Industry Views

The Birth of the Car Radio

By Walter Sabo
Consultant, Sabo Media
A.K.A. Walter Sterling
Radio Host, Sterling on Sunday

imA beautiful night. Paul Galvin and William Lear took their girlfriends to a romantic look-out view. Paul asked, “Isn’t this great?” His girlfriend replied, “It would better if we could hear music.”

That set Galvin and Lear on a mission to get entertainment into the car. A car radio. They were tinkerers. Galvin owned a failed battery manufacturing company. Lear and Galvin were smart but broke.

They ultimately invented a prototype radio for the car, but it was massive and complicated. No car battery could power it, the radio required its own big battery which was stored under the seat. The antenna was netting covering the roof. Their biggest challenge was static generated by the car’s starter, transmission, battery, lights – you name it. Galvin and Lear traced each source to correct the trouble-making components one by one. Parts of the radio had to be placed in different locations throughout the car. For example, the receiver was mounted on the engine, the controls on the dash.

Finally, still broke, they drove their Studebaker loaded with radio to the bank to apply for a loan to back the venture. The banker agreed to test drive the car for a night. Unfortunately, it caught fire in his garage and no loan was granted. Next Galvin traveled 800 hundred miles to a radio manufacturer convention. He sat outside the convention hall, played the radio loud and attracted enough orders for the radio to continue his quest.

The trouble continued. It was an expensive install: $600 for a $3,000 car. Many people thought it was dangerous to listen to the radio in the car – a distraction. Municipalities tried to ban it fearing it was a driver attention hazard. Supporters of the ban argued that many types of radio programming could put drivers to sleep. Surveys showed most Americans believed car radios were dangerous.

Oh, and the name they gave the device was horrible: 7FT1. Galvin came up with a new name that was both descriptive and synched with the times, Motorola. Partner William Lear went on the invent the Lear Jet.

Chevrolet installed the first reasonably priced Motorola radios in the early 1920s.

The objections were overcome by an initiative of the Radio Manufacturers Association: They argued that car radios actually helped people become better drivers. They pointed out that radios informed drivers about hazardous road conditions that lie ahead and weather conditions that may disrupt their travel. Supporters of car radios also said that radios actually helped to keep drivers awake when they became drowsy.

Conclusion: Are they nuts? A car can park itself but can’t handle an AM radio, those tech challenges were solved in 1920 – by the inventors of the Lear Jet and of your cell phone. Are manufacturers looking for a “display allowance?” Satellite radio was launched by paying zillions for a slot in the dash. Do carmakers want that for AM radios? Forget the EAS which nobody has ever heard and wasn’t activated during 9/11 in New York City. Weather, traffic, gospel, more gospel, compelling talk shows. (One Cleveland AM station runs the SAME Al Sharpton show from dusk Fridays till dawn Monday.) The better the shows, well, the better.

Sure, write your Member of Congress but you will find more vigilant allies among the preachers. You may recall that in the 1990s there was great debate about the proper deployment of the UHF spectrum. Allegedly, at his inauguration President Bill Clinton shook the hand of UHF TV icon, Billy Graham, who looked the president in the eye and said, “Don’t take away my TV stations.”

Walter Sabo was the youngest Executive Vice President in the history of NBC. The youngest VP in the history of ABC. He was a consultant to RKO General longer than Bill Drake. Walter was the in-house consultant to Sirius for eight years. He has never written a resume. Contact him at or mobile 646-678-1110. Hear Walter Sterling at www.waltersterlingshow.comMeet Walter Sabo at TALKERS 2023 on Friday, June 2.