Boyle's Thirty Acres) built specifically for it, in anticipation of it’s popularity.
Most importantly, it was the first world title fight to be carried “live” (kind of - more on that in a moment) over radio.
White and Sarnoff put on a large scale demo (or MVP if you like), having loudspeakers erected at various locations where people could listen to the fight “live” for free. 10,000 listeners packed into Times Square, as well as countless other locations.
What actually happened was a technical fault meant it didn’t work.
What actually happened was a technical fault meant it didn’t work. The live broadcast from ringside didn’t make it through to the loudspeakers. Which is where it gets interesting.
Instead of there being no “live” broadcast, details of the fight were relayed by ticker tape to a Manhattan studio where an announcer recreated the fight from “sketchy details and a great deal of imagination”. Which is what the crowds actually heard.
It didn’t matter. The crowds thought they were hearing the live broadcast of the fight, and the idea of being able to know what was happening as it happened seemed an almost impossible miracle. This was before any kind of live broadcast had ever happened, of course.
Attention had been captured, at scale. After that radio took off rapidly, and device ownership was saturated within a decade.
To me this is a fantastic example of an MVP – from 100 years ago. To demonstrate the hardware’s potential, an MVP of a potential “feature” (listening to a live broadcast) was manually operated and put in front of potential customers, at scale.
It didn’t matter that the product feature wasn’t entirely working, it seemed like it to the users.
It didn’t matter that the product feature wasn’t entirely working, it seemed like it to the users. The point was made, and the product (and medium) of radio not only took off, it even created new spinoff industries – advertising and sports broadcasting.