Radio Grows Up

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It was “inconceivable,” said Hoover, that so great an educational tool should be “drowned in advertising chatter.”

James Thurber said that early radio was “something like the deck of a sinking ship … old timers sound curiously like … survivors of disasters. ” By 1927, however, the ad hoc days were largely over. No longer would listeners be startled by inspirations like the one that came to the announcer Norman Brokenshire as he struggled desperately to fill an unexpected five-minute pause. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he told his audience as he thrust the microphone outside the studio window, “we bring you the sounds of New York City.” And those who tuned in on WHN (now WMGM) could no longer join “an enchanting madhouse,” where the announcer Nils T. Grandlund would sob out Kipling’s “Boots” four or five times a night as listeners requested it and the pianist Harry Richman would repeat and repeat a ditty titled “There’s No Hot Water in the Bronx.” Instead, increasingly large chunks of territory were being brought into the orderly orbit of two fiercely competing networks: the National Broadcasting Company, established in 1926, and the upstart Columbia Broadcasting System, founded the following year.

NBC was the inspiration of Owen D. Young, the board chairman of General Electric and the Radio Corporation of America. Half its shares were held by RCA, 30 percent by GE, and 20 percent by the Westinghouse Corporation, and its original purpose was to stimulate sales of radio sets, for which all three corporations held vital patents. By the summer of 1927 NBC had forty stations covering major markets across the United States, all linked by telephone lines leased from AT&T. Each time a new station joined, radio sales within its territory doubled within a month. And to the parent companies’ delight, the network programs also attracted commercial sponsors. Its very first offering, a four-and-one-half-hour variety show on November 15,1926, was punctuated by discreet sales pitches for Dodge automobiles. After that, wrote the radio critic Robert J. Landry, the “sponsor system” was never “seriously threatened.”

This was particularly true because NEC’s vigorous competitor had no patents and consequently no radio sales to add luster to its balance sheet. Depending entirely on advertising revenue, the twenty-seven-year-old William Paley brought imagination, energy, and gall to the CBS sixteen-station network he took over in 1928. He had persuaded his father and a few familyfriends in Philadelphia to buy the ailing company as an advertising medium for the family-owned La Palina Cigar Company. To succeed it would have to subsist entirely on selling time to advertisers.

B OTH NETWORKS faced the big question of how much tolerance the audience would have for commercial messages. As early as 1922 Hoover had told the First Annual Radio Conference that it was “inconceivable” that such a “great … possibility for service … news … entertainment … education” should be “drowned in advertising chatter.” He urged that direct advertising be confined solely to the call letters of the station and the name of the sponsor. Two years later Hoover told the Third National Radio Conference that the “quickest way to kill broadcasting” would be to lard it with advertising. “If a speech by the President is to be used as the meat in a sandwich of two patent medicine advertisements,” he warned, “there will be no radio left. ” Advertisers themselves were distinctly timid about the number and stridency of their messages. In 1926 Herbert Wilson Smith of the National Carbon Company explained that advertising must be “delicately handled,” as in the following message: “Tuesday evening means the Ever-Ready Hour, for it is on this day and at this time each week that the National Carbon Company, makers of Ever-Ready flashlight and radio batteries, engages the facilities of these 14 radio stations to present its artists in original radio creations. Tonight, the sponsors of the hour have included in the program, etc.…” This kind of delicacy, however, quickly crumbled. In the 1927–28 season thirty-nine companies sponsored programs on NBC and four on CBS, including the A&P Gypsies, the Fisk Time to Re-Tire Boys, and Frank Munn and Virginia Rea, singers who were billed as Paul Oliver and Olive Palmer for Palmolive. For the 1928–29 season sixty-five sponsors bought network time. Even more prophetic was N. W. Ayer’s founding, during that season, of a separate radio department with a capacity not only to advise clients about radio advertising but also to produce whole programs.

 

Alarmed by the proliferation of advertising, the year-old Federal Radio Commission, in August 1928, refused to renew the license of station WCRW because it “exists chiefly for … advertising of a character which must be objectionable to the listening public. ” The commission put four other stations on probation, renewing their licenses for only thirty days instead of the customary ninety, because their listeners had no alternative to “unwelcome messages … entering the walls of their homes.” Nevertheless NBC sold $10.0 million worth of advertising in 1928 and $15.0 million in 1929. CBS net sales that year were $4.2 million.