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Radio Grows Up
How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
The effects of radio coverage during these days were profound. Kaltenborn went from one or two broadcasts per week, at $100 each, to a weekly income of thousands of dollars. For the first time in radio history, news drew more listeners than entertainment. CBS coverage alone received 50,000 fan letters, and so many phone calls came in that Kaltenborn lamented that he had never before or since “had a chance to refuse to talk on the telephone to so many prominent people.”
The coverage of the Munich crisis prompted a major shift in public attitudes toward radio news: in 1937 and early 1938 Columbia University’s Office of Radio Research had found that less than half the public preferred radio to newspapers as news sources; in October 1938, just after Munich, more than two-thirds preferred radio news. Soon after this survey, Congress passed a special bill and, for the first time in history, on April 25, 1939, radio reporters were admitted to the press galleries of the Capitol.
The era of electronic journalism had arrived.
Murrow’s grave “This … is London” was first heard on September 22, 1938. It would become the trademark of his broadcasts during the blitz and, somehow, a symbol of the embattled city. It serves to symbolize, too, how radio had in a very few years grown from a sputtering toy to the vast and powerful engine, which, for all its cant and babble, still kept millions informed of the progress of a worldwide struggle.
Before the Munich crisis, most people got their news from the papers; afterward, two-thirds preferred radio news.
I RONICALLY, AS RADIO reached maturity, its decline was already looming. In 1926 the first true television picture had flickered across a tiny screen in Britain. By the early 1930s broadcasting executives regularly were predicting the imminent arrival of commercial television, and in 1938 an antenna for receiving signals from as far away as Washington, D. C., was built atop the Empire State Building. The following year Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first President to appear before the cameras when he opened the New York World’s Fair.
But the Second World War gave radio a reprieve. Though regular television broadcasts began in 1941, they were suspended through the war years. The vast audience created by a flood of cheap television sets did not begin to gather until the late 1940s. By the time America settled in front of the tube, the three networks that had controlled radio had adroitly taken over television as well.
As the big national advertisers switched to television, a rising chorus prophesied radio’s demise. Indeed, for a decade, until the early 1960s, radio floundered to find its new niche. But while the giant audiences for single programs were now watching Milton Berle, the radio audience never tuned out entirely. And under the few giant oaks of vigorous—and expensive—television networks, a profusion of radio stations bloomed. The massive console with its great speakers and multiple dials may have been ousted from the American living room, but it reappeared, sleek and trim, in the bedroom, the automobile, and, eventually, sprout- ing directly from people’s ears. Furthermore, with the opening of hundreds of extra spaces on the broadcast band through development of frequency modulation, radio could offer programs tailored to special interests—classical music, sports, all news, gospel or country or other sub-genres of popular music, even educational programs. In the mid-sixties, for example, a station in Spencer, Iowa, regaled its listeners with readings from the classics. When the reader went on vacation, the station was deluged with a record number of complaints and promptly resumed the readings.
Thus, while radio yielded the center stage as a medium of entertainment, it remained vital. And like a good parent, it passed on its experiences along with many physical characteristics to its offspring. When it came to structuring television, radio was the textbook: almost all the major types of programing—variety, game shows, sitcoms, soap operas, news, sports, live on-the-spot reporting—were spawned by the parent. Even public television still leans heavily on productions by the BBC, which, in the late twenties, pioneered radio dramatizations of great novels and important events.
F REED FROM the pressure to marshal giant audiences for giant advertisers and with a multitude of channels available even in smaller cities, radio is successfully catering to the wishes and needs of specialized audiences while it attracts support from smaller, local advertisers.
Like most predictions, those for radio’s future have been notoriously unreliable, but perhaps there is still room for the enthusiasm with which William Paley spoke in 1930: “Almost every move made in this fantastic beginning business amounted to crossing a new frontier. There were really no precedents and no limits to what you could do or try to do. It was a business of ideas.”