History of advertising: No 160: The first radio commercials

History of advertising: No 160: The first radio commercials

The 51 years that separate the broadcasting of the world's first radio commercial in New York and the first radio ad to run in Britain are testament to the huge differences in cultural attitudes to the medium on each side of the Atlantic.

While commercial imperatives drove the development of radio in the US from when it arrived around 1920, radio in the UK was heavily regulated and ad-free from the start.

Indeed, it was John Reith, the austere Calvanist who was the BBC’s first director-general, who set the tone by insisting that broadcasting should be a public service responsible for educating the masses.

Ironically, 1922, the year in which the BBC was born, also saw the debut of the first paid-for radio commercial. It ran on 28 August on the AT&T-owned New York station WEAF and cost Queensboro Corporation $50 for 50 minutes of airtime to promote the sale of apartments in Jackson Heights.

Until that time, radio’s problem was similar to that of the emerging internet many years later. Both were technological miracles – but nobody knew how to make them pay.

In the UK, commercial radio took much longer to be born. Not that radio ads were unfamiliar to Britons. As far back as the 30s, they were being beamed from stations such as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie.  

So popular were they that many believed commercial radio would be introduced in 1936 when the BBC’s charter was up for renewal. However, the BBC and the Newspaper Publishers Association killed off the idea.

In fact, it wasn’t until 6.08am on 8 October 1973 that the first British radio commercial, a 60-second spot created by Lintas for Bird’s Eye fish fingers, was broadcast just after LBC, the country’s first commercial radio station, went on air.

Things you need to know

  • Benton & Bowles, the agency founded by William Benton and Chester Bowles, pioneered radio advertising in the US. Bowles is credited with introducing commercials with sound effects.
  • AT&T sold WEAF to NBC in 1926 and quit radio for good.
  • Although commercial radio was not taken seriously by UK advertisers when it launched, figures suggest that radio delivers an average return of £7.70 for every pound spent on advertising.

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