The Zenith Controversy Part I

The Golden Age of Radio was a time when radio was the dominant electronic home entertainment device.  


The radio era began with radio broadcasting in the early 1920s and lasted into the 1950s when television became the entertainment medium of choice.  But during this period, radio was the only choice for entertainment.  Families gathered around the radio and tuned in for their favorite programs.  (Click on the Shadow for a sample of early radio programming).  Radio was so popular that a 1938 broadcast of Orson Wells’s “War of the Worlds” by the Mercury Theater totally panicked the United States.  The broadcast was so real to those listening that everyone thought the world had been invaded by aliens!  Radio updated the country each night about WWII and other news with the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Elmer Davis, and a group called the Murrow boys, who literally became a Who’s Who of the 1950s and 1960s television journalism. 

According to early surveys of radio listeners, 82 out of 100 Americans were radio listeners. Statistics also suggested that each radio set had 2.67 listeners of which 1.25 were women, .94 were men and .48 were children. A variety of formats and genres were created for the new medium.  Radio plays, mystery serials, soap operas, quiz shows, talent shows, variety hours, situation comedies, children’s shows, cooking shows. Pretty much the same stuff we see on television these days but they actually began with radio!   As the entertainment historically provided by the radio moved to television, radio was relegated the narrow format of news, talk, sports and music.

At the height of  radio entertainment, there was a brand called the “Royalty of Radio” that offered high level radios for the family, inexpensive sets during the depression and even transoceanic sets used in the Arctic by explorers.  Like many successful companies, Zenith was founded at a kitchen table in Chicago in 1918 by Karl Hassel and Ralph H. G. Mathews.  In 1919, Hassel and Mathews moved their operations into a 14-by-18-foot garage, where they formed the Chicago Radio Laboratory (CRL). They used half of the garage to make hand-engraved radios out of Bakelite such as the one at left and the other half for their amateur radio station, 9ZN.  In 1921, CRL moved into a 3,000-square-foot factory in Chicago. In early 1922, the company was making five radios each week but by June of that year, it was making 50 per week and the business grew from there. Soon they were manufacturing and advertising under the Zenith name.  As a company, Zenith quickly became known as an innovator releasing the first portable radio in 1924, followed two years later by the first radio that operated entirely on household electricity.  Zenith expanded throughout the 1920s. In 1927, the company debuted its now-famous slogan, “The Quality Goes in before the Name Goes On.” The company also helped found the Consumer Electronics Association, and Zenith’s CEO was the first president of the National Association of Broadcasters. 

That same year, Zenith introduced the first radio with push-button tuning, and in 1940 it broadcast the first FM radio station in the Midwest. In fact, Zenith co-invented the FM stereo broadcast system, which was authorized by the FCC in 1961.   With the coming of the Depression, Zenith was forced to change its focus from high-quality radios to more affordable ones. Following the lead of Philco’s Baby Grand, Zenith released its own cathedral radio, the moderately successful Zenette Model L, in 1931. Like many of Zenith’s other radios of that era, the Zenette featured an Art Deco design.  Zenith also produced chairside and table models, many of which had a handle on top to make them even more portable.


During the War years, Zenith manufactured only one civilian product, the Zenith Hearing Aid.  Company President, E.A. McDonald had planned on introducing hearing aids with the Zenith name with a prewar design but had to shelve the idea do to the war effort.  A shortage of manpower during the war for manufacturing existed and Zenith noticed a pool of hard of hearing workers that did not have a hearing device.  They began manufacturing hearing aids in 1943 to reduce the price of high quality hearing aids, especially for their workers.  According to Zenith, introduction of the first “ready to wear” low cost hearing aid was a phenomenal success.  Within months this efficient economical aid was of great help to thousands who could not afford the high prices of other brands.

But it was not all that popular with other manufacturers and that is our story next week!



Zenith Corporation (Unknown).  A history from 1919.  Retrieved May2, 2017.

Zenith (Unknown).  Heritage.  Retrieved May 2, 2017.



The Shadow (2009).  The Shadow knows.  Retrieved May 2, 2017.

British Broadcasting Company (1941).  BBC  Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbour.  Retrieved May 2, 2017.

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.